Determined Rams have their sights on getting back to the Super Bowl
In a matter of just two seasons, he'd taken one of the league's worst franchises to the brink of a Super Bowl, but on the biggest stage, Sean McVay had been outcoached, and his Rams had been outplayed. The sting of that painful realization would linger months after their 13–3 loss to the Patriots in Atlanta.
But the youngest coach ever to lead a team to the Super Bowl understands that dwelling on that devastating defeat could doom the Rams. It's no coincidence that the game's losers so rarely return right away. Last year's Patriots are the only team in the past 25 seasons to get back to the biggest stage following a loss.
"If you can't handle getting gut-punched and responding, this business probably isn't for you," McVay said shortly after the Super Bowl.
McVay has vowed to return to that stage, and the Rams, under his watch, haven't given any reason to doubt them. But while the offense should still be explosive and the defense, with a couple veteran additions, could be improved, there are plenty of questions still left unanswered, even as Super Bowl expectations in L.A. are more outsized than ever before.
Last July, after he was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year, the Rams handed Todd Gurley a four-year, $60 million contract, the biggest deal ever given to a running back. A year later, Gurley's future as the centerpiece of the team's offense is already in doubt, as questions about the long-term health of his knee remain unanswered.
Gurley missed the final two regular-season games of 2018 with inflammation. Upon returning for the playoffs, he never regained his usual form. If his knee is arthritic, as some reports have suggested, his best days could already be behind him.
We may never know for sure; the Rams have shed little light about the mysterious state of that knee. But his playoff disappearance, combined with the Rams' use of a third-round pick on Memphis product Darrell Henderson, does little to soothe concerns about their star running back.
For all the unease surrounding Gurley, the most pressing questions about the Rams offense are up front. An offensive line that didn't experience a single injury across two seasons now must replace two of its most important cogs from a year ago, Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan. Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen have earned the trust of Rams brass for the time being. But they have just 114 snaps between them over one season, and it's fair to wonder if a shake-up might lead to growing pains up front.
It'll fall on quarterback Jared Goff, in his fourth season, to keep the Rams' high-flying offense among the league's elite. Goff showed flashes of greatness a year ago; through three months, with the Rams sitting at 10–1, he was a legitimate MVP candidate. But his performance down the stretch and through much of the postseason showed that there were still inconsistencies to iron out in his game. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots laid out the perfect blueprint to frustrate and confuse him.
How Goff bounces back from the disappointing conclusion to his best season yet will, in large part, determine whether the Rams are contenders. He'll have the same fleet of weapons at his disposal, assuming slot receiver Cooper Kupp fully recovers from the ACL tear he suffered last November. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods were both 1,000-yard receivers, but both stand to benefit from Kupp's return. No team used three-receiver sets more than the Rams did a year ago. But McVay, in hopes of diversifying his scheme, has promised to use more varied personnel groupings. That could mean more two-tight end looks, with Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett both showing signs that they're ready for bigger roles.
For the first time since the McVay era began, the most dominant defensive force in the NFL won't spend his offseason away from L.A. Not that it mattered for Aaron Donald during either of those last two seasons. He was named Defensive Player of the Year at the end of both. In 2018, he led the league in sacks with 20.5, and this season, he'll again be the terror-inducing anchor of the Rams' 3-4 scheme.
The defensive front around him will be a little less ferocious without veteran mercenary Ndamukong Suh at nose tackle. Suh departed after just one inconsistent season with the Rams, and his presence — or, sometimes, lack thereof — won't be as missed as much as his reputation would suggest. The Rams are already raving about rookie nose tackle Greg Gaines, who's more suited to the role of hole-clogging, two-gap nose, anyway.
After relying on Donald to apply most of the pressure, the Rams made an effort in the offseason to fortify the rest of their rush. Dante Fowler Jr. was re-signed to a one-year deal after joining the Rams in a trade at midseason, and with a full offseason under his belt, his progress will be crucial to the evolution of the Rams defense on the edge.
He won't be alone rushing off the edge this time around. Clay Matthews may not be the force he once was in Green Bay, where he made six Pro Bowls, but the Rams signed him in the offseason with the belief that he still has plenty left in the tank. With defensive coordinator Wade Phillips deploying him from all over the defense, the USC product's situational skills should at the very least force defenses to account for him, meaning more one-on-one opportunities for both Fowler and Donald.
The Rams were the worst defense in the league in rush yards per attempt (5.1) last season. They bid adieu to Suh and linebacker Mark Barron, and without them, an already questionable run defense promises to be even more inexperienced. They'll hope they strike gold again at inside linebacker with Micah Kiser, who, like late-round pick Cory Littleton before him, earned plaudits on special teams before grabbing a starting role. But trusting Kiser to make a huge impact in the run game could be a risky proposition.
The addition of veteran safety Eric Weddle could help mitigate concerns both in the run and pass game. The 34-year-old was still one of the league's most productive safeties in both regards a year ago in Baltimore. But it's his steadying veteran presence on the defense that could make the most significant impact.
With Weddle alongside emerging safety John Johnson, the Rams will have one of the most formidable back ends in the NFL. But at cornerback, consistency was an issue a year ago for Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib missed half the season due to injury. Both seemed to find their groove late last season. As both enter contract years, the Rams secondary might finally be in position to live up to its promise.
Injuries have kept Greg Zuerlein out of seven games over the last two seasons, but when available, he's been one of the league's most dominant placekickers. He's missed only six kicks over the past two seasons, all of but one of which came from 40 yards or farther. Johnny Hekker didn't get many chances to punt last season — 22 fewer punts than in 2017 — but his consistency, again, made him one of the league's best field position weapons. Pint-sized returner JoJo Natson might have competition on kickoffs, but on punt returns, where he ranked in the top 10 in the league, Natson will remain a fixture.
Could the Rams be the exception to the curse that befalls most Super Bowl losers? They return most of the key pieces from last year's NFC championship squad, and with another year under his belt, Goff should be able to put his late-season struggles behind him, assuming his new offensive line clicks and his star running back stays healthy. All signs point to another deep playoff run, one that could mean another chance at the Lombardi Trophy they lost a year ago.