A week before the Rams won their only Super Bowl in 1999, Sean McVay celebrated his 13th birthday. Now, 18 years later — and after an ugly half-decade under coach Jeff Fisher — the keys to the franchise have been turned over to McVay. At 31, he’ll be the youngest head coach in NFL history.
That may raise red flags for some, but for the Rams, McVay’s youth was only a footnote on an impressive résumé, which includes turning the Redskins into an offensive force as coordinator and grooming Kirk Cousins into a quality NFL starter.
In Hollywood, though, the wunderkind coach will need to orchestrate a masterpiece if he hopes to turn around a Rams offense that, by every possible measure, was a complete flop.
Could this be the start of an epic comeback story? McVay has a young leading man to groom in quarterback Jared Goff and a former Offensive Rookie of the Year to lean on in running back Todd Gurley. He’ll have a talented defense and one of the game’s best coordinators in Wade Phillips. But the uncertainties are unending, and with such a young coach, it’s fair to wonder how many growing pains lie ahead in 2017.
In 2016, Los Angeles’ new NFL team truly scraped the bottom, ranking dead last in the NFL in yards per game (262.7). After a breakout rookie season, Gurley stalled. The line regressed, giving up the second-most sacks in the league (49). The quarterback on which the franchise’s future was mortgaged proved underwhelming at best.
Out of such darkness, however, McVay apparently sees a silver lining. Call it youthful delusion, if you must, but McVay has at least made it clear that decisions are made with his quarterback in mind — a concept that somehow eluded Fisher.
Already, Goff is better situated under McVay. The Rams signed All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who allowed just four sacks in his past three seasons, to protect Goff’s blindside and veteran center John Sullivan to add experience up front.
The Rams also made a surprising trade shortly after the start of training camp in an effort to give Goff more weapons by acquiring Sammy Watkins from Buffalo. The fourth player taken in the 2014 draft, Watkins had trouble staying on the field for the Bills, missing 11 games combined over the last two seasons because of a variety of injuries. If healthy, Watkins could provide quite a boost to an offense that otherwise is light on pass-catching playmakers. Adding reliable intermediate receiver Robert Woods helps in an offense that demands such qualities. But without last year’s leading wideout Kenny Britt, who left for Cleveland, the Rams must hope Tavon Austin realizes his Swiss Army Knife potential. Austin will be challenged to diversify his route tree, and for a wideout who has never reached 510 yards receiving, the jury is out on his role.
The better bet to improve is Gurley, who must adjust to McVay’s zone-blocking scheme. If he does, he should have more room to run — his 3.2 yards per carry were downright depressing last season — but a repeat of his rookie campaign, which benefited from unpredictable, long-distance touchdowns, is unlikely. If Lance Dunbar produces as a third-down receiving back, Gurley’s role could be reduced.
Could a new playmaker emerge? Second-year leaps from tight end Tyler Higbee and wideout Pharoh Cooper are possible. Of anyone on the roster, Higbee should benefit most from the switch to McVay’s vertical offense, which turned tight end Jordan Reed into a star. Toss in rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, and the pipe dream of a functioning offense doesn’t seem totally far-fetched.
Ultimately, it’s Goff’s development in Year 2 that will decide the Rams’ fate. After just seven starts, it’s too early to offer a verdict on his future. If Whitworth can anchor the line from the left, and the rest of the line allows Gurley to establish the run again so the new offense clicks, the opportunity will be there for Goff to succeed.
When McVay was hired in January, he understood the need to balance his youth and inexperience with a veteran voice on defense. Enter Phillips, the architect of the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning defense from 2015 and one of the most respected defensive minds in the league. Phillips’ arrival means a switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. But while scheme changes often incite panic, Phillips has maintained that he’ll take advantage of his personnel’s strengths. Up front, there are still plenty of those to exploit.
In a scheme that turned Malik Jackson into a dominant force in Denver, All-Pro 3-tech tackle Aaron Donald may steal the crown as the NFL’s best defensive player this season. Donald has 28 sacks in three seasons and should only improve with Phillips calling the shots. If he can stay healthy, Robert Quinn, a former Pro Bowl defensive end making the switch to 3-4 outside linebacker, could join him atop the league, thriving in the role DeMarcus Ware once filled under Phillips. Rushing from the other outside linebacker spot, Connor Barwin should prove to be a bargain addition after playing out of position in Jim Schwartz’s Eagles defense. As recently as 2014, Barwin had 14.5 sacks, and if he can offer another pass-rushing threat, the Rams defensive front could be ferocious.
Inside, the speed and athleticism of Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron offer tantalizing versatility as well. Ogletree, in a contract year, could be on his way to a huge season, if he’s able to iron out some of the over-aggressive mistakes that have plagued his first four years in the league.
The secondary is where the lion’s share of questions remain. Trumaine Johnson was franchise tagged for a second straight season, despite taking a few steps backward in 2016, and in Phillips’ scheme, which relies on press-man corners, the slower Johnson could struggle. Beyond Johnson, the situation is even more bleak. The Rams signed Kayvon Webster, previously in Denver, to add more competition to a less-than-stellar cornerback group, but he’s never proven to be a starting-caliber player. To make up for the loss of safety T.J. McDonald, the Rams plan to move hard-hitting nickel back Lamarcus Joyner to the position, leaving new, pint-sized nickel back Nickell Robey-Coleman to step in for him.
A dominant front can make up for a weak back end. A new, more evolved scheme can help cover up vulnerabilities. And with Phillips at the helm, the Rams can rest assured that the defense is at least in the right hands.
The Rams promised to bring in competition for once-struggling kicker Greg Zuerlein last summer but never followed through on their threat. Their inaction proved prescient, as Zuerlein bounced back in a big way, converting 86 percent of his kicks — up 20 percentage points from 2015. Whether the offense will give him enough opportunities is the real question.
As sad as it sounds, punter Johnny Hekker might have been the Rams’ most dangerous offensive weapon last season. Hekker set the NFL record for punts inside the 20 last season — a record that says as much about the Rams’ stalling offense as it does Hekker’s punting prowess. Still, he’s arguably the best punter in the game.
The return game is the only special teams group in flux. Do-everything returner Benny Cunningham signed with Chicago, which should give Cooper or Dunbar a chance to carve out a role. The team will likely cycle through several returners before settling on one.
It’s hard to imagine that things could possibly get worse for the Rams than their dismal 1–11 finish last season, and with a new coaching staff and new philosophy in place, the team will almost certainly improve on its 4–12 record, assuming the careers of young offensive cornerstones Goff and Gurley don’t go down in flames. That said, there are no delusions of grandeur in Year 1 of the McVay era. Competing for a playoff spot is possible but unlikely. Measured progress is what’s important now. Without any, general manager Les Snead’s days in L.A. could be numbered.