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The Rams’ Forever War

Can a team that has been defined by a losing culture for years turn things around in a new city? If so, it’ll need to start at the top.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Last week, Amazon bought Whole Foods, America’s healthiest mass-market grocery store. Before that, the company purchased the rights to document the Los Angeles return of the Rams, one of the NFL’s unhealthiest franchises, thus partnering the distributors of Manchester by the Sea with the Los Angeles Rams, making Amazon an expert on depressing content.

The crew at Amazon decided to name the documentary miniseries (which started with the Arizona Cardinals the previous season) All or Nothing, which sounds more like an old Frank Sinatra tune than an NFL doc. For Amazon, there won’t be anything classic about reviewing the Rams’ 4–12 season, which featured one of the worst offenses in modern NFL history. Rams fans know that the past 12 years have been extremely painful to watch, producing just 60 wins and never reaching nine in any one season. Playoffs? No chance — the Rams have finished third or worse in nine of the past 12 seasons. Wouldn’t you have liked to be a fly on the wall of the NFL Films editing room as they tried to make this 4–12 season watchable? Do you think Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos called down and wondered if his team could subtly insert Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, or even Casey Affleck into the show without anyone noticing? This is a project that challenges the creative juices of all involved.

How can a team that won a Super Bowl after the 1999 season continually reside in the bottom of the NFC West for so long? How can a team that has one of the league’s richest owners in Stan Kroenke be this awful? In the NFL it’s hard to become great, and it’s even harder to stay consistently bad — because of the rules, the league rewards poor play and promotes mediocrity.

So how did the Rams get here? Easy: They have no clue about how to build a culture. This column is not about bashing their former personnel directors, or former coaches, or blown draft picks. Going over each pick of the past 12 years would be worse than a day’s worth of root canals. But to blame general manager Les Snead or former GM Billy Devaney would be a waste of time. The GM’s job is impossible if the organization believes that players and coaches can succeed without a winning culture. And to blame Jeff Fisher and all the other former head coaches would be to take the easy way out. No coach, not Bill Belichick, not Bill Walsh, not Vince Lombardi, not George Halas or Don Shula could succeed in this culture.

A winning culture for all successful sports teams is grounded in a recognized mission and shared team goals. It places the good of the team above all else — winning matters more than personal goals or making money, and no one is bigger than the team. Everyone works toward one common purpose, guided by a leader with great knowledge.

But the NFL today doesn’t prize that method — in many cases, it focuses on hiring subcontractors as head coaches. Find a bright offensive or defensive mind and give him the title of head coach. Fresh-faced, inexperienced, eager, but often ill-equipped or unable to grab the reins. These hires are typically just in charge of their assistants, hampering the ability to create a total organizational culture.

Having one vision, one voice, one set of ideas is essential, and unless this comes directly from the owner, it must come from the head coach. When organizations use the subcontractor-head-coaching route, differing values muddy the culture. I call this the “Vienna Problem.” Vienna is the capital and largest city in Austria. When visiting Vienna, because of its geography and vast history, you can experience a range of culture from other countries: the coffee of the Turks, the music of the Germans, the pastry of the French, the brandy of the Armenians, and great art from all over the world. This confluence of experience makes Vienna a unique destination for tourists — it’s a fantastic place to visit.

But the NFL isn’t Vienna, and no country has ever dedicated a monument to a committee. This approach to culture-building might look good from time to time, but it has no chance to become sustainable. Successful teams in the NFL aren’t tourist destinations; they require unity from top to bottom.

To understand why the Rams never understood that culture mattered, one must travel back to the first time the team resided in Los Angeles, back before the mid-’90s, when Georgia Frontiere was the owner. Georgia, who always took at least two months to approve her photograph for the media guide, was far more concerned with making money than winning. She hired a brilliant former CPA/lawyer John Shaw to run her team, allowing him to make every decision, from the move to St. Louis to the next head coach to how many legal pads were needed in the office supply room. Shaw was extremely influential in the NFL league office, serving on several committees and operating as one of the league’s power brokers, even though he never actually owned a portion of the team. He was shrewd, he knew how to negotiate, and most of all he knew how to make money — lots of money. He was a modern-day Hyman Roth — carrying the title of president while working behind the scenes, never officially moving to St. Louis despite being in control of every dollar the team spent while there. He made clever trades, often receiving a boatload of picks for players like Eric Dickerson. But he often blew those picks because he never built the right culture.

Shaw hired and fired coaches without ever changing his structure in the front office because it never occurred to him anything was wrong. He had an Al Davis–like approach, as he tried to control the game from his chair on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, even after the Rams moved to Missouri. He saw the game like one of his spreadsheets, all assets and liabilities. He was calculating and bloodless in his dealings. “He doesn’t get emotional,” then–Buffalo Bills GM Terry Bledsoe said of Shaw, with whom he’d worked out the Vince Ferragamo trade in 1985.

Shaw’s formula was simple: If the team loses, fire the coach. Or fire the personnel director, even though that person’s decisions were typically marginalized and ignored. (Shaw relied on superscout Mike Giddings’s outside personnel service more than any of his directors.) Then find another coach — give him a limited amount of authority and hope he can turn it around. Since 1990, this predictable routine has been going on — and guess the results? In 26 years, the Rams have had just four 10-win seasons, going to the playoffs only five times — and one of the playoff appearances was the result of an eight-win season. The Super Bowl win after the 1999 season covered the sins and memories of the losing. But that was a complete aberration — the normal for the Rams has long been losing.

After more than a quarter-century, the lack of culture for the Rams has become the culture. New owner Stan Kroenke learned at Shaw’s lap as he forged his plan to become the team’s owner. In 1995, Kroenke bought a stake in the Rams, then two years after the death of Frontiere, he purchased the remaining portion, officially controlling the team. The passing of the torch from Frontiere to Kroenke was seamless. Only instead of Shaw running the team, Kevin Demoff — the son of powerful coach and player agent Marvin Demoff — assumed control as the chief operating officer. Like Shaw, Demoff is smart and business savvy, but has little understanding of life outside the Rams’ walls. Demoff was the lead man who brought Jeff Fisher to St. Louis — Fisher has been represented by Kevin’s father for his entire career. The Dolphins presented a huge roadblock in the Rams’ attempt to hire Fisher, but the Demoffs found a way — no one around the league doubted it’d happen. And the move was largely celebrated in St. Louis, as the Rams and Demoff hired the best available coach in 2012.

Five years later, many fans regard Fisher’s tenure as a high-priced disaster. Like the Shaw regime, the Rams made incredible trades, heisting several picks from Washington for RG3 in 2012, during this period. And like the Shaw regime, most of those picks failed to produce. Demoff has not been as effective playing the role created by Shaw, who would never have had the third-highest payroll in the league (and only four wins last season) without having his best player (Aaron Donald) signed to an extension. The Rams are a self-made four-win team with four of their 10 highest-paid players on second-contract extensions. And the worst contract in the NFL belongs to a player in Los Angeles: Tavon Austin. The wide receiver/return man has the second-richest deal on the team, a four-year, $42 million extension he earned for his under 10 yards per catch average. The Austin contract probably pisses off Aaron Donald, the Rams’ most essential player, more than anyone.

So after a 31–45–1 record, out went Fisher at the end of this season and the Rams began a search for his replacement. In doing so, they revealed how little they know of their historical problems. Because they drafted a young quarterback — the thus far woeful Jared Goff — that appears to be in need of major skill development, the Rams decided to hire a quarterback guru as their head coach. They’re oblivious to their losing culture, therefore they never view their problems in a global sense, instead thinking linearly. They reduce this incredible amount of losing to a simple solution — just get a good quarterback coach, and we’ll be fine. So in comes Sean McVay, an enthusiastic 31-year-old first-time head coach. When Bill Belichick was 31, he was the linebackers coach for the New York Giants. Pete Carroll? He was the defensive coordinator at NC State. Gregg Popovich? He was head coach of Division III Pomona-Pitzer. To say McVay is youthful is an understatement. Often we confuse enthusiasm with the ability to effect change, and right now the Rams under McVay have tremendous enthusiasm — but can they change?

It’s unclear if McVay been around long enough to understand what a winning culture entails. Right now, McVay is like Axl Rose stepping off the bus in the “Welcome to the Jungle” video — he’s new to this.

Will Sean McVay walk into defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ office and demand he enact a specific game plan on D? Of course not. McVay is going to spend all his time working with the quarterback, generating that enthusiasm for the team — he’s going to leave Phillips alone. That might work in the short term, but it won’t work in the long run. When Phillips retires in a few short years, what happens then? McVay hired the celebrated Phillips exactly because he knows what he’s doing — as a first-time head coach, he’d be prudent to let Phillips lead the defense. There is a fine line between meddling and installing your culture. Phillips works for McVay, therefore, McVay must show the team he is in charge by using his intelligence on all sides of the ball, not displaying his title. It takes confidence in your football knowledge to do this. Does McVay have that knowledge? We’ll see.

Either way, ending the organization’s historic losing will require a historic turnaround. Fans believe it’s as simple as draft better, coach harder, be more enthusiastic. But the calcifying patterns of previous decades will be difficult to reverse. McVay might want to call Jeff Bezos and ask him about how he plans to redefine Whole Foods’ culture. As the great business guru Peter Drucker once said, “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Bon appétit, Rams fans.