It’s been less than a year since the Rams were heralded as one of the driving forces behind the NFL’s offensive revolution. In Week 11 last season, head coach Sean McVay’s squad squared off against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in one of the most thrilling regular-season games ever played. Los Angeles emerged with a 54-51 victory that felt like it signaled the start of a new era. The future of football had arrived. But as the league prepares for Week 11 this season, that dominant Rams offense is nowhere to be found.
After losing 17-12 to the Steelers on Sunday in a game in which the offense managed just three measly points, the Rams are now 5-4, in serious danger of missing the playoffs, and desperately searching for answers. The looming question about this team entering the 2019 campaign was whether McVay and quarterback Jared Goff could shake off an embarrassing performance against the Patriots in the Super Bowl and update a scheme that opposing defenses seemed to solve during the second half of last season. Through nine games, the minor adjustments the Rams offense made haven’t done enough to shake defensive coordinators. Combine that with downgrades to crucial areas of L.A.’s roster, and McVay’s team has gone from leaguewide phenomenon to middle-of-the-road group scraping to get by.
Early in the fall, McVay deployed a few new wrinkles to attack the 6-1 defensive front that teams like the Pats, Bears, and Lions had used to slow the Rams in the back half of last season. L.A. dialed up more toss plays to get the ball to the edge quicker, ran more plays out of 10 and 12 personnel, and leaned on more receiver and tight end screens as the offense neared the red zone. McVay clearly understood that the Rams needed to do something different, but for the most part the changes have been fairly minor. Against the Steelers on Sunday, the offense’s structure looked similar to the basic scheme this unit has featured for the past few seasons. Wideouts Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, and Cooper Kupp all played at least 92 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Early-down play calls consisted mostly of zone runs and play-action throws off those runs, with plenty of jet and orb motion built into the designs.
The guts of that offense are strong, which is why it gave defenses fits in 2017 and 2018. On Todd Gurley’s 22-yard carry in Sunday’s third quarter, an orb motion from Kupp just before the snap held edge rusher T.J. Watt in place, allowing the right side of the Rams’ line to wash down the Pittsburgh front and create a massive seam. The sheer amount of misdirection in this offense still makes defenses pay for being undisciplined, but well-coached units now have plans in place to stop most of McVay’s old tricks.
On a first-and-10 midway through the second quarter, the Rams ran a leak concept to Kupp that involved his slipping across the field from the slot on a play-action design. In the past, a variation of this has produced monster gains, like Kupp’s 70-yard touchdown against the Vikings in Week 4 last season. But in this case, safety Terrell Edmunds was in Kupp’s hip pocket all the way up the left sideline. (Edmunds was called for pass interference, but it was clear that he recognized the play from the start.) Linebacker Mark Barron also snuffed out multiple screens to Gurley—another staple of this offense—and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick played as if he knew what was coming before the ball was snapped. He was driving on the crossing route to Kupp on a key third-and-8 in the red zone from the moment the play began. The Steelers looked prepared for anything the Rams threw their way.
A lack of innovation has hindered this offense, but it’s not fair to put all the blame on the coaching staff. Last season the Rams boasted one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Goff was pressured on just 32 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 26th out of 39 qualified QBs, according to Pro Football Focus. The Rams were no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA by a wide margin, and while certain aspects of McVay’s scheme were responsible for that, so was one of the more solid front lines in football. This year, that group has cratered. The succession plan at center and right guard—where second-year players Brian Allen and Joe Noteboom took over this season, respectively—has not gone smoothly. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has regressed as he approaches his 38th birthday, and right tackle Rob Havenstein has struggled all fall. Coming into Sunday’s game, Goff had been pressured on 39.2 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate in the league. And he was forced to deal with crumbling pockets all afternoon against the Steelers.
Health has also been a concern for this offense in a way that it wasn’t during the Rams’ peak. L.A.’s five starters along the line didn’t miss a game last season. This year, their luck hasn’t been as good. Allen went down with a knee injury in the second quarter in Pittsburgh, forcing right guard Austin Blythe to shift to center and recently acquired Austin Corbett to come off the bench to play guard. Noteboom was placed on injured reserve after tearing his ACL and MCL in mid-October, thrusting rookie fifth-round pick David Edwards into action.
There’s also the ongoing Gurley enigma. Coming in to this season, the Rams insisted that their star running back was fully healthy, in spite of his limited usage down the stretch last year. Yet while Gurley has played in eight of the Rams’ nine 2019 games, he’s logged just 104 carries over that stretch. He was the most reliable piece of the offense on Sunday, but rushed only 12 times (six in the first half and six in the second half) despite averaging 6.1 yards per carry. In a one-score game, he didn’t touch the ball in the fourth quarter. When McVay was asked by reporters why he didn’t turn to the league’s second-highest-paid running back in crunch time, he said that the snap distribution was “just part of the rotation.” It’s easy to understand why the Rams would be cautious with Gurley, given his reportedly arthritic knee condition and the $45 million guaranteed the franchise invested in him. Even if the company line is that Gurley is at full strength, though, his usage seems to be at least somewhat dictated by health concerns.
As the component parts of the Rams offense have taken a collective step back, Goff’s play has also suffered. After averaging 8.4 yards per attempt last season, Goff is at 7.4 YPA this season, with 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Only the injured Cam Newton and the benched Josh Rosen have a worse gap between their expected completion percentage and actual completion percentage than Goff’s negative-6.8 percent. On Sunday, Goff completed just 53.7 percent of his throws with an expected completion percentage of 70.4 percent—by far the largest discrepancy of the week.
Goff’s issues illuminate just how important every factor of an offense can be to a QB’s success. As his support system has eroded, his shortcomings have been laid bare for all to see. Even if Goff is essentially the same player as he was during his first two seasons under McVay, many of the elements that inspired the Rams to hand him a record-setting contract with $110 million guaranteed have disappeared. When the organization gave Goff a deal worth $33.5 million annually—with a $36 million cap hit in 2020—the thought was that it was paying the version of Goff who thrives in McVay’s inventive offense. The Goff half of that relationship may not have changed since, but the stability of the offense has. The Rams are paying top dollar for the QB-coach partnership that took the league by storm in 2018, but the strength of that duo has come into question.
And that’s where the Rams’ trajectory becomes truly troubling, in regard to both Goff’s deal and several of the other aggressive moves the franchise has made in recent years. As L.A. was throttling teams last season and McVay was cementing his reputation as the NFL’s boy genius, it was hard to fault general manager Les Snead for betting big on the immediate future. Snead swung high-impact trades for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr.; the organization also handed out top-of-market deals to Gurley, Cooks, and Aaron Donald. With Goff still on a rookie contract and the Rams firmly in championship contention, all-in moves like this made sense. A year later, the Rams have an expensive quarterback, four guys set to make at least $16.8 million next season, and holes all across their roster. And according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo model, they have only a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey will likely become the fifth member of that $16 million club when he’s given a contract extension this offseason. The Rams dealt two first-round picks to the Jaguars to acquire Ramsey last month, in the type of trade that’s designed to push a Super Bowl–caliber roster over the top. But the Rams are no longer that—at least not this season, anyway. Four of L.A.’s next six games are against the Ravens, Seahawks, Cowboys, and 49ers. The road to the postseason will be brutal, and it’ll require a much better team than the one we’ve seen over the first nine games.
The Rams are a flawed team that lacks the draft capital or financial flexibility to address those flaws. Within the span of a few months, they’ve gone from the forefront of the league to no-man’s-land. When they knocked off the Chiefs last November, we knew exactly who this team was and where it was going. A year later, both its present and future are a mystery.