By: Justin Holden
If someone told you at the start of the 2017 NFL Preseason that the Jacksonville Jaguars and LA Rams would both be legitimate playoff (and possibly super bowl) contenders for this year, you likely would have laughed in their face and called that person an idiot. As a fan of the LA Rams myself, even I didn’t see such a quick turnaround coming for the franchise. Early on, I honestly thought this would be another rebuilding year…that the LA Rams would need an additional year or two for everything to come together and re-establish the quality of the franchise that hasn’t been seen since the “Greatest Show On Turf” days of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce.
But now that I have seen everything come together this season for the LA Rams, I feel that I have a complete understanding of how and why it happened so quickly. I would like to share my thoughts on the matter with you, because they are so different from what many other people are thinking. By the way, I am writing this article during week 16 of the regular season, fresh off the LA Rams blowout victory over the rival Seahawks at Seattle. The LA Rams currently have a regular season record of 10-4 and sit atop of the division standings, guaranteed a playoff spot at this point.
Addressing Coach Worshippers – Sean McVay
The vast majority of people you ask about LA Rams success this year will be quick to throw all the praise on first year head coach Sean McVay. McVay is one of the youngest NFL head coaches ever at just 31 years old. He was actually only age 30 when first hired by the LA Rams in January 2017. Let me give you some background information on him.
McVay was a four year starter for his high school football team, playing quarterback and defensive back. He also played college ball as a wide receiver at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio but had just 39 receptions for 312 yards his entire college football career. After graduating from Miami University, McVay began his coaching career as an assistant wide receivers coach under head coach Jon Gruden in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there, McVay was hired onto the Washington Redskins coaching staff in 2010, starting as an assistant tight ends coach. Eventually, McVay was able to work his way up to offensive coordinator for the Redskins in 2014. Arguably, McVay’s greatest achievement as offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins came in his first year, when he saw the team finish 10th in total offense, a remarkable improvement from 25th in total offense the previous year.
In my view, sports analysts and the general public alike tend to put the head coach on a pedestal. And I believe part of the reason why is because we can identify with coaches. They are the tacticians on the sidelines that come up with game plans and strategy. They orchestrate what the players accomplish on the field, or so we think. But most important in our identification with the coaches is that we view their role as intelligence/wisdom based, with perhaps a bit of charisma/motivation thrown into the mix for good measure. In our subconscious, we view the coach role as something that any of us could do, regardless of age and athleticism, as long as we took the time to learn all the nuances of the sport.
But at the end of the day, I am suggesting to you that it is mostly the talent of the players you put out on the field that wins your team games. Now sure, it is on the head coach to not completely screw things up by making dumb mistakes such as:
1. Consistently fielding players outside of their ideal position (i.e. prototypical slot receiver only lining up on the outside of the field, shut down corner only being played at safety, etc.)
2. Increasing your star players’ chance of injury unnecessarily (Keeping your franchise QB in the game while he is already hurt and you are down 30 points, having your best defender also play special teams, etc.)
3. Consistently making bone-headed play calls (Refusing to punt early on in a close game, attempting field goals well outside of your kicker’s range, playing prevent defense at a time that doesn’t make sense, etc.)
4. Failing to make the necessary game plan adjustments (Opposing running back goes off for 140 rush yards in first half and you still aren’t stacking the box in second half, opposing defense is consistently fielding a formation with one safety and you fail to call any deep pass plays, etc.)
In essence, there are plenty of things that a bad coach can do to ruin your team’s chances of winning games. But that doesn’t mean it takes a genius head coach to turn around a franchise, nor does it mean the head coach deserves the majority of credit for a winning team. Do you really think Mike McCarthy is why the Packers have been playoff contenders over the years, or is it because he has arguably the league’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers? How about Mike Tomlin from the Steelers? Oh, it couldn’t be the fact he has this generation’s Jerry Rice in Antonio Brown, plus arguably the best running back in the league, Le’Veon Bell. Plus a top five efficiency ranked offensive line and a respectable defense. You see what I’m getting at here?
So my point is, player personnel talent gets overlooked big time in these situations. And in the case of the LA Rams, Sean McVay’s hiring coincidentally happened in the same year as several key player personnel changes, plus the progression of a star young player, that I believe are the true driving factors in the LA Rams resurgence to dominance. So before you tune in to ESPN or Fox Sports to watch a continued rear kissing festival for first year head coach Sean McVay, read on as I will reveal the real reasons for the LA Rams success this season in the following sections.
No Longer A Team Of Only Slot Receivers
At first, I didn’t think the offseason acquisition of wide receiver Robert Woods would do much for the LA Rams. His NFL career statistics as the Buffalo Bills #2 wide receiver appear quite underwhelming on paper. His best stat line from Buffalo was in 2014 when he had 65 receptions for 699 yards and 5 touchdowns in 16 games played. In my view, this is a mediocre season stat line. Woods’ other years in Buffalo were substantially worse than that. So how does the addition of Robert Woods do anything for the LA Rams? Well, for starters he is having the best statistical season of his career this year even though he missed several weeks due to injury. According to playerprofiler.com, Woods is posting a +20.3 production premium and +16.3 target premium, both statistical indicators that he is doing more with his opportunities than other wideouts on the same team. Okay, so why is he playing well now all of a sudden?
Well, we actually had indicators all along of Robert Woods’ true talent going back to his college days. He posted a 55th percentile college dominator rating at USC, a major college football program. Even more telling, Woods posted a breakout age of 18.4, which puts him in the 97th percentile historically among all college wide receiver prospects. What a phenom! This means that Woods’ age adjusted production was completely off the charts in college. And for those of us in the know when it comes to evaluating true player talent in a vacuum, age adjusted production is the number one leading indicator of whether or not a college football player is going to end up being good in the NFL.
But Robert Woods wasn’t the only key addition to the receiving corps for this season, as the LA Rams traded a 2nd round draft pick and cornerback EJ Gaines to get wide receiver Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills. Keep in mind, Sammy Watkins was a top college football prospect out of Clemson that the Buffalo Bills actually traded up to take with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. During Watkins tenure with the Buffalo Bills, he dealt with several nagging injuries that kept him off the field much more than the team would have liked. This is likely why the Buffalo Bills decided to trade him away. But the on-field talent of Sammy Watkins was never denied.
So let me get this straight. The LA Rams picked up in free agency an age adjusted college mega producer in Robert Woods, plus traded to acquire a former 4th overall pick in the 2014 draft? And both of these wideouts play well on the outside of the field? Booyah! These are exactly the type of player personnel moves that were needed to help get the team to the next level. Because if you think about it, the Rams franchise was really a wasteland for wide receivers ever since the departure of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
The best receiver the Rams had between the Holt/Bruce departure and the start of the 2017 NFL season was Kenny Britt. And don’t get me wrong, Kenny Britt has been an underrated receiver for virtually his entire career, but expecting an offense to be prolific with Kenny Britt as the number one option and literally no other receivers that are worth their weight in salt is a fool’s expectation. The rest of the wide receivers were guys like Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Pharoh Cooper, Bradley Marquez, Austin Hill, etc. Most of those guys prototype as only being able to play effectively from the slot position. Brian Quick was a decent outside receiver. But that’s pretty much it! The Rams were in desperate need of field stretchers that could consistently beat starting cornerbacks down the field and catch passes. The team has that now with Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins. Thanks Buffalo!
Don’t Discount Offensive Linemen – Andrew Whitworth
Perhaps the most crucial offseason free agent signing was offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth to the LA Rams. High quality offensive linemen are the unsung heroes of the NFL. They make prolific running backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell look that much better, they give their quarterbacks significantly more time to make decisions and throw the ball to the right player, and they provide a confidence boost to the offensive unit as a whole.
Andrew Whitworth is a seasoned veteran that previously played for the Cincinnati Bengals and signed a 3 year contract with the LA Rams in the offseason. At 36 years of age, Whitworth is still kicking ass and taking names in the trenches. He’s a clear upgrade to the Rams’ offensive line, and has helped open up the running game once again for Todd Gurley. He’s also been key in providing the necessary protection to second year quarterback Jared Goff, which leads me to my next point.
The “Second Year Leap” for QB Jared Goff
The second year leap is a real thing for young NFL players and for the quarterback position in particular. There is clear evidence and proof of this that I will cite for you. Dan Marino went from 2,210 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns in his rookie year to 5,084 passing yards and 48 passing touchdowns in his second year. His QB rating improved from 96 to 108.9. Peyton Manning saw his passing yards improve from 3,739 to 4,135 and his QB rating improve from 71.2 to 90.7. Andrew Luck had a significant decrease in interceptions thrown as he went from 18 as a rookie to just 9 in his second year, and also saw his passer rating go up from 76.5 to 87. The list goes on and on for this statistical improvement from the rookie year to a second season. And while it doesn’t happen 100% of the time, it is very common to see this statistical improvement from quarterbacks that make the majority of their plays passing from the pocket.
In the case of Jared Goff, a poor rookie season with a passer rating of just 63.6 has been followed up by what currently stands as a passer rating of 98.9 for the 2017-2018 NFL season. I would attribute some of this statistical progression to the additional offensive line protection and playmakers that have been put around him. But there is still something to be said for Jared Goff in and of himself.
Jared Goff was measured up against Carson Wentz for the 2016 NFL Draft class as both were viewed as consensus top quarterback prospects, but for different reasons. The argument for Carson Wentz over Jared Goff really came down to the fact that Wentz had the prototypical size you look for in an NFL quarterback (6’5 and 237 pounds) plus better athleticism (80th percentile SPARQ-x score compared to 22nd percentile for Jared Goff). So Wentz was the bigger, more athletic quarterback. Plus, Jared Goff was knocked for having small hands. But why do I believe Jared Goff over Carson Wentz was the right decision for the Rams from an analytical standpoint?
It goes back to what I referenced before. Age adjusted production. Goff’s breakout age at Cal was 18.9 (95th percentile) compared to Wentz’s 21.7 (25th percentile). You also have to take into account that Jared Goff actually played for a major college program and played exceptionally well, while Carson Wentz played for small school North Dakota State and trailed Goff’s production as a passer. They finished their respective college careers with the following stat lines:
Wentz: 64.1% completion/5,115 pass yds/45 TD/14 INT/153.9 QB rating
Goff: 62.3% completion, 12,195 pass yds, 96 TD, 30 INT, 144 QB rating
So, since Jared Goff checked all the boxes as a college quarterback prospect, with the exception of measured athleticism and having small hands, it is no surprise to me that he has taken the “second year leap”. Goff has been a big time age-adjusted producer his entire football life, with the exception of a crap rookie season in the NFL. But we can excuse rookie seasons because players are still getting acclimated to the big league. It is normal to struggle as a rookie. Now don’t go around saying that Jared Goff’s ascension is all because of first year head coach Sean McVay, or the LA Rams offensive coordinator, or their quarterbacks coach. Because coaching is not the reason. Jared Goff is what he is. And that is a franchise quarterback who just got additional offensive weapons around him and is set to tear it up for years to come, regardless of any additional coaching changes.
You’ve heard all the coach speak, coach worship, coach praise. I am submitting to you my alternative thesis. Which is that the player personnel changes from the offseason up to now are the primary drivers behind the LA Rams success in the 2017-2018 NFL season. I give Sean McVay and the coaching staff SOME credit, but nowhere near the amount that the rest of the general public and mainstream sports media are lavishing upon them.
At the end of the day, it’s the players on the field that win you games. The coaching staff just needs to be competent and professional, do their jobs correctly and not make critical mistakes. The players on the field will take care of the rest. Hopefully this article gave you some insight into why certain players on the team are making more of an impact this year. I know I didn’t touch on the defensive side of the football at all, but that’s because there weren’t really any key changes for the Rams in that area, other than hiring a new defensive coordinator. Let’s be honest, the big improvement this season from last has been the offense, and all the statistics show that. The Jacksonville Jaguars have seen the polar opposite happen to them, key defensive player personnel changes that have made the team a legit contender. If you have a reaction to my article, you may tweet me @goldenholden11 or @littubechannel. Feel free also to visit LitTube’s YouTube channel and leave a comment for me: https://youtube.com/LitTubeChannel