The NFC West has sent a team to the Super Bowl five times in the last 11 seasons and those teams are now 1-4 following the LA Rams 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday. The Rams have been mentioned as a possible dynasty thanks to the immediate success of Sean McVay, the ages of Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Aaron Donald, Robert Woods, Rob Havenstein, Austin Blythe, John Johnson, Cory Littleton, and Marcus Peters, plus the fact that Gurley, Cooks, Donald, Woods, Havenstein are all signed through 2021 while it is virtually assured that Goff will be extended.
However, the manner in which the Rams lost the Super Bowl — 3 points, 260 total yards, no red zone appearances, and a terrible game by Goff — brings up certain questions not just in their ability to become an NFC powerhouse but even in their chances for 2019.
Los Angeles was only in this position because of their offense and McVay’s wunderkind ability to apparently revolutionize the NFL. The Rams were second in scoring and yards and they went 5-2 in games in which they allowed 30, a remarkable record in such contests. LA scored 30+ in each of their first five games and 10 of the first 12, scoring 23 and 29 in the only two instances where they fell short of that mark. But the offense dipped in their final seven games, including playoffs.
The Rams had a +107 point differential during their 7-0 start, the best mark in the NFL by a wide margin, but in the final nine games they were just +36, tied for 9th in the league; the Seattle Seahawks had the same record and a +41 differential during that same period of time. The simple fact of the matter when it comes to the LA Rams is that they were largely in the Super Bowl because of two things: a dominating start that helped propel them to an 8-0 start (you can include their two thin wins over the Seahawks in that equation when looking at their 9-1 start) and the worst blown call in NFL history, say many.
McVay then faces a very serious issue potentially, which is that if LA’s offense isn’t at least a top-three scoring machine next season they might not be in that dissimilar of a position as Seattle’s been in recent years. Because the defense has a lot of work to do and Goff has still yet to live up to his number one draft pick billing. (Don’t worry, Jared, most number one pick QBs aren’t really that good.) Here are some immediate questions that the Rams need to answer:
- Is Andrew Whitworth still the left tackle? Whitworth is set to make $15.9 million against the cap next season and he’s turning 38 in December. Will he retire? If he doesn’t retire, will they be able to absorb his huge cap hit if he finally shows decline? I think this might be the most pressing problem for McVay because we’ve never seen him without Whitworth and we don’t know how much of their offense success needs to be attributed to him. Les Snead paid him huge money to come over from Cincinnati in 2017, so we can safely assume that the organization knows how valuable it is to have an elite left tackle. If anything happens to Whitworth and they try to move Havenstein to the left side, how much does that depress their offense?
- What do they do with their $34 million in cap room? What we really need to know is, “Is that enough cap room or do they need to make some cuts?” Key free agents include Ndamukong Suh, who presumably would still want $14 million or more again, Dante Fowler, Jr., Rodger Saffold, Lamarcus Joyner, and C.J. Anderson. Littleton is a restricted free agent who probably needs the first round tender, which according to OvertheCap.com would take up over $4 million. They’ll probably lose at least a couple of their own free agents and might need to consider what to do with Marcus Peters, Michael Brockers, and Mark Barron. “Restructuring” could always come into play I guess but on the surface, I can’t imagine that the Rams have much room to get upgrades from the outside given that they might want to be aggressive in trying to keep Saffold, Suh, and Fowler. And while Joyner was a disappointment while playing on the franchise tag, LA still has to either re-sign him or find someone else to play free safety, a gig that some are saying would fit Earl Thomas well.
- How old is too old? In addition to the question on Whitworth’s age, center John Sullivan is turning 34 in the offseason and Aqib Talib is almost 33. I saw someone on Twitter post about how Talib might be the most underrated player on their defense and it makes some sense: they only allowed 30+ two times during his 11 starts, compared to five times in the eight games he missed. Questions about his age should be valid and he did miss half of 2018 with injury.
- Why won’t the defense be bad? Giving up only 13 points in a Super Bowl should basically always get you a ring, but it didn’t work for LA this year. However, this is still a defense that finished 20th in points allowed, 22nd in net yards per pass attempt, and 32nd in yards per carry allowed. It was better with Talib but it was still not great. So why should we expect it to be any better next season? As mentioned, Talib will be 33, Suh, Fowler, Sam Shields, and Joyner are all free agents, Littleton’s starting to get paid, Barron, Peters, and Brockers don’t seem like essential keeps at their 2019 cap hits, potentially. The defense needs a talent infusion but they don’t have money to spend and they don’t pick until 31st and also traded away their second and third rounders. There’s hope that some of their 2018 draft class will start to contribute but we’ve got no reason to buy into any of them yet.
- Is Jared Goff actually good? Goff had one of the worst Super Bowl performances ever by a quarterback and I don’t think it’s surprising. He had a terrible rookie season and still seemed to be quite uneven and inconsistent in his first season with McVay despite making the Pro Bowl. He had better numbers this season but not by much and I think the players around him were better while everyone was more comfortable in the system. And still over the final five games Goff had six touchdowns, six interceptions, and 6.3 yards per attempt. He wasn’t special then and he was even less special in the playoffs: no touchdowns vs the Cowboys, one touchdown and one interception vs the Saints, and no touchdowns, one interception against the Patriots. The Rams have one more season of Goff on his rookie deal and then they have to pick up his costly fifth-year option and likely an extension that could pay him $30-35 million annually at which point the “cheap years” of a “franchise QB” are over.
- Are you ready for 2020? LA is looking to next season, as we all are, but it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t also considering what’ll happen if they don’t get back to the Super Bowl and strike it rich because things become very interesting after that. The Rams are paying $25 million to a defensive tackle, $17 million to a running back, $16.8 million to a good (but...great???) receiver, and must at least pick up the fifth-year option on Goff. It comes evident that 2019 is a massively huge year for LA so the pressure intensifies that much more given that only more questions might arrive by the next season.
What this all tells me is that the Rams are still very talented and McVay could still be the best coach in the NFL not named Belichick, but they also might not have any guarantees for the NFC West next season. Their quarterback is no Russell Wilson. Their defense isn’t just average, it’s potentially losing some of its best players without the resources to replace them. The offensive line could be the most important strength of the team and 40% of it is over 33 while another player is an unrestricted free agent. These are not small issues. LA has a lot to address over the offseason and I think the division is going to be a tight race once again.