IRVINE, Calif. — The corner was Stetson Bennett’s fourth read.
The Los Angeles Rams quarterback knew his progressions cycled right to left on this training camp scramble-drill play. A teammate’s twitch route was the first look, another’s skinny the next. Then came a pivot route and only afterward the corner.
But when Bennett slid up and moved with the pressure, the fourth-round rookie saw wide receiver Lance McCutcheon — he of the corner route — had a step on his defender. So Bennett threw it. He found McCutcheon.
“How’d you get there?” Bennett says head coach Sean McVay asked.
“Well, it was man-to-man,” Bennett explained. “I had to slide up. I felt some space and I just saw him and threw it.”
The play illustrates both why Bennett excites the Rams and also where the most room for growth continues to loom.
Count Bennett’s off-schedule throws, improvisation and football instinct among the reasons the Rams spent the 128th overall pick on the Georgia product. Count Bennett’s success due to feel rather than progression or playbook familiarity as a reminder of where Bennett can still grow in earning coaches’ and teammates’ trust. The Rams hope they won’t need Bennett to enter in relief of 15-year pro Matthew Stafford this season. They hope, even, that Bennett’s services won’t be of much use for some time after that.
“I’m a big fan of his game and how he plays it,” Rams general manager Les Snead told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously the mobility factor that’s come into our league, he has that. Time will tell whether he has what it takes to be the heir apparent. But right now?
“If I was selfish, I would definitely try to talk [Stafford] into giving us three more seasons.”
Bennett’s job: Learn as much as he can from Stafford
Three more seasons for Stafford could benefit not only the veteran and the Rams but also his newest teammate. Bennett reminds himself that he didn’t memorize and metabolize now-Baltimore Ravens coordinator Todd Monken’s Georgia offense right away before he went on to earn offensive MVP honors in Georgia’s national championship victory earlier this year. It takes time.
And Stafford, a fellow former Bulldog whom Stafford says is “the coolest guy ever,” can help.
The 2009 No. 1 overall pick has a powerful arm that Snead says operates more like a 19-year-old’s appendage than a 35-year-old’s. Stafford has thrown for 52,082 career yards and 333 touchdowns, winning 89 regular-season games and four more playoff appearances, including Super Bowl LVI. Bennett can learn from Stafford’s skill and the vast encyclopedia of pro looks he’s faced.
“Whenever they’re talking in playbook language, I’m like, I wish y’all would dumb it down so I can have a little bit of this conversation. Otherwise, I’m just sitting here grinning,” Bennett said, describing the universal rookie experience. “But whenever I do ask [Stafford] questions, and it’s me and him talking, he’s good about filtering and knowing what I understand.
“He speaks in my tongue, which has been nice.”
The learning curve is steep, Bennett scrambling to digest new verbiage and acclimate to head set play calls rather than sideline signals, a cue he says “hits your brain [in] a completely different way.”
The caliber of play rises from what he faced in a Heisman-finalist campaign in his final year at Georgia, featuring 4,128 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in addition to 10 rushing touchdowns.
The preseason slate beginning this weekend will be a meaningful step toward that acclimation and one that Snead thinks will better reflect Bennett’s potential than training camp practices.
“Because when you have to tackle Stetson, like you actually gotta get him on the ground?” Snead says. “That’s where you see some of his superpowers come to fruition.”
The road ahead for Bennett
Bennett laughs when reminded to celebrate the wins amid what can feel like far more frequent waves of frustration. He’s reached a level where he knows what football should look and feel like, but he’s also climbed to a tier where it usually takes time to actualize those visions.
The same difficulties that frustrate him also comfort him because, “I crave discipline. I like to be coached. Like to be told what to do because … if I know what to do, then I do it, you know what I’m saying?
“But then also knowing when you can have that freedom just frees you up.”
He considers similarly the move from Athens, Georgia — where he was hardly low profile — to the enormity of Los Angeles an exercise in both discipline and freedom. There are rules on and off the field. But without a developed character, is there a different freedom to be himself than in his tenure at Georgia?
“I went in there as a teenager and spent six years there,” Bennett said. “You kind of find yourself there and when you find yourself in a spot like that and then you leave, you’re like, ‘Oh, man. Was that myself or is that just myself there? So there’s this learning curve that goes into it.
“There is pressure and I love pressure to play football.”
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur sees Bennett embracing that pressure, the contrast evident between live action and meetings, where “you can see the wheels turning in a good way … because he’s so deep into thought.”
“All you had to do is pop on the tape and you just saw — the best way to say it is ‘a baller’,” LaFleur told Yahoo Sports. “He had good fundamentals and all that and a cool system. But you could just tell the game came quiet to him. It came easy to him.”
It continued to come quiet during a late OTA practice when Bennett lined up with the second-team and a play call needed adjusting. Bennett didn’t flinch, correcting the look in a two-minute drill to throw an alert on a corner route that install meetings had not yet covered. He found tight end Brycen Hopkins for a touchdown.
LaFleur thought to himself: “Man, it’s getting more comfortable.”
How soon that comfort will really settle remains to be seen, Rams coaches and front office members not looking to rush the arrival anymore than Bennett is. Bennett knows his NFL career is no guarantee. On one hand, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott rose from fourth-rounder to starter his rookie season, Prescott’s now-eighth year in the role marking the longest active tenure of any NFL quarterback with the same team. On the other: Only 46.9% of fourth-round draft picks since 2000 have ever found a starting role in the NFL. The opportunities at quarterback are fewer and far between than most positions.
Bennett knows what the macro goals are: to win a Super Bowl and to start in the NFL. But he declines to fixate on goals because “I’ve kind of always been, not scared of goals, but I like living life. I like doing the best I can every day and then seeing where it shows up.”
So he eschews specific goals for chronic commitment to improvement, keeping in mind a favorite quote from Georgia head coach Kirby Smart along the way.
“Success,” Smart told his players, “comes to those who are too busy to look for it.”
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