The narrative about the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams is that they are changing the NFL. Their true genius, and that of their 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, is that they are changing very little. Think of a navy suit, said Dan Orlovsky, who played quarterback for the Rams last summer. “Every guy has got a nice navy suit, but the analogy is: Sean McVay has the same navy suit, but he’s got really cool shoes, snazzy ties, pocket squares. You don’t. He has so many variables—how he creates plays where guys end up in the same spots—but how they get there changes.”
Orlovsky says McVay is better at polishing and perfecting plays than creating them—“more of a wrinkler than a creator”—and considers pure play invention the domain of Kansas City coach Andy Reid and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. What McVay has done is just as impressive: He’s taken countless plays and schemes that already existed and perfected them for the current era.
There is no Rams offense without the modern era of football, and there is no modern era of football without the Rams offense. “The Rams,” said Orlovsky, who is now an ESPN analyst, “are the perfect storm of where the NFL is right now.”
They’ve identified trends and adjusted them to their needs. The middle of the field was considered closed for most of football history until rule changes preventing contact (and middle linebackers getting smaller) made it a less dangerous place to tread. It’s become easier than ever for receivers to get open, and the Rams have taken advantage. They use sports science and technology to monitor players and have emphasized player rest.
“We are the forefront of the mesh between college and pro football,” said Jedd Fisch, the team’s senior offensive assistant, referring to the trend of the 2018 season.
There’s a simple explanation for how the Rams perfected their schemes: They think about it a lot. “The starting point, really, is throughout the year, and throughout the whole time we’ve been here, is taking in the whole league,” said Shane Waldron, the team’s passing game coordinator. “We’re looking at what people are doing on offense, what’s working, maybe some of the different rules and how that affects what routes work.”
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, quarterback Jared Goff passed into tight coverage—1 yard or less of separation from a defender—on just 13 percent of his throws. Of quarterbacks who started all 16 games this season, only Patrick Mahomes II and Kirk Cousins did so at a lower rate, and Goff’s average pass on those throws traveled 1.4 yards farther than Cousins’s in the air. Goff was also second behind Mahomes in air yards to the sticks, which measures how close to a first down a pass was. Goff’s average pass was 0.1 yards ahead of the sticks, a big reason the Rams led the NFL with 401 first downs. For comparison’s sake, Derek Carr, Eli Manning, and Matthew Stafford all average 2 yards short of the sticks.
On short passes thrown over the middle of the field, the Rams are first in the NFL, averaging 9.6 yards, and sixth in completion percentage (77 percent). When they throw deep in the middle of the field, they rank fourth, averaging 19.4 yards, and fifth in completion percentage (65 percent).
With Goff as his quarterback, McVay has created perfect modern passing plays, taking advantage of huge windows at exactly the right distance.
“It’s not necessarily a year-to-year thing, it’s a week-to-week thing,” said Chris Shula, the Rams’ assistant linebackers coach and a college friend of McVay’s. “He’s so self-conscious that he’ll change whatever doesn’t work in one week. He studies our offense and ourselves just as hard as he does our opponents’.”
The Rams offense relies in part on giving the same looks while running vastly different plays. Torry Holt, the seven-time Pro Bowler and former Rams superstar, told me that when he was a focal point of the “Greatest Show on Turf” 20 years ago, contact with defensive backs was so physical at the line of scrimmage that it was hard for receivers to get into their routes. “You really had to work and be crafty getting off the line of scrimmage to even get into your patterns. Nowadays it is more free release so they can penetrate the defense more quickly, which to me puts a lot more stress on the defense,” Holt said. This freedom allows the Rams to disguise their plays until the last second.
“Post-snap for the first second, the route concept-wise looks the same,” said Orlovsky. “As a defensive guy, you don’t know if it’s an out or deep. Guys like Robert Woods control the guessing game.”
Sometimes defenses get that guessing game very wrong:
Here's the Rams setting up their tying field goal with a route they don't run all that often -- the out-and-up. Catch the Saints off balance. pic.twitter.com/vldiIhAv0D— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) January 31, 2019
And it can create wide-open throws in the middle of the field:
Saints 23, Rams 20. 44 seconds left in 4Q.— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) January 22, 2019
If Robert Woods stays on his feet here, there’s not a doubt in my mind he houses it. pic.twitter.com/7jbNIpq8ug
When the Rams bunch their skill players together before the snap, it allows them to pass, run, or do nearly anything they want. “Reduced splits and stacks and bunches do get hands off you sometimes because [defensive backs] have to soften up and defend all areas of the cut,” Zac Taylor, the team’s quarterbacks coach, explains.
But this doesn’t explain why Rams receivers get so open all the time. There are, Orlovsky says, two ways to get open in an NFL game. One is to be a Julio Jones–type who can get open by pure talent. The other is play-action. Goff uses play-action 35 percent of the time, far more than any other quarterback this year who has started half of his team’s games. Goff’s rating is a full 20 points higher than when he does not use play-action.
Play-action creates separation, which is helped further by rule changes. Penalties for hits on “defenseless receivers” have risen over the past decade. Shula said offensive players know defenders “have to hit the strike zone,” referring to the parts of a receiver that a defender can hit. This allows receivers even more separation since a defender might hesitate to deliver a big hit over the middle of the field. Quarterbacks can also hang in the pocket longer due to new rules governing contact, which resulted in an epidemic of penalties earlier this season. “It’s funny seeing some of these games played, even a couple of years ago, [like] the Denver game against New England two years ago. Now you can’t land on the quarterback. You can stand a little firmer in the pocket,” Shula said.
Goff leads the NFL in passes that take over 2.5 seconds; the Rams’ great offensive line helps, but coaches say that stat is helped by the fact he’s less likely to get clobbered. When kept clean in these playoffs, Goff and Brady are the only quarterbacks to have accuracy ratings above 80 percent.
Fisch thinks NFL defenses have shifted over the past few years. Whereas Rex Ryan’s Ravens and Jets defenses once impacted how teams hired and schemed, now teams are influenced by Pete Carroll’s Seahawks system. “It’s trended to more of a Cover-1, Cover-3 league,” Fisch said. “That means you’ve got to beat man or tight zone coverage. You’ve got to run the ball with an extra guy in the box. You can see why that system has defenses in the top 10. You have long corners, guys that are dropping down into the box and you’ve got to react to that.”
Then there’s sports science. After Week 4, McVay dramatically scaled back the team’s workload during Wednesday practices because of what their data was showing them. It worked. The Rams also barely played starters during the preseason. “The most important thing is that our guys are the freshest guys in the league come Sunday and we feel like we’ve accomplished that,” Taylor said. Shula thinks limited practice time has increased the intensity of their practices. Rams executive Kevin Demoff, joking about McVay’s influence around the league, said that if McVay ever canceled training camp, half the league would do it immediately, too. But rest is an increasingly important consideration for the Rams.
There is almost no facet of the Rams operation that has not been modernized for today’s NFL. Fisch mentions the diverse backgrounds of the coaching staff: Longtime NFL coaches, like running backs coach Skip Peete or Aaron Kromer, are mixed with coaches with college backgrounds, like receivers coach Eric Yarber, hired out of UCLA, or Zac Taylor, who coached in the NFL with the Dolphins and as the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator.
“We’re an 11-personnel team, and really the only place teams are 11 personnel was college football. Fly sweep, jet sweep is a big part of our offense. We’re able to take shots down the field, yet we play under center which is very unique,” said Fisch, who aside from NFL stops has coached at Miami, UCLA, and Michigan. “I think that Sean has done an amazing job, and Shane and Aaron Kromer, in keeping the offense at the forefront and staying ahead of the curve.”
Orlovsky thinks that the Rams have innovated a trend started by the Patriots in the 2000s by having five talented offensive weapons who can put pressure on the defense in space all over the field. Finishing something another team started is not necessarily new in the NFL. McVay has made no secret that he’s happy to steal plays and adjust them. He admitted to taking a scheme from Sean Payton’s Saints earlier this year. Before the epic clash with the Chiefs, he admitted to stealing their plays, too.
And then the Rams do what they always do: keep adding wrinkles and perfecting them. They will use some of them in the Super Bowl on Sunday.