By anyone’s reasonable standard, the Rams’ 2017 season was a magical one, the success of which nobody could have predicted. For perspective, many football “experts” were surprised at their playoff loss to the Falcons, last season’s Super Bowl runner up. Let that sink in for a moment. People were caught off guard by a franchise that has been synonymous with futility for nearly 20 years not advancing farther in the playoffs. Crazy, right?
Make no mistake, the Rams’ success this year was huge for the NFL. How the league somehow managed to go multiple decades without a team in its second-largest media market is utterly confounding. Then again, the sport is more than a century old and they still haven’t figure out what the fudge a catch is. I digress… Additionally, the Rams’ initial season back in Los Angeles, under the criminally inept stewardship of Jeff Fisher, was catastrophic. After a misleadingly decent start, the team finished the year by getting blown out every week, their number one overall picked quarterback was taking a savage beating every game, and fans (can you blame them?) showed all the enthusiasm for going to the crumbling Los Angeles Coliseum (again, can you blame them?) as they would for a root canal. If this was going to be the on-field product, what was really the point of having football back in L.A.?
Oh, what a difference a year makes. Initially, the Rams (as well as the newly transplanted Chargers) were treated with a degree of apathy, but within a few weeks, it was plain to see things were a little bit different this time around.
After their playoff defeat, the players and Coach Sean McVay remained upbeat, optimistic about the positive direction the team was going in with its foundation of young stars. The prevailing sentiment on Twitter among fans was an odd combination of despondency and wait ‘til next year resolve. One might think after year upon year of snowballing failure, fans and pundits alike would be more skeptical that 2017 was a sign of bright things to come for the Rams, but it really wasn’t that way. Let’s take a look at why.
The kids are alright: The Rams have an embarrassment of young talent at key positions. Todd Gurley was, if not the best, at least in the top three running backs this season. Jared Goff looked like a number one overall pick. Cooper Kupp may already be among the league’s best overall slot receivers. Aaron Donald is an unstoppable force of nature. To a slightly lesser degree, cornerback Troy Hill showed signs of developing into a potential star. Linebacker Cory Littleton showed a knack for making big plays, including multiple blocked punts. Johnny Johnson looked good after taking over for the appallingly bad Maurice Alexander. There are a few more guys but not to belabor the point, none of these guys are in danger of exiting their mid-20s.
The main kid is alright too: How often do you see “the youngest guy” at anything have instant success? Exactly. Nevertheless, Sean McVay lived up to his billing as an offensive whiz kid, and rounded out that reputation nicely by being a coach that his players look up to, and having a philosophy they buy into. One season does not a career make, but it’s beyond significant doubt that he’s the real deal.
The NFC West: The NFL schedule makers rarely do the Rams any favors. But the team can count its lucky stars it plays in the NFC West. The Seahawks aren’t the powerhouse they once were. The Cardinals are in need of a rebuild. The 49rs are trending up with their acquisition of the excellent Jimmy Garoppolo, but are still a few holes being filled away. The division is, and projects to remain for the near future, eminently winnable. For perspective, the NFC South has the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons; three teams who could have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl and nobody would bat an eyelash. Even division doormat Tampa Bay can play, and their dreadful 5-11 record is as much a result of their brutally tough division as anything else.
But, as they say, nothing is ever a sure thing until it’s a sure thing. Does anyone actually say that? Well, if they don’t, they should. Anyway, the point is, with all the glitz and glamour of their feel-good-story season, the Rams do have some issues to address. Success, if you’re not the Patriots, is fleeting, and must continually be nurtured. In spite of all the reasons for optimism, the Rams do have concerns to alleviate and pitfalls to avoid.
But he’s still a kid… For all his brilliance, there were times McVay showed his inexperience. Modern conventional wisdom dictates, correctly so, that you can’t give your star running back 500 touches in a year and expect him to have any real longevity. But in a win or go home game, McVay got Todd Gurley 18 touches (14 carries, 4 receptions). That isn’t enough. In fact, you can point to nearly all losses the Rams endured in 2017, and the common theme is Gurley didn’t the ball enough. McVay has been good about his mea culpas, admitting where he’s been lacking, but not giving the best player on your team the ball in the biggest game of the year is stunning. Additionally, it looked like McVay and the Rams took for granted they’d be able to move the ball on Atlanta’s talented but burnable defense, and it just didn’t happen. There wasn’t nearly enough Gurley, sure, but there also wasn’t any invention or creativity – the very hallmark of the team’s historic offense. Was it ego or arrogance? Who knows, but if it was, that has to get checked at the door if they make the playoffs again.
The roster is scarily shallow: For all the young talent on the squad, there is almost no depth. The additions of Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan transformed the offensive line, but man did we get lucky with injuries. As we saw in week 17 and the second-string line’s utter inability to even slow down a very poor San Francisco pass rush, if anyone gets hurt, the implications are terrifying. It’s not limited to the O-line either. Alec Ogletree is already not very good. Surprising right? But Pro Football Focus grades him abysmally, and a closer look reveals that he’s pretty much a volume tackler (when he’s not letting running backs run right by him) who makes the occasional big play with his freakish athleticism. If something happens to him, or worse, Mark Barron, you’ve got Bryce Hager and Samson Ebukam playing key roles, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Generally speaking, backups are backups for a reason, but one would hope a winning team doesn’t have such a precipitous drop off from their starters to their reserves. It’s a point of need in Los Angeles, and anyone who denies it is…well, in denial.
Wade @#$%ing Phillips: The history of coaching names in the NFL whose reputations far exceed their track records is a long and illustrious one, and Phillips is firmly on the list. No, his place on there is not as extreme as Fisher’s (reputation: quality coach. reality: historically awful) but he’s got this tag of being a transformatively impactful defensive coordinator and the reality is, he’s just a guy. He seems to do well when his defenses are stacked with talent (see; his career with the Broncos) but if given a roster that doesn’t have an entire manifest of sure-fire hall of famers, he’s just ok. Case in point, the Rams have an incredible amount of talent on their defensive line, and their inability to stop the run was a bugaboo all season. To further underscore the point, both safeties (LaMarcus Joyner and the aforementioned Johnson) are good tacklers that can support the front seven, and still teams ran roughshod over the Rams.
So where does that leave us? Well, with my wish list of course!
1) Bring back Sammy Watkins. Yeah, it was a weird year for him. He didn’t become the number one guy we hoped he might but his impact as a blocker alone was profound. Sure, you’d like to see fewer unnecessary attempts at one-handed catches when both hands are an option, and maybe a bit better chemistry between he and Goff, but there is zero doubt. He plays a complete game.
2) Cut Tavon Austin. I don’t even care who takes his place. The mere removal of Austin from the roster will curb the temptation to give him the ball. Sure, his game-breaking speed makes you WANT to get him the ball in space, but he’s simply one of the worst football players in history. He makes Ted Ginn’s questionable hands look like Larry Fitzgerald’s legendary paws. Stevie Wonder has better field vision. And he costs so much damn money. Get. Rid. Of. Him.
3) Bring back Sullivan and spend every draft pick on offensive linemen. I know, I cheated and put two things on one line item. Sue me.
Did I miss anything? Let us know on Twitter @thestainsports. Thank you for reading.