It’s still a little hard to believe, but during their first year in Los Angeles, the Rams were 4-12 with the worst offense in the NFL. Then they subtracted one Jeff Fisher, added one Sean McVay, and suddenly the LA Rams are the best team in the game.
And the Seattle Seahawks are not.
Though I don’t think the Seahawks are a bad team by any means, they aren’t too far off from the 7-9 Rams teams that Seattle wiped away for most of the Fisher years. There are many new faces but overall, LA isn’t too different from the team that went 11-5 and won the division a year ago. The only differences they do have are the ones that make them more likely to go 16-0 than any other team in football. An undefeated season? Probably not. But at this pace of offensive scoring and defensive, umm, not-scoring, the Rams are likely to get the number one seed.
Can the Seahawks knock them off their course on Sunday in Seattle? In order to get a better idea of how jugger this naut really is, I sent five Qs over to Joe McAtee at Turf Show Times and in kind he sent me five corresponding As.
Q: Besides learning the offense better, what’s different about Jared Goff between last season and this season?
A: Well, it’s tough to be fair here, because he’s coming off of the two best performances of his career, the last one being absolutely spectacular.
If we’re going off the last two games as something anywhere close to being representative of what he’s going to provide this year (and beyond), I think the biggest difference is just the aggression and the success derived from it. It’s not just that he’s making throws with a high degree of difficulty. It’s that he’s attempting them. A year ago, Goff would have pulled a lot of those throws back and either continued to go through his progressions or run or thrown it away. This year, he’s going for those throws...and making them.
That’s the difference between a solid game where he manages things and throws maybe two or three touchdowns and a respectable chunk of yardage and the Thursday night performance where he looked literally unstoppable. And that’s not something you can ascribe to the scheme he’s handed by Head Coach Sean McVay or the protection from the offensive line. Those things create the environment where taking those aggressive opportunities is even possible, but taking advantage of them is completely on his shoulders.
Q: A lot of people talk about the Rams pushing all-in on 2018, but what are the reasons to think of LA as a long-term threat (3-5 more years) even if they don’t win the Super Bowl this season? And conversely, your concerns if they don’t win the Super Bowl as far as what questions need to be answered in 2019?
A: Well, I think the main reason Rams fans have sincere reason to be comfortable with the medium-term future is that they have a very good core locked up. QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, all of their wide receivers and DL Aaron Donald are all locked up through 2020. In fact, all of them aside from Goff and WR Cooper Kupp are locked up beyond that. So there’s nothing to suggest there’s any kind of personnel rebuild needed for a long time. Of course the other would be the fact that Sean McVay is head coach. So even if we can’t get the ring this year, there’s not reason for Rams to panic and assume some precipitous decline is a given.
As for if they don’t win the Super Bowl and especially if they fall short well before then, of course we’re going to have to look at why. Is it the lack of edge rushing? The Rams have a fantastic interior rush from Donald and DL Ndamukong Suh, but they’re not getting solid pressure from the outside. Is that going to come back to hurt them? Will it be run defense at the second level? Will the offensive line play drop off?
And then you look at the departing talent. Suh is gone. S Lamarcus Joyner is pretty much certain to be gone. LG Rodger Saffold, EDGE Matt Longacre and tons of depth are on expiring deals. Filling those as adequately as they have to this point is a hell of a task.
Overall though, the Rams have their HC-QB-WR nexus stacked with Gurley right there with them and Donald locked up for what might be the rest of his career. That’s better than most team’s outlooks beyond 2018.
Q: How much of the Rams success could be credited to Los Angeles? I know this is a complicated question to answer, but do you think this would have been possible in St. Louis or does the rapid turnaround have a lot to do with an influx of financial support and desire to make the Rams a show worth watching immediately?
A: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I certainly think the pressure of permeating the LA zeitgeist was a legitimate motivating factor behind the front office’s performance since returning. I think just in terms of the pressure, VP/COO Kevin Demoff, VP Tony Pastoors and GM Les Snead knew they couldn’t be, say, conventional in trying to fix the mess left in the wake of the 2016 season. The Rams returned to LA, put up a 4-12 season on the backs of one of the worst offenses in league history and killed nearly all of the interest from casual fans or would-be attendees. It’s not that there’s not a population of hardcore fans who would have attended games and bought season tickets and read TST every day. It’s that that population isn’t representative of the whole. That was clear at the end of 2016 and early in 2017.
The Rams had to permeate a media environment where the Lakers, Dodgers and USC dominated. Now, LeBron is in LA. The Dodgers are in the playoffs. And...ok, USC isn’t exactly lighting it up with Sam Darnold gone, but the Rams weren’t going to be worth much to the kind of people who showed up to the playoff game last year and not many other games. The Rams had to make some kind of dent into the LA consciousness or they were going to be a league-wide joke heading into 2020 when the new stadium opens (for example: see the other team in LA and how well they’re being supported and covered...).
So, I wouldn’t have suggested it wouldn’t have been possible in St. Louis. The Greatest Show on Turf happened. Clearly, the roster was good enough last year and that really only had one trade of note in WR Sammy Watkins who (a) many thought was pretty disappointing all things considered and (b) only factored in for a single season on the back of a second-round trade (if anything, you could point to that move being motivated by these kinds of LA-specific forces and that if you argue it failed, maybe the entire suggestion that those LA-specific forces helped the turnaround falls apart). So the personnel was clearly good enough to perform well on its own with a capable coaching staff. And I don’t see why the Rams couldn’t have put together a capable coaching staff in the Lou.
I think it’s more a factor that the Rams SEVERELY underwhelmed in the final two years under Jeff Fisher and his staff despite quality personnel and then with McVay’s arrival catapulted forward to give those LA-specific forces a chance to perhaps push the Rams over the edge.
Q: You only get to protect one player for the rest of the season. You can put a magic spell on him that makes him impervious to injury. Who is that player?
A: QB Jared Goff. And it’s as much about Goff as it is backup QB Sean Mannion.
Q: I know you’ve heard of Michael Dickson, so do you have any concerns at all that Johnny Hekker might not be the best punter in the division anymore?
A: Ooh, so now I get to play defensive, homer-y Rams fan and say hell no. Hekker’s the best. Dickson’s just a Michael-come-lately.
Facetiousness aside, I think the bigger thing to think about is how valuable punters can be when you’re not playing spectacular football. Hekker was such a HUGE weapon for the Rams when the offense, uh, was a very small weapon. And I do honestly think when we talk about the top of the punter talent pool, we could be talking about them being undervalued in the right situation (which for them, unfairly perhaps, is being on a bad offensive team).
The average salary for the punter position is $1.514m. For running backs, it’s $1.571m. For safeties and inside linebackers, they’re both averaging less than $2.1m. But when you look at running backs, inside linebackers and safeties, the top salaries are more than $10m (though the running backs don’t have many crossing the line...). Punters? Nobody is on the books to crack even $5m.
So no, you’ll never get me to dis the Hekk. But I do wonder why so many teams are underpaying a position that has such an outsized effect on their performance.