Joe McAtee of our sister site, Turf Show Times, was kind enough to answer all of our burning questions this week about the Rams in advance of the Texans’ first ever trip to Los Angeles. Here is what he had to say about everything from Sean McVay, to Todd Gurley’s reemergence, to the ever-present Goff v. Wentz debate:
1. So how about that Sean McVay? After years of suffering through Jeff Fisher, what kind of emotions are Rams fans feeling right now?
The scope and acceleration of the turnaround under McVay this year is simply unprecedented. We're on the verge of seeing the NFL's worst scoring offense turn into its best a season later, something that's never been done. What's perhaps most unbelievable isn't just that McVay's guiding the team, and particularly the offense, through such a remarkable turnaround so quickly - he's doing so while having to use so many pieces from that league-worst offense a year ago. The Rams were without a first-round pick in the spring. That meant McVay would have to, by-and-large, work with mostly an offense that returned from 2016. It's really something spectacular from a first-year head coach let alone the youngest coach ever hired in the NFL.
As for emotions, it's just weird. It goes beyond Fisher's five-year tenure. The Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003.
Two thousand. Three.
So for a team that put up 12 consecutive losing seasons as the owner torched his former fan base to move the team to LA, finding a shared emotional platform for this fan base right now is pretty impossible. It's going to take a few more seasons in LA to normalize, and that's irrespective of the results.
2. The Rams are 10th in scoring defense this year and seem to be getting stronger as the season goes on. What has bringing in Wade Phillips (who we love dearly over at BRB) done for this unit?
It's gotten them to adjust.
The problem for the defenses under Fisher and Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams wasn't talent. You could argue, in fact, they were more talented in years past than this side, especially in 2014 before CB Janoris Jenkins left for the New York Giants in free agency and promptly earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2016. The talent was there. But it languished.
In 2014, the team limped through a 4-7 start as the defense finished 16th in points allowed 17th in yards allowed. Not bad, but given the talent it was clearly below their potential. As it was Williams' first year in charge of the defense, many expected those numbers to improve. In 2015, the team limped through a 4-8 start as the defense finished 13th in points allowed but a decidedly worse 23rd in yards allowed as the offense sunk from a deficient attack to perhaps the worst in the NFL. Last year left no doubt. In 2016, the team limped through a 4-8 start as the defense finished 23rd in points allowed and 9th in yards allowed across from the NFL's worst offense. Each year, the Rams' defensive adjustments came too late to matter.
Not this year.
In Week 2 and 3 this year against Washington and the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams gave up 66 points and 861 yards combined. The rushing defense looked anemic, and many were worried that the personnel just wasn't capable of executing what Phillips was asking them to do. Through the first half of Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, those fears only intensified as QB Dak Prescott helped lead Dallas to a 24-point half that looked ominous. When they write the “30 for 30” on the 2017 Rams season (and it's looking like that might be a thing that needs to happen), this is the point they're going to kick things off in to Act II. The Cowboys scored just once in the second half as the Rams' defense locked everything down. The Rams lost the next weekend against Seattle, but not for a defense that allowed a single touchdown. A week later, they smothered the Jaguars' offense save for an early gap in the run defense against RB Leonard Fournette. The next week? A shutout over the Arizona Cardinals in London. Phillips was cleaning up the holes in the defense. Things were clicking.
Since halftime in Dallas, the Rams are giving up less than 13 points per game and less than 300 total yards per. Phillips has the defense cranking, especially in pass defense. Bigger tests lie ahead particularly against the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, but Phillips is doing what his predecessor didn't - adjust the minor details early on and through the mid-season before the bigger challenge of late-season football presents itself.
3. Where would you rank Todd Gurley among the league's best running backs? Now that you've seen what he can do with a competent offensive coordinator, was he still worth a top 10 pick?
He's an incredible talent who can be as valuable in the passing game as he is on the ground. I'd certainly put him in the tier of the league's best backs, but it's a strange era for NFL running backs. What's perhaps most heartening is that QB Jared Goff is coming off of his best game as an NFL QB. If that's truly a sign of legitimate growth and development, it could spell even better things for the running game by softening up opposing linebackers and safeties.
As for the pick itself, I was against it at the time...and I still am. You can't make draft picks in hindsight with the wealth of knowledge that time affords you. You have to make them based on the evidence you're presented with at the time. And at the time, the Rams had much, much bigger roster needs at four spots on the offensive line, across the wide receiver depth chart and a couple of spots on defense. Fisher and General Manager Les Snead had already taken four running backs in the previous three drafts. When the Rams took Tre Mason in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, I made the case that the Rams just weren't in position to spend any of their early picks on a running back when they didn't have the personnel to run the ball effectively around one. The 2015 and 2016 seasons proved that, albeit for Gurley instead of Mason. That the Rams somehow found one of the NFL's best left tackles, a center perfectly suited to call out protections for McVay's offensive system and three quality wide receivers all in the same offseason is a minor miracle. Ok, it's probably more than a minor miracle. And it might have been one that has saved Gurley's career.
4. And speaking of being "worth" the pick, give me your take on Jared Goff versus Carson Wentz. Both of them look fantastic this year, but if you had the option would you want a do-over at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft?
This one's harder both because of (a) the position value of a quarterback and (b) the fact the Rams had to trade so much capital to move up to #1 overall.
The decision was made on logic the Gurley selection lacked. The Rams needed a quarterback in the post-Sam Bradford roster landscape. Following the 2012 NFL Draft trades, the Rams had stacked up on a ton of draft picks. They used those to fill pretty much every slot on the depth chart. By last spring, they were already starting to lose some of those draft picks and other youth they had developed. Jenkins, as I mentioned, left in free agency, as did S Rodney McLeod, a UDFA who the Rams had developed well. Fisher had already cannibalized all those running back picks by drafting them on top of each other. The only thing the team hadn't done is take a top quarterback (that they spent a third-round pick on Sean Mannion in 2015, who has to date played all of 45 snaps in his career and shows you how confused that previous year's strategy was).
So would I want a do-over? Yeah, but not that decision itself. I'd want a do-over on the failures that led the Rams to that point.
5. Can the Rams not just make the playoffs, but actually WIN a playoff game this year?
This is now a legitimate question. What a world.
I mean, the answer's yes, right? If we're going on the evidence of what we've seen to this point in 2017, the answer has to be yes. What's perhaps most helpful is that the Rams play all three of the other divisional leaders in the weeks ahead. We're on the road after y’all to play the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings in Week 11. A week later, we're back in LA to play the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints. And perhaps no game looms larger than in Week 14 when that Goff-Wentz narrative comes to the fore as the Philadelphia Eagles come to SoCal.
So we'll learn more about how this team performs not against the New York Giants or Carson Palmer-less Arizona Cardinals of the world in the weeks ahead. But if you're asking me why the Rams could win a playoff game in 2017, I'm looking at this team through eight games and asking a question as my answer.
A big thank you to Joe for stopping by this week. You can read his and others’ excellent work on all-things Rams over at Turf Show Times.