The Rams were a tough team to predict going into the new season, although expectations were generally low. They had a dire 2016 season with few redeeming features. After a strong start the team went 4-12 on the season, losing 11 of their last 12 games. During this span they were at the bottom of nearly every offensive category, with rookie QB Jared Goff looking lost, previously promising sophomore player Todd Gurley looking average and a Rams receiving corps that wouldn’t look out of place on a high school team.
Despite the ominous signs from the Rams 2016 campaign, there were a number of factors that went some way to explaining the team’s collapse in the second half of the season. The 2016/2017 season was a tumultuous one, with the team returning to Los Angeles from St Louis after a 15 year absence. Historically the first year in a new city never ends well for a team, with the strain of getting used to a new location taking a major effect on the performance on the field.
The coaching situation for the Rams has been a constant source of frustration for Rams fans for years. Jeff Fisher managed to hold down a job with the Rams since 2012 despite tying the all time record for the most regular season losses for a head coach at 165. Fisher never had much success at the Rams, never having a .500 plus record and gaining a reputation for finishing 7-9. Many suspected that Fisher kept his job with the Rams last season on account of his experience in coaching a team that was relocating to a new city (Fisher oversaw the relocation of the Houston Oilers to Tennessee in 1998).
Fisher’s experience bore no fruit for the Rams however as the team had numerous issues through the year. After a heavy 42-14 loss to eventual super bowl chokers the Atlanta Falcons the team decided enough was enough and fired Fisher. Firing a coach mid-season is never a good experience for a team and this was no exception. The team failed to win a game after the firing and many players looked like they had given up.
Early in the season quarterback Case Keenum showed some flashes of promise but it soon became clear that he did not have the ability to be a consistent starter. The Rams had paid a heavy price to move up in the 2016 draft to select Cal Bears quarterback Jared Goff with the first overall pick. As the season went on there was heavy pressure from the fans to play Goff, despite numerous reports from the Rams camp that he was not ready. After a string of bad games the decision was made to start Goff. This was undoubtedly a terrible position for a rookie QB to start his career. He was coming on to a bad team with an under pressure coach, a leaky offensive line and a dearth of receiving weapons. Predictably, Goff looked awful in the starts he got. He went 0-7 as a starter and finished bottom of the league in almost all QB stats and never looked like a starting NFL quarterback, never mind a number 1 overall pick.
The situation for Goff and the Rams in general is much more positive in 2017. The Rams hired offensive wunderkind Sean McVay as their new head coach. At 31, McVay is the youngest head coach in NFL history, although he is already known as one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. As offensive coach for the Redskins, he oversaw the development of QB Kirk Cousins in a season in which he finished as one of the better QBs is the league statistically.
Perhaps more importantly the Rams acquired legendary defensive coach Wade Phillips to oversee what was already an incredibly talented Rams defence. Phillips has a storied career in the NFL, winning two NFC championships as well as a Super bowl as defensive coordinator with the Broncos. The combination of Phillips and defensive stars such as Aaron Donald, Alec Ogeltree, Robert Quinn and Trumaine Johnson was always going to be formidable.
Finally the Rams made a genuine effort to improve their roster in areas that they were clearly lacking in previous seasons. Despite a shortage of picks of picks in the 2017 due to the Goff trade the Rams managed to overhaul the roster from previous years. One of the biggest deficiencies last year was the Rams woeful offensive line, which featured notorious draft bust Greg Robinson who was selected second overall by the Rams in the 2014 NFL draft. Robinson was shipped to Detroit for a sixth round pick and moves were made to upgrade the line. Perhaps the biggest addition was big name free agent Andrew Whitworth, a three time pro bowler who is widely regarded as one of the best offensive tackles in the league.
The Rams have also upgraded their receiving corps. Despite losing their top receiver Kenny Britt to the Browns, they signed free agent Robert Woods, made a blockbuster trade with the Bills for former number 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins and drafted Eastern Washington standout Cooper Kupp in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft. Watkins is widely regarded as one of the top talents at WR in the league. Despite his numerous injuries in the league, when he has played he has shown that he has the raw ability to make catches that very few others could. Kupp broke numerous records in college and has already proved he has real chemistry with Goff.
The positive steps taken by the Rams were encapsulated by their dominant week 1 performance against the Colts. The Rams dismantled the Colts from the outset. In the opening minutes of the game Johnson returned an interception for a pick 6 and it didn’t get much better from the Colts from there. Kupp continued his preseason connection with Goff, making numerous impressive catches and capping it off with a touchdown. Watkins and Gurley looked impressive when called upon and the offensive line gave Goff more protection than he had at any point in his Rams career.
Goff looked like a different player than he did last season. He broke the 300 yards passing mark for the first time in his Rams career and didn’t throw an interception. The defence was dominant, allowing only 9 points and they became the first team in NFL history to get 2 pick sixes and a safety in the opening game. This performance was especially impressive considering the Rams were missing defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is not only the best player on the Rams roster but is considered the best defensive tackle in the NFL. He missed week 1 as he returned to the team late as a result of his extended contract holdout. The combination of the return of Donald and Phillips’ defensive mastery should make this defence a unit to be feared throughout the season.
Despite the dominance of the Rams in week 1 it is still important to temper expectations. The Rams won three of their first four last year then collapsed after this and only won one more game all season. Consistency has been an issue for the Rams for years and it will be interesting to see whether the combination of McVay and Phillips can lead them to not only beat the league’s lower teams but also challenge against the more high powered teams.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the week 1 win was the fact that the victory came against the woeful Indianapolis Colts. The Colts looked completely inept in every phase of the game on Sunday and it is likely that they will be drafting with a top pick in the 2018 draft. Superstar Colts QB Andrew Luck had shoulder surgery in the offseason and his missed today’s game as his recovery is taking longer than expected. Backup QB Scott Tolzien was a disaster Sunday, throwing for less than 130 yards with no tds and 2 interceptions. While some credit should go to the Rams D for shutting him down, the fact remains that Tolzien is not of a starting NFL calibre and he is likely to have similar dire performances until Luck eventually returns. It will be interesting to see how this Rams defence deals with the league’s better offences. Their first major test is likely to come against the Dak Prescott led Cowboys on 1st October.
Despite the easy week 1 game, the optimism surrounding the Rams is higher than it has been since the days of the greatest show on turf, when the Kurt Warner led Rams got to two consecutive super bowls, winning one. The Rams have suffered a playoff drought since 2005 and since then there has been very little optimism surrounding the team. While it is unlikely that the Rams will be challengers to win it all this season, it is becoming increasingly clear that the team is heading in the right direction.