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NFL Offseason Review: Los Angeles Rams
The 2016/17 NFL season is officially for the history books, as we are now well into the offseason and readying ourselves for the 2017/18 season. And, of course, the end of an NFL season means very different things depending on the region of the country (or the part of the world) that you are talking about.
Around the world, in some cases international fans don’t miss the end of the season much, because the NFL never fit very well into their cultural context in the first place. In small market towns in the United States, the end of the NFL season is tragic, nearly shutting down many of the city’s major operations. In larger cities, by contrast, there is so much going on without the NFL that it is easy to forget that the season even happened, and move on.
In this context, it’s interesting to think about just what the NFL meant to the city of Los Angeles last season, its first year supporting an NFL team in an entire generation.
Despite the fact that Los Angeles has provided a home to three NFL teams throughout its history, (the Rams, the Raiders, and the Chargers), each of these franchises ended up leaving the massive media market in pursuit of greener pastures. For 21 years, there was no NFL football played in Los Angeles.
Now, of course, the tables have turned, with the St. Louis Rams moving back into Los Angeles in 2016, the San Diego Chargers moving back into Los Angeles in 2017, and the Oakland Raiders moving away from Southern California entirely to establish new ties in the gambling capital of America – Las Vegas.
Despite all of this buzz and excitement, however, the return of NFL football to Los Angeles for the 2016/17 season didn’t provide much entertainment value in a city claiming to be one of the entertainment capitals of the world.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Rams stunk last season and were one of the least fun teams to watch, to the great chagrin of both new and old fans. The old St. Louis die-hards were upset to see their franchise translocate and make so many changes to the organization. The new Los Angelinos attending games were upset to watch atrocious football in a terribly uncomfortable stadium.
Either way, though, we owe it to the great city of Los Angeles to take a good look at the season that the Rams had last year, to see just where the problems were and whether there will be more entertaining football coming out of L.A. next season.
In this edition, we head west to the City of Angels, and take on the Los Angeles Rams.
Last Season: In Review
Before we look back on the season that the Los Angeles Rams enjoyed last year, it’s first important for us to get a brief overview of the history of the organization itself, so that we can put into context why the 2016/17 season and its accompanying move back to Los Angeles was meaningful for the fans.
Contrary to popular belief, despite the fact that the franchise was playing games in Los Angeles at the time of the NFL-AFL Merger, when the Super Bowl era began, the team did not originally begin in L.A.
Instead, the franchise began, in all places, in the city of Cleveland. Starting in 1936 playing in the American Football League (not the same AFL that merged with the NFL in 1970) and switching to the NFL in 1937, the Rams are primarily known for still being the only team in history to win a championship and then subsequently relocate to a new city the next year.
After 8 seasons at .500 or worse in Cleveland (including a year that was suspended due to World War II), the Rams surged in 1945 on the back of rookie quarterback sensation Bob Waterfield, and won the NFL Championship. One month later, owner Dan Reeves relocated the Rams to Los Angeles, making the team the first to play NFL football games on the West Coast.
Following three building seasons immediately after the move, the Rams enjoyed another period of success, competing in the playoffs in five of the seven seasons between 1949 and 1955. This stretch would include three appearances in the NFL Championship, one of which ended up in the team’s first championship in Los Angeles, making the Rams the first franchise to win the NFL Championship in two different cities.
After their run of success in the early fifties, the Rams endured another long period of mediocrity, failing to make the playoffs in each of the subsequent 11 seasons.
This stretch of mediocrity was followed by another dominant period for the Rams, kicked off by the emergence of the “Fearsome Foursome” and stretching for more than two decades. From 1967 (the year of the first NFL-AFL merger agreements) to 1989, the Rams made the playoffs 16 times in 23 seasons, winning 10 playoff games and appearing in one Super Bowl, which they lost.
In an amazing transition, the next time the team would make the playoffs after the 1989 season, the Rams won the Super Bowl, in 1999, with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk on the roster and the words “St. Louis” in the title. After having already won NFL Championships in both Cleveland and Los Angeles, the Rams became the first franchise in league history to win a championship in three different cities.
After moving to nearby Anaheim in 1980 to accommodate TV rules and changing Southern California demographic patterns, the Rams moved again in 1995 to Missouri.
In part, the move to St. Louis was motivated by dwindling support from the fan base in Los Angeles; in part, using the threat of relocation to motivate a new stadium purchase was simply in vogue at the time, after having been modeled by Art Modell and executed for the first time when the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the Ravens.
After winning the Super Bowl in their first playoff run while in the city of St. Louis, the combination of quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk would take the team to the playoffs in four of the subsequent five seasons, under head coach Mike Martz. The Rams would win three more playoff games and compete in one Super Bowl before the clock ran out on the Warner/Faulk era.
And with the end of the Warner/Faulk era comes the arrival of the modern era of Rams football. Starting in 2005, the last season with first-ballot Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk on the roster, the Rams went 11 consecutive years failing to have a winning season or make the playoffs, with an average of between 5 and 6 wins in each of these seasons.
With fan support of the team declining during this period of mediocrity and an aging stadium continuing to lose value, the Rams were able to void the terms of their lease agreement in the Edward Jones Dome without penalty due to the fact that the stadium was no longer ranked among the top tier of NFL stadiums.
Using this broken lease as leverage, the Rams proposed to move back to Los Angeles on the same day that the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers also filed to move to L.A. The NFL owners voted in overwhelming approval of the Rams’ relocation in January of 2016, and the team announced that the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum would be their temporary home for the next three seasons until the new Inglewood Stadium opened in time for the 2019/20 season.
And as if the new move wasn’t enough to excite the fan base, the Rams also decided to work some draft magic in order to bring on a new face of the franchise.
In a blockbuster trade with the Tennessee Titans that saw the Rams send their first-round pick, two second-round picks, a third round pick, and also the following year’s first- and third-round picks, the newly-minted Los Angeles Rams moved up to the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and selected quarterback Jared Goff, out of California.
With a new city, a new quarterback, and whole lot of media attention, the Rams kicked off the first professional football in Los Angeles in over 21 years.
The Rams started out their season on the road against their division rival, the San Francisco 49ers. In a game that was nationally televised to herald the return of football to Los Angeles (as well as to the nation), the Rams laid a goose egg, managing only 185 yards of total offense and 10 first downs, and held scoreless throughout the game while Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers scored 28 points of their own.
In their home opener the following week, however – the first NFL game played in Los Angeles for over two decades – the team put on a dominant defensive performance, allowing their division rival Seattle Seahawks only one field goal in the entire game. Adding on three field goals of their own, the Rams won a 9–3 game in which zero touchdowns were scored.
This low-scoring pattern would not hold the following week, however, when the Rams took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Florida. After a total of 12 points were scored between both teams in the entire game against the Seahawks, the Rams and Bucs would each score a touchdown within the first 10 minutes of play in Week 3, putting a quick 13 points on the board.
Ultimately, the Rams would get two touchdowns out of Todd Gurley and two touchdowns out of quarterback Case Keenum (as well as a 77-yard strip sack fumble return touchdown from Ethan Westbrooks) and held on to win the back and forth affair by a score of 37–32. With the win putting them at 2–1, the Rams were enjoying their best start to a season since all the way back in 2006.
The good times would keep coming as the Rams stayed on the road to take on their division rival the Arizona Cardinals, who had made it to the NFC Championship game the season before. The Rams jumped out to a 7–0 lead at the end of the first quarter with a 65-yard touchdown from Brian Quick, his second 40+ yard touchdown of the year through only four games.
With a surprisingly efficient game from Case Keenum, who notched 266 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a rare 0-interception game on 60% passing, the Rams took the lead late in the fourth quarter on another touchdown throw from Keenum to Quick, and held on to win the game 17–13 to push to a 3–1 record through the first quarter of the season.
One of the biggest reasons why the Rams were able to turn around after a terrible loss on national television in Week 1 and rip off an impressive three-game win streak was a shift in defensive scheme.
After their Week 1 loss, the Rams increased the amount of Tampa-2 coverage that the team played all the way up to 37.4% of non-goal line snaps. This was easily the highest rate in the NFL, and resulted in the team giving up only 31 completions on 51 passes attempted while the Rams were in Cover-2, including 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Specifically, while in this coverage scheme, the Rams held Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, and Carson Palmer to a combined quarterback rating of 58.1.
The reason why the Rams were able to be so successful with this coverage was two-fold. First and foremost, defensive lineman Aaron Donald was an absolute nightmare, emerging as an unstoppable force that simply could not be blocked in one-on-one coverage. For a Tampa-2 scheme to work, it’s necessary to put pressure on the quarterback using only the defensive line, and Donald accomplished this almost single-handedly.
Secondly, a Tampa-2 requires linebackers that are capable in coverage over the middle of the field, which is one of the reasons why the defensive scheme has fallen out of favor in recent years as slot receivers and tight ends get more protection from officials and become faster and harder to cover.
For the Rams, however, the combination of Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron was just what the doctor ordered, and schematically – with the defensive line stout against both run and pass – the linebacker corps was able to get to their spots and hold the zone for long enough for pressure to get home.
Through four games, while the offense did just enough under Case Keenum to get by, the defense for the Rams was the real story in enabling them to start off the season 3–1.
After a barn-burning 3–1 start to the season, the Rams returned home in Week 5 to take on the Buffalo Bills, and despite the fact that Case Keenum finished with a 67.7% completion percentage on 31 pass attempts, he also threw zero touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which was returned for a touchdown), and the team’s -3 turnover ratio proved to be the difference in the 30–19 loss.
Going back on the road in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions, the Rams started out going toe-to-toe with the potent offense of Detroit: The game was tied 7–7 after one quarter, 14–14 after two quarters, 21–21 after three quarters, and 28–28 with six minutes left in the game.
However, despite the fact that Case Keenum had gone 27 of 32 for an 84.4% completion percentage (even setting a franchise record for consecutive completions), had thrown for three touchdowns and even run for an additional touchdown, a late interception with less than two minutes remaining sealed the game for the Lions, handing the Rams their second straight loss.
A third straight loss would soon follow, balancing out the team’s previous three-game win streak, when the Rams traveled to London the following week to take on the New York Football Giants. Somehow managing to turn the ball over four times, each on a Case Keenum interception, Los Angeles was held scoreless in the final three quarters of play and lost the game 10–17.
After this loss in Europe, the Rams returned home for a much-needed bye week, if for no other reason than to adjust to the travel that had spanned nine time zones. The following week, at home against the Carolina Panthers, the team once again put up ten points and lost by one possession, though this time they turned the ball over only once.
In Week 10, the Rams finally bounced back and won a game on the road against the New York Jets, ending their four-game losing streak. In a battle between two very ugly offenses, put together the Rams’ Case Keenum and the Jets’ Bryce Petty averaged 18 completions on 31 attempts (58.1% completion) for 164 yards and a passer rating of 71.2.
After two consecutive losses in which the team scored 10 points on offense followed by an astonishing second win of the season in which there were no touchdowns scored in the game, after 9 games it was becoming abundantly clear that the problem with the Los Angeles Rams was on offense.
In the two losses framing the bye week, against the Giants and Panthers, quarterback Case Keenum had thrown the ball 99 times, meanwhile running back Todd Gurley had received only 27 carries. Given the fact that Gurley had demonstrated himself to be a rising talent in the league and Case Keenum was simply a short-term stopgap while future franchise quarterback Jared Goff still had his training wheels on, this run-pass ratio didn’t make much sense for the long-term future of the team.
After starting off his career with four consecutive 100+ yard games, Gurley was subsequently held below 100 yards for 15 out of the subsequent 16 games going the win against the Jets. One big reason for this was the play of the offensive line, as fans too often saw a quality run called back on a holding call from much-maligned left tackle Greg Robinson.
At 4–5 with seven games still left to play, the Rams were far from out of contention, particularly in a floundering division like the NFC West. However, if the team hoped to have any chance of making a run for the lead in the division or shooting for a Wild Card spot, they were going to need to find some answers on the offensive side of the ball.
Of course for the fans, that answer was simple – so simple that they chanted it from the bleachers during home games: “We want Goff.”
In a year that saw multiple rookie quarterbacks named the full-time starter in training camp (including the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz) as well as several other quarterbacks of Jared Goff’s draft class see at least one start (including the Patriots’ Jacoby Brissett, the Broncos’ Paxton Lynch, and the Browns’ Cody Kessler), it was perhaps a little unexpected for the first overall pick in the draft not to see any regular season game action until the 11th week of the season.
However, head coach Jeff Fisher did the prudent thing by sitting Goff until he was ready to play, likely the better long-term strategy for the team. Given the fact that Goff played exclusively a no-huddle spread offense in his four seasons at Cal, it stands to reason that he would have needed a little more time than most to learn a new playbook and feel comfortable commanding a huddle.
Goff got his first chance to do so in front of the home crowd in Los Angeles against the Miami Dolphins, and acquitted himself with an average performance. Though he didn’t throw any touchdowns in the game, he didn’t throw any interceptions, either, and ended up with 134 yards on 54.9% passing. The Rams went on to lose the game 14–10, putting them at a record on the season of 4–6.
Not only would the game against the Dolphins be Jared Goff’s first start of the season, but it also kicked off several trends in the Rams’ year: The first in a stretch of four out of five games against eventual playoff teams (including both the Super Bowl Champion and Super Bowl runner-up), as well as the first of seven consecutive losses.
In Week 12 and Week 13, both on the road against the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots, respectively, the team posted a negative turnover ratio, put up less than 200 yards of passing offense, and lost. Jared Goff ended up throwing a total of four touchdowns and three interceptions in these two games.
With the team sitting at 4–8 and progressively losing the confidence of the fan base, games started to feel a lot more like practices for Jared Goff, and in front of the increasingly sparse home crowd against the Atlanta Falcons this “practice” looked more like the A-team vs. the B-team, as the Rams were dominated in all phases of the game and ended up losing by 28 points.
At this point, after the team’s tough loss to the Atlanta Falcons mathematically eliminated them from playoff contention, that the Rams’ organization made the decision to part ways with head coach Jeff Fisher, who had been with the team for a season when they were in Los Angeles in the early 90s, had been with the team as head coach in St. Louis, and had lead the team through its transition back to L.A.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel was brought in to act as interim head coach for the final three games of the season, and Rams COO Kevin Demoff noted that the entire organization was due for a “complete review”, indicating that it was entirely possible that more heads could roll in the organization.
It’s important to note that while the offense for the Rams had been largely ineffective and the team was committing penalties at a rate far too high to sustain winning football, Jeff Fisher had nonetheless earned the respect of his players as well as the confidence of his owner, who had offered contract extensions to both fisher and general manager Les Snead in the time leading up to the firing.
Nonetheless, the move to a new market – particularly one as tough as Los Angeles – provided the franchise with an entirely new fan base to please, and that fan base needed someone to blame for the astonishing lack of success the team had over the later part of the 2016/17 season.
In order to appease the new city and preserve the new franchise quarterback, the old coach was the one to take the fall.
After the departure of Jeff Fisher, things got worse, not better, and in the final three games of the season – each against division opponents – the Rams managed a measly 30 points on offense, with 21 of those points coming against the 49ers. In the worst loss of the season by far, the Rams closed out their season losing 44–6 to the Cardinals, managing only 123 yards of total offense and 9 first downs.
After a promising start in a new city, the Rams finished their inaugural season after returning to Los Angeles with a record of 4–12.
Los Angeles’s Strengths and Weaknesses
When we looked back at the story arc that the Los Angeles Rams followed in their first year after relocating back to Southern California, we saw several trends emerge concerning the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
First off, we saw that the defensive line unit led by Aaron Donald was a strength for the team, with Donald arguably the best player in the entire league during the early part of the season. Secondly, we saw an astonishing lack of production out of the offense, caused by ineffective young quarterbacks as well as a lack of dedication to the run game and inadequate run blocking by the offensive line.
However, it’s important that we don’t jump to conclusions about where the problems resided for the 2016/17 Los Angeles Rams. In order to gain a true understanding of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s important for us to go deeper, and take a good look at the team unit by unit, relying on statistics and rankings to help us make our evaluation.
After we’ve established the strengths and weaknesses for the Rams, we’ll then be able to evaluate the offseason roster moves made by the team, and see whether or not these moves address the team’s areas of need.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams managed only 224 points over the course of the season (14.0 per game), the fewest points in the entire league. Their production in terms of yards was no better, with their 4203 yards on the season (262.7 per game) also the lowest in the league.
One of the biggest reasons why they got so little offensive production was the fact that the team turned the ball over the 5th-most in the league, including the 3rd-most interceptions with 20. While Case Keenum was responsible for 11 of these interceptions in his 9 games (and Jared Goff 7), the two quarterbacks had an equivalent percentile ranking for number of interceptions per attempt.
The Rams were not appreciably better at running the ball vs. passing the ball or vice versa; the team was ranked 31st in both passing yards and running yards, and ranked only slightly higher in rushing touchdowns (26th) than in passing touchdowns (32nd). Their offensive efficiency was equivalent: The Rams had the lowest number of net yards per passing play, and the second lowest average amount of yards per running play.
Of course, it’s difficult to run any sort of an offense with a quarterback situation like the Rams had last season. To say nothing of the nine games under Case Keenum, in which the team was simply waiting around for their new franchise QB to learn the system, that fact is that no rookie quarterback comes off the shelf ready to play, and if they make it look easy (such as Dak Prescott in Dallas) it’s because their supporting cast and offensive scheme are able to smooth over any difficulties that might have arisen.
Specifically, Goff was under pressure the 4th-highest amount in the league during his seven starts, and put up a 42.2 passer rating while under pressure – the worst under pressure rating in the entire league. It’s simply too early to tell how high the ceiling is for Goff, but looking solely at his seven games last year and comparing it to the other quarterbacks in the league, he was among the bottom five.
Of course, a major reason for the lack of production out of Goff was the lack of production out of Goff’s receivers, who collectively ranked in the bottom five of the league throughout the entire season. With Tavon Austin dropping seven balls over the course of the season and yet somehow convincing fans that he is the number one option, there simply wasn’t much talent to go around.
And while the Rams’ first-round selection in 2015 – Todd Gurley – has amply demonstrated that he has the talent to be one of the best backs in the league, the 22-year old hit a bit of a sophomore slump, and looked much more tentative in the backfield at times throughout the season.
Neither Gurley nor Goff was helped by their offensive line, who ranked with the quarterback and wide receiver group among the bottom five in the league. The left tackle Greg Robinson was especially bad last year, giving up 8 sacks and 40 QB pressures – a rate of nearly 1 sack or pressure per 10 dropbacks – and somehow managing to earn one of the worst run-blocking grades in the league, not to mention his 14 penalties on the season.
In summary, while young players like Jared Goff and Todd Gurley certainly have the potential to develop, the offensive line and receiving corps set them up for failure in 2016/17.
The Rams were better on defense than they were on offense in 2016/17, ending the season having allowed a total of 394 points (24.6 per game) for the #23 ranking in the league. The team’s production in terms of yards was considerably better than this, with their 5392 yards given up on the season (337.0 per game) earning them the #9 ranking in the league.
The reason that the Rams were so much better at preventing an opposing offense from gaining yards than it was at preventing them from scoring points lies primarily with their own offense, who with its large number of turnovers frequently gave the opposing offense the ball back on a short field, putting the defense in an impossible situation.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team wasn’t especially good at generating takeaways, ending up ranked 23rd. The unit was also equally proficient as stopping the run as they were at stopping the pass, ending up ranked 9th in the league in net yards allowed per passing attempt and 10th in average amount of yards allowed per rushing attempt.
The primary reason for the Rams’ success in both passing and running defense started and ended with the play of the front seven, which featured arguably the best player in the league in Aaron Donald. Donald ended the season with 8 sacks and 47 combined tackles alongside 5 passes defensed and two forced fumbles, though this doesn’t tell half the story of the amount of pressure he generated on opposing quarterbacks and the degree to which he freed up his teammates by getting double-teamed.
Unfortunately, the play of the secondary did not match the front seven’s production, as the unit was ranked in the bottom third of the league. The safeties – Maurice Alexander and T. J. McDonald – were the anchor of the unit, as befits a team that runs a Tampa-2 scheme a high percentage of the time, but the cornerbacks were highly suspect, with Troy Hill and E. J. Gaines allowing the second- and fourth- highest passer ratings to opposing cornerbacks, respectively, in the entire league.
It should be noted that while technically a separate unit from the defense, the special teams for the Rams was proficient last season, a rare bright spot in a season that included a lot of frustration for the fans. This was especially true of the punting unit, as Johnny Hekker proved his worth in his second consecutive year being both voted to the Pro Bowl and selected to the First-Team All-Pro.
Take for instance one punt in which Hekker booted the ball 78 yards. To be clear, this means that the ball left the foot of the punter on his own 8-yard line and was subsequently caught by the opposite team’s returner on his own 10-yard line, who was then downed at his own 14-yard line. This incredible swap in field position is one of the best weapons a coach can have in his arsenal in terms of game management, and Hekker provided that weapon for the Rams.
In summary, the Los Angeles Rams have some exciting pieces to build around on the defense, but are in sore need of discipline (leading the league in missed tackles in the secondary) and some more playmakers.
Next Season: A Preview
In summary, when we looked back at the Los Angeles Rams’ roster unit by unit, we saw that despite strengths on the defensive line and in the punting game, and despite having several young offensive skill players with serious potential, the difficulties at the cornerback position, the wide receiver position, and especially the offensive line sunk the team.
This could be why the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, are currently the third-worst in the league.
Specifically, the field opens at +400 with the New England Patriots, and subsequently levels out at +1000 with perennial offseason favorites such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers, and the Seattle Seahawks. The farthest fringe of playoff contention is established at +6600 with the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions, and beyond this line there are eight additional teams.
The Rams currently fit into this lattermost category – the bottom eight – with odds currently sitting at +15000 to win the Super Bowl. This puts them even with the New York Jets, and better than only the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, both at +20000.
But even if the odds-makers at Bovada feel that they need to give gamblers this much incentive to want to lay money on the Rams to win the Super Bowl, we’re not so sure that the Rams’ odds shouldn’t be higher in their second season in Los Angeles.
Let’s take a look at the roster moves that the team has made so far this offseason in order to improve their chances, and specifically ask whether or not the Rams have adequately addressed their areas of need such that the team could be poised to take an immediate step forward next season.
Before we dive into the offseason roster moves mad thus far by the Los Angeles Rams, let’s first take a brief look at the overall composition of the franchise’s front office, in order to get a feel for their general offseason philosophy and have better ability to predict what the team might do this offseason.
The Rams have had the same general manager since 2012, 46-year old Les Snead, who cut his teeth for over a decade in the Atlanta Falcons’ organization. However, despite the continuity at GM, the team has obviously gone through a host of changes over the past few years.
After moving to Los Angeles after the 2015/16 season, the team subsequently drafted a rookie quarterback with the first pick overall in the draft, started him for the last 7 games of the 2016/17 season, and promptly proceeded to fire their head coach, ultimately replacing him with a 31-year old man – Sean McVay – who has less than 10 years of coaching experience in the NFL.
The Rams are now one of the very few teams in the league who can lay claim to the questionable distinction of having a head coach who is younger than some of his players.
But more pressing than the Rams’ locations or stadiums is the general state of their roster. While all signs seem positive about new franchise quarterback Jared Goff, the fans are justified in asking the question: “At what cost?”
Because in order to move up to the #1 overall pick in the draft, the Rams had to essentially trade away their entire future to the Tennessee Titans, giving up their #1 pick in both the 2016 and the 2017 NFL Draft, as well as losing or trading down several other picks.
And the Rams should have known better than to mortgage their future in order to have a franchise quarterback now; just a few years ago they were in the Titans’ position of being the savvy recipients of another team’s hasty draft trades when the Redskins traded up in a similar fashion to draft Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in 2012.
Not only does the Titans’ revival indicate just how valuable these picks were, but the fact that the Rams were so bad last year only makes the picks in the 2017 Draft that the team traded away before last season all the more valuable. The Titans now pick at #5 and #18, while the Rams must wait all the way until #37.
Ultimately time will tell whether or not the Rams were justified in selling the farm to bring Jared Goff to the organization; the young quarterback will need a few years to develop no matter what way you look at it. But in the meantime, the Rams will try to develop a team around Goff with one hand behind their back due to the number of draft picks they traded away to bring him on.
At the start of the league year, the Rams had the 7th-least cap space available in the entire league, with roughly $19 million to use for free agent acquisitions and to re-sign any of the 16 players on its own roster set to become free agents. As of the time of this writing, the Los Angeles Rams have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
In the first category of moves made by the team, the Rams re-signed several of its key players, including cornerback Trumaine Johnson, edge defender Ethan Westbrooks, and kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein.
Secondly, the Rams were active in bringing in several key free agents, the most important of which happened within the first 48 hours of free agency. The team won the free agent lottery, in one sense, by bringing on offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the long-time Cincinnati Bengal who at 35-years old remains one of the best offensive tackles in the league, and was the highest-graded available free agent in the entire league – across all positions – by the stat gurus at Pro Football Focus.
Considering how bad the tackles for the Rams were last season, Whitworth will be a serious improvement, and should cause an immediate increase in offensive production.
In addition to Whitworth, the Rams also signed the following free agents from other teams: Nickell Robey-Coleman, from the Buffalo Bills; wide receiver Robert Woods, from the Buffalo Bills; cornerback Kayvon Webster, from the Denver Broncos; halfback Lance Dunbar, from the Dallas Cowboys; edge defender Connor Barwin, from the Philadelphia Eagles; defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker, from the Detroit Lions; and center John Sullivan, from the Washington Redskins.
Finally, the Rams also lost several key players to other teams in free agency, including halfback Benny Cunningham, who went to the Chicago Bears; wide receiver Kenny Britt, who went to the Cleveland Browns; safety T. J. McDonald, who went to the Miami Dolphins; tight end Lance Kendricks, who went to the Green Bay Packers; and wide receiver Brian Quick, who went to the Washington Redskins.
With all of these moves having been made, as of the time of this writing the Rams currently sit with the fourth-least amount of cap space in the entire league, with less than $2 million available to play with. Given the fact that their 8 draft picks will combine for over $5 million in salary – to say nothing of additional acquisitions – clearly there is still work to be done in Los Angeles.
Despite losing several of their top picks in the trade for Goff including the coveted #5 selection overall, the team still had a pick in the second and third round, as well as two fourth-rounders and two sixth-rounders to give them 8 picks overall.
Despite the fact that the team brought in Robert Woods, they also lost Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Lance Kendricks, meaning a serious net loss. Similarly, while Nickell Robey-Coleman and Kayvon Webster should bring immediate improvement in the secondary, the team also lost T. J. McDonald, who had been one of the anchors on the back end of the defense.
Finally, by bringing in Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, the Rams have taken a serious step forward in terms of the offensive line.
When we looked back at the roster moves made by the Los Angeles Rams, we saw that the team is poised for immediate improvement on the offensive line, as the Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth will be a massive step up from incumbent Greg Robinson. But at other key positions, the gain and loss in free agency yielded no obvious net change at this point in the offseason.
For this reason, it becomes difficult to forecast whether or not the Rams are slated to improve next season based solely on roster movement. However, this is only one of the several factors that we can use to make our prediction for next season. The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Rams, the data don’t tell a happy story: When we plug in the number of points the Rams scored and the number of points they allowed into the Pythagorean Expectation formula, we see that in their first season in L.A. the team should have won exactly 3.3 games. Given that the team won 4 games, in reality, we see that the Rams overperformed by almost a whole game last season.
When a team only won four games over the course of the season, one might think that the difference between three and four games is insubstantial. But one important thing that Pythagorean Expectation immediately teaches us is that the Rams were the 3rd-worst team in the league last season, ahead of only the 49ers and the Browns. The Jaguars and the Bears – each of whom ended up with only 3 wins, one fewer than Los Angeles – were better than the Rams in terms of Pythagorean Expectation.
And it’s crucially important to put this over-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Rams will play next season, and that is the schedule that Los Angeles played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Rams played the 9th-easiest schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, a fact made surprising by the fact that the team played a total of 10 games against opponents who made it to the playoffs in either 2016/17 or 2015/16.
The reason for this disparity is because the DVOA value is not a measure of a team’s aggregate performance, but of their performance in the specific game in which they played. When the Rams played the Seahawks in Week 2 or the Giants in Week 7, they were playing the team before they had really hit their stride, making it easier.
But regardless of why the Rams’ schedule was rated so easy, the more important question to ask is whether or not their schedule is set to become more difficult next season.
Luckily, despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule is not set to be released until around the NFL Draft, we can still forecast how easy the Rams’ slate of opponents will be next year. The reason for this is that while crafting the week-by-week NFL schedule is a complicated calculus involving TV contracts, international games, and a host of other factors, the actual opponents that each team plays is determined automatically the very moment the Super Bowl concludes, using a simple mathematical rotation.
Specifically, every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Rams, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Seahawks, the 49ers, and the Cardinals (in London)
- 3 road games against the Seahawks, the 49ers, and the Cardinals (in Arizona)
- 4 games against the NFC East: the Redskins (home), the Eagles (home), the Cowboys (away), and the Giants (away)
- 4 games against the AFC South: the Texans (home), the Colts (home), the Jaguars (away), and the Titans (away)
- 2 games against other 3rd-place finishers in the NFC: the Saints (home) and the Vikings (away)
At first glance, this appears to be a difficult schedule: not only do the Rams play the tough NFC East, which could have easily sent three teams to the playoffs last season, but they also have a full quarter of their games featuring travel across at least four time zones (including a home game in London), which is sure to wreak havoc on the circadian rhythm of the players.
But in order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
When we tally up the number of games that the Rams’ 2017/18 opponents won last season and compare this aggregated total to the comparable figure for the other 31 teams in the league, we see that the Rams have the 13th-most difficult schedule in the league. When we compare using point differential (which, as we saw with Pythagorean Expectation is a more accurate measure of team success), the news is slightly worse: the Rams have the 11th-most difficult schedule in the league.
So, in summary, now that we have taken a good look at the roster moves, advanced statistics, and scheduling factors that will come together to comprise the Rams’ 2017/18 season, we can now make an accurate prediction for what we expect out of the team next season.
First, given the fact that the team won 4 games last season but pointed like a 3.3-win team, we’re inclined to start them off next season at either 3 or 4 wins for next season. Given the fact that their schedule does get slightly more difficult next season compared to last, we’ll say 3 wins instead of 4.
Next, we’re inclined to give them another win right off the bat purely because of the acquisition of Andrew Whitworth: Left tackle is one of the cornerstone positions of a team, along with quarterback and edge defender, and for the Rams to go from one of the bottom five left tackles in the league to one of the top five left tackles in the league will make an enormous, immediate difference on their offense.
Additionally, there are two other reasons that we can expect immediate improvement out of the team: First, they will not have the massive challenge of adjusting to a new city, a new fan base, and new facilities. Second, their 22-year old franchise quarterback will have had an entire NFL offseason to learn, grow, and improve. For these two reasons, we’re inclined to bump up another game.
In the Rams’ other areas of need – such as wide receiver and defensive secondary – there were both gains and losses in free agency, meaning that we’ll have to wait until after the 2017 NFL Draft and even all the way into the preseason to determine whether or not these needs have been adequately addressed.
Finally, with a new 31-year old head coach and a new offensive scheme to implement, there will undoubtedly be an adjustment period for the players. But in the case of a team that quit on its coach last season and openly called out the need for motivation, we believe that the implementation of a new scheme could lead to an improvement in what was unquestionably the worst offense in the NFL last season.
For these reasons – Andrew Whitworth, adjustment to a new city, improvement to the franchise quarterback, and a fresh perspective at head coach – we expect to see improvement out of the L.A. Rams next season.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Los Angeles Rams: 6–10
Conclusion: The Story of the Los Angeles Rams
It’s a little-known fact that the Rams did not originally begin in Los Angeles (or St. Louis, for that matter). The team actually began in Cleveland, and maintains the distinction of being the only NFL franchise to win championships in three different cities.
When it became clear that the team was going to get neither a new stadium nor another championship while in St. Louis, after over a decade of missing the playoffs owner Stan Kroenke decided to move the franchise back to Los Angeles, and the move was approved by NFL owners in January of 2016.
In their first of three interim seasons in L.A. while waiting for their new stadium to be completed, the Rams waited 9 games before their new franchise quarterback Jared Goff – who they had mortgaged two drafts to pick with the 1st selection overall – was ready to begin his NFL career. In short, it wasn’t pretty.
But while the Rams’ offense may well have been the absolute worst in the league last year, there was reason to feel optimistic about individual players on both sides of the ball, especially the unstoppable, unblockable Aaron Donald, who had as much impact on his own as some other teams have across their entire defensive line.
After a disappointing 4–12 season (in which the team played more like a 3-win team, statistically), the Rams arguably won the free agency lottery by landing 35-year old Andrew Whitworth, the long-time Cincinnati Bengals left tackle. With the acquisition, the Rams go from one of the very worst in the league (Greg Robinson) to one of the very best at a cornerstone position.
With a year under their belts in L.A., a brand new 31-year old head coach, a correspondingly new offensive scheme, a full offseason for Jared Goff to improve, as well as improvements up and down the roster, there is reason to be optimistic that the team could be much-improved next season.
However, the Rams remain in a very volatile position, and fans would do well to temper their expectations:
It could very well take less time for the Rams to build a new stadium than it will for them to build a playoff-caliber roster.