That week, Seattle had Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, both of whom are out for the season. They also had K.J. Wright, who is doubtful to play. Eddie Lacy was the starting running back, Oday Aboushi was the starting right guard, and Rees Odhiambo was at left tackle; not all the changes are bad. Then there was Bobby Wagner at middle linebacker of course, and his status is up in the air. At best, he’ll be a hobbled version of the Wagner we saw when the Seahawks beat LA 16-10.
At times, Seattle beats the Rams and Eagles. At other times, they lose to Washington at home. This week, the playoffs have come early for the Seahawks, because their odds of making it almost entirely depend on a win over the Rams this week. For LA, they are actually talking about making the playoffs and winning the division, which is a fresh perspective for them for a million reasons. How different are the Rams from then to now?
To get a better idea, I sent 5 Qs to Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times, and in return he sent me 5 corresponding As. Here they be.
Q: I wanna start real simple ... for the first time in a long time, the Rams are in the conversation. Playoffs. Super Bowl. Rings. They're in the conversations that people are having right now about all of that stuff. How does it feel? Are you starting to lose some of that hesitancy to believe in the Rams and can see them winning the games they need to win and Sean McVay is legit the start of a new era of the franchise -- or will those thoughts never go away until it's real and they're playing in Minneapolis?
A: The easiest way to put it is that it just feels weird. There's an oddness to it that's hard to really expand upon. I think really the oddness of it comes in the longevity of its alternate. We have been so inept and so mediocre or worse or much worse for so long that not being so just seems foreign. We got a lot out of the thought exercise of "Where were you when the Rams last had a winning season?" if only because it was 2003 and, well, people's lives can change completely in the course of nearly 15 years.
So it's just odd that the Rams didn't. From 2004-2016, the Rams went from a decaying playoff team to a roster without much talent to a roster with some talent to a roster with talent that didn't make much of it. So the certainty, the kind of comfort you get from an old, shitty blanket was always there with the Rams. With it came that sense of family built upon a loyalty and a togetherness not forged by success but out of failure and shared resentment. "They might be a horrible sports franchise, but they're OUR horrible sports franchise."
Relocation obviously split that quite a bit, but to then put a winning season together on the back of it certainly gives sincere credence to the idea that this is a new Rams and that, yes, the hesitancy that was deserving in the past can start to dissolve. But there's still a major hurdle left ahead. A winning season is a nice demon to have killed off, but success isn't built on winning regular seasons. Minneapolis may not be needed, but having that door still open after Week 17 will be.
Q: The Rams defense was on a tear and then 43 points to the Eagles at home. Carson Wentz might be the MVP, but is that excusable? What happened and did Philly expose any weaknesses in the Wade Phillips’ gameplan?
A: It's certainly not. As good as Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles are, they've only scored that much one other time this season. And you guys held them to just 10 points.
In terms of what happened, I think it was just one of those games where the Eagles' offense got everything working early. RB Jay Ajayi and Philly's offensive line did work early on, and Wentz was just connecting with all of his different options. The good thing was that the Rams were doing the same and it just turned out into a shootout kind of game, but obviously you'd prefer to not have that kind of showing defensively.
The real issue is that the Rams aren't a great team up front defensively. They don't contain the run well, and their edge pass rush is below average. Trying to paper over those cracks is very hard over the course of a 16-game season and pretty much impossible against an offense as good as the Eagles'.
Q: Watching Jared Goff week to week, what are his biggest improvements in year two? What are the weaknesses that he's gotten away with more often than not, but that could show up at the wrong time and kill the Rams?
A: Well, the biggest improvement is what's around him. The offensive line is better, anchored by LT Andrew Whitworth. The passing targets are better with WR Sammy Watkins, WR Robert Woods and WR Cooper Kupp replacing WR Kenny Britt, WR Brian Quick and WR Tavon Austin. And the system orchestrated by Head Coach Sean McVay is simpler and more effective
In terms of his individual play, I'd say first and foremost is his decision-making. He's thrown just six interceptions this year in his 13 starts compared to seven picks a year ago in as many starts. He's not throwing into risky situations. He's throwing the ball away when the situation dictates (well, not every time...but enough to satisfy). And he's taking advantage of his physical skill set, which is of course very, very good.
I think the biggest problem is that because the system oversimplifies things (i.e. make these pre-snap reads, audible or send a hot route, re-read and then based on alignment just throw to receiver X or a certain area because the play is designed to work), in more complicated situations late in games, he hasn't really grown into the game. Against Washington, you guys, Minnesota and Philly late in the game, Goff and the Rams were in position to make a game of things and they haven't. In those situations where a team gets the ball back late with a chance to go tie the game or grab a lead, the kind of situation that the best teams and QBs seem to always thrive in, Goff has pitched a 0 to this point in his career.
Until he succeeds in that kind of situation and leads a game-winning drive or something of substantial value late in a game, there's an intangible there that's building a narrative against him that he won't be able to avoid. Whether it's the "clutch gene" that the Skip Baylesses of the world like to use or the sheer nature of building up his mental fortitude or just the presence to be able to take over a game, he hasn't exuded it yet.
If the Seahawks tie the game with 4 minutes left and you're kicking off to Aaron Rodgers, you're just not going to feel all that comfortable about the situation. That's warranted given what Rodgers has done in his career. Goff just warranted that kind of worry from opponents. Once.
Q: John Johnson, I believe, made his first start against the Seahawks. He's one of PFF's top rookies this season. Is Johnson gonna be a household name (as much as anyone with the most bland name in history can be) eventually? (At least in NFC West homes.) Who else is quietly a big reason for LA's success and doesn't get a lot of credit nationally?
A: Johnson has had a hell of a rookie season once he came on in place of S Maurice Alexander. Someone else that hasn't really gotten his due in the secondary for 2017 is slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman. The Rams brought him in on a one-year deal from the Buffalo Bills in free agency, and I think he's played well above his contract and should get paid appropriately for doing so. DB Lamarcus Joyner might be the best of the bunch though, and I'm not sure he's getting the appropriate due either.
Offensively for me, the line is where the Rams have turned things around the most on the field. Bringing in Whitworth at left tackle and John Sullivan at center to replace Greg Robinson and Tim Barnes was a night-and-day switch in terms of talent. It has allowed the other three on the line (LG Rodger Saffold, RG Jamon Brown and RT Rob Havenstein) to up their games too. It has left Goff with TONS more time to operate and given comfort to RB Todd Gurley to maintain some patience and let things open up for him in the running game instead of pursuing them too quickly.
Q: How would you rank the importance of these three players: Sammy Watkins, Greg Zuerlein, Johnny Hekker.
A: Kenny, that's a hell of a question and it's why I pay you the big bucks (Note: I am being asked by counsel to remind you I pay you nothing).
It's really hard because Watkins' value to this point has been a depth chart filler and not an on-field quantity. With WR Robert Woods sidelined to injury the last few weeks, Watkins could have affirmed his value as a top wideout in the NFL. He didn't. And whether that comes down to effort during the game (he quits on plays often when he's not the primary read even if Goff works back to him), or a lack of chemistry with Goff or just a bad situation overall, he's not producing. What he does do is soak up the attention of opposing top corners. A few weeks ago, Watkins was covered by CB Patrick Peterson. That left the other wideouts to be covered by...not Patrick Peterson. It's not the value Rams fans would want, but it's not negligible either.
As for GZ and Hekker, they're both just incredible talents for their positions. I struggle to really identify their value because I don't know how well we can do that in the modern game. I've seen some advanced metrics try to quantify it, but it's just so hard because special teams is, well, just that. Take Hekker's punt to start the second half against the Arizona Cardinals a couple of weeks ago. The Rams had struggled offensively in their final four possessions of the first half scoring just three points among them. The Rams' offense came out and stalled again in the second half going three-and-out setting up a 4th down from their own 9-yard line. That's a perilous situation that forces you to avoid a punt block just to cede advantageous field position for your opponent. Hekker flipped the field and left the Cardinals to start the drive at their own 21-yard line. I'm not sure how you quantify that appropriately. I also don't know how you quantify the boost that gives the defense who comes out and forces a three-and-out of their own or how you quantify the punt return space that afford WR/PR Pharoh Cooper who cuts out a 30-yard return to start at the Cards' 30-yard line or how you then quantify the touchdown the Rams then put up seven plays later. How much of that entire sequence is on Hekker? How much value does Hekker own because of the touchdown the sequence leads to? I don't know how to quantify any of it, but I know it's all more than 0.
GZ's in the same situation. He's missed just two of his 38 field goal attempts, one of them a 65-yard try that he flubbed as time expired in the first half against the New Orleans Saints. His range and his reliability in 2017 have eased things on all fronts. Against the Saints, Jaguars and especially against the Cowboys in which he nailed seven field goals, he's helped expand leads to put additional pressure on the opponent. You guys just lost to the Jags. We probably should have, scoring just one offensive touchdown. But the Rams' special teams put up 20 points en route to a huge road win.
Watkins' value lies in the matchups it creates for the rest of the passing attack. The Rams' special teams has to be the best crew in the NFL in all areas: kick and punt returns, kicking, punting and covering down on both. In terms of ranking them, I'd put Watkins at the back only because replacing someone on the depth chart is easier than replacing them on the field. As for the two primary ST components, I'd likely put Hekker in front of GZ, but would have no qualms with anyone flipping those two.