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The Rams’ Next Chapter Will Be Sean McVay’s Toughest Challenge Yet

Los Angeles went all in for a Super Bowl and fell just short. Now the team must navigate the fallout of that strategy after an offseason in which a half-dozen key players—and all three of the coaching staff’s coordinators—moved on. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sean McVay enters his fourth season with the Rams charting unknown territory. This year, Los Angeles will ditch L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum after four seasons to finally play in the $5 billion SoFi Stadium, in Inglewood. To mark the occasion, the team also underwent a branding makeover, to mixed reviews. But the altered logo and fancy arena don’t mark the most drastic changes McVay’s squad has undergone since last season’s conclusion.

After back-to-back playoff appearances—ending a 12-year franchise drought—and a Super Bowl appearance in McVay’s first two seasons, the Rams fell short of the playoffs last year. Following a 9-7 finish, the team underwent an overhaul in the offseason. Out is a laundry list of names that became staples of McVay’s teams: Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cory Littleton, Dante Fowler Jr., Greg Zuerlein, and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Even vaunted defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was sent packing, as were both the offensive and special teams coordinators. The result is not just a team that will look different this fall, but one that will be different.

The question staring down the 34-year-old McVay is clear: What can he do to make things work as the Rams turn the page on the first phase of his tenure? How can McVay overcome personnel and staff losses while maintaining pace with Los Angeles’s NFC West rivals, not just this year but for the long term?

McVay, who became the youngest NFL coach ever at 31, faces an uphill battle in the 2020 race for the NFC West. The Rams were going to be cash-strapped entering the season after wealthy contracts for star players took up a significant portion of the cap. Gurley, Cooks, quarterback Jared Goff, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey were due to account for a combined total of more than $103 million; it doesn’t take an economist to figure out that a team committing half of its cap space to just five players isn’t ideal.

So this offseason the Rams cut Gurley, a two-time All-Pro whose knee appeared to betray him less than a year after he signed a four-year, $57.5 million extension. The move rescued $5.5 million in cap space. Los Angeles also jettisoned Cooks—who had cost them 2018 first- and sixth-round picks in a trade with the Patriots—to the Texans, recouping Houston’s 2020 second-round pick and ’22 fourth-round pick. Moving on from Cooks, who logged 42 catches for 583 yards and two touchdowns last season (all the lowest marks of his career since his rookie season), actually cost Los Angeles $5 million in cap space this season.

Several other key contributors were lost for similar reasons. Fowler, the star pass rusher who finished second on the team with 11.5 sacks last season, signed with the Falcons. Gurley joined Atlanta, too. Littleton, a home-grown inside linebacker who led the team in total tackles (134) in 2019, signed with the Raiders. Robey-Coleman, the slot corner who posted a 74.1 pass coverage grade (17th among corners with at least 500 pass coverage snaps), according to Pro Football Focus, signed with the Eagles. Zuerlein, the team’s longtime ace kicker, signed with the Cowboys. Veteran linebacker Clay Matthews was released. And during the 2019 season, Los Angeles traded cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to the Ravens and Dolphins, respectively, for late-round draft compensation. These departures each followed an offseason in which Los Angeles lost defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, and left guard Rodger Saffold to free agency. Altogether, the depleted 2020 Rams roster shows the aftermath of a team going all in for a Super Bowl.

The roster turnover will further strain continuity, which was already expected to be complicated this year. While the Rams are returning 87.4 percent of offensive snaps (fifth most in the league), they’re returning only 53.8 percent of defensive snaps (31st). That leaves first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley in a tough position. Los Angeles signed defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Leonard Floyd—a pair of underperformers from the 2016 draft—on short-term deals to help shore up the front seven. Veteran defensive lineman Michael Brockers is back on a one-year deal, too, though only after a deal with the Ravens fell through.

Offensively, for the first time in the McVay era the Rams won’t tout Gurley as their lead back. Backfield duties could be split between Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, John Kelly, and Cam Akers, the Florida State rookie whom Los Angeles selected with its first pick of the 2020 draft at no. 52. Akers, a former blue-chip recruit, was rated as the draft’s most elusive running back by PFF, forcing a missed tackle on 32 percent of his touches and registering 3.9 yards after contact per carry.

Still, the Rams will miss Gurley’s pass-catching ability out of the backfield. When healthy, he was one of the league’s most versatile players. And his presence enabled McVay to tailor his offense to fully utilize the play-action game, which remained a key function for Los Angeles last year. According to Sports Info Solutions, Goff executed play-action passes at the league’s fourth-highest frequency (29.7 percent of dropbacks), but ranked only 28th in passer rating (81.8) on such throws.

Play-action probably will still be an integral part of McVay’s offensive scheme. (He’s still the play-caller, after all.) His affection for 11-personnel formations (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) isn’t likely to go away, as the Rams used the grouping on nearly 73 percent of their offensive snaps last year, third most. But the Rams probably won’t lean as heavily on that formation as they once did. Los Angeles also registered the 11th-most snaps in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers), and the Rams accentuated that grouping down the stretch. From Week 13 to Week 17, the Rams used the grouping on 34 percent of their snaps after using it on 14 percent of snaps through the first 12 weeks. The stretch coincided with tight end Tyler Higbee’s fantasy-championship-winning outburst, a five-game period through which he registered 43 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns on 56 targets (76.8 percent catch rate). Fellow tight end Gerald Everett, a former second-round pick entering the final year of his rookie deal, had a solid campaign, too, but was hampered by a knee injury. He finished the year with 37 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns total on 60 targets (61.7 percent) across 13 appearances.

Higbee’s late-season performance and Everett’s presence could bolster the Rams’ passing game. The attack still boasts talented outside receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Second-round receiver Van Jefferson—whom Rams director of scouting strategy James Gladstone described as a “reflection” of Kupp and Woods—could also figure into the rotation, as should veteran wideout Josh Reynolds, especially considering Cooks’s absence.

The whole system, though, relies on the arm of Goff, who regressed in 2019 after strong ’17 and ’18 campaigns. Despite two Pro Bowls and a $134 million contract to his name, it’s still relatively unclear what the Rams have in the former no. 1 pick. Playing behind a banged-up offensive line last season didn’t exactly help his case. The Rams relinquished a league-low 22 sacks, but PFF ranked them 29th in pass blocking and ESPN ranked them 22nd in pass-block win rate. The offensive line also struggled to establish the line of scrimmage in the run game; 21 percent of carries resulted in either no gain or tackles for loss, which ranked 26th. The offensive line’s configuration remains a question mark entering the new season, with 38-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center Austin Blythe, and right tackle Rob Havenstein the only penciled-in starters.

To sum it all up, for the Rams to win, Goff needs to recapture his 2017-18 form and the offensive line must be consistent. This is perhaps easier said than done, as the offense will be under new coordinator Kevin O’Connell, previously the OC in Washington—which ranked 30th in offensive DVOA in 2019.

With the rival 49ers, stalwart Seahawks, and rising Cardinals all playing in the same division, the Rams are in the mix of the most competitive grouping in the league. Los Angeles, based on current roster construction and cap situation, is facing the most challenges. The Rams—who have not made a first-round draft selection since Goff (2016)—do not hold first-, fourth-, or fifth-round picks in the 2021 draft. Aggressive trading has prevented them from adding cheaper talent in higher rounds. According to Spotrac, the Rams will have more than $30 million in cap space next offseason, which ranks 17th in the league. But they won’t necessarily have the opportunity for much of a spending spree; Kupp, Ramsey, and starting safety John Johnson III are each scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency after this season.

Meanwhile, San Francisco, the reigning NFC champions who faltered late in Super Bowl LIV, appear set to remain dominant for years to come. Seattle is as reliable as ever, with superstar quarterback Russell Wilson under contract through 2023. Arizona, which acquired All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and drafted highly touted, position-defying defender Isaiah Simmons this offseason, has added intriguing pieces to a roster being constructed around quarterback Kyler Murray, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, which could accelerate their timeline toward contention.

McVay was once the NFL’s coveted wunderkind, and in some ways still is—he’s still the youngest coach in the league by three years. But the shine has come off a bit. The NFC West is a gantlet. The Rams do not boast the full continuity other teams do amid a weird offseason that will give teams with established chemistry a greater edge. Los Angeles is scheduled to play what’s rated as the league’s 10th-most-difficult schedule. Long term, the Rams won’t have a full cupboard of draft choices until 2022, and their salary cap bind could become even worse if league revenues dip this season. Their approach has led to two divisional crowns and the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in more than a decade. But the sustainability of that success isn’t a given.

Things aren’t dire in Los Angeles just yet. Most teams would love to have a franchise quarterback and a 30-something head coach who has never had a losing season. But the Rams must find a way to regain their edge. Last season, McVay’s squad was eliminated from playoff contention by Week 16. For Los Angeles to avoid a similar fate in 2020, it could perhaps take a master class in coaching from one of the game’s brightest young minds to navigate what will assuredly be his toughest task yet.