‘Boring’ Rams take foot off the gas after awful Super Bowl defense

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

If the Los Angeles Rams didn’t win a Super Bowl two seasons ago, everything would look calamitous about now.

The Rams finished a horrendous 5-12 last season. The Rams had to deal with another retirement tease from coach Sean McVay, though McVay stayed again. They traded star cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Miami Dolphins and got very little back. The Rams signed two outside veteran free agents: backup quarterback Brett Rypien on a one-year, $1.08 million deal, and then in June they added receiver Demarcus Robinson for one year and $1.165 million. Los Angeles didn’t have the draft picks to replenish the roster, unless a lot of third day picks hit. Time seems to be ticking on how long Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald will be around, too.

The offseason was so bad, COO Kevin Demoff had to send an open letter to season ticket holders in late March, reassuring them they expected to still compete for a playoff spot but explaining that the team knew it would have to “pull back on our typical approach to help continue our sustained run of success.” That meant instead of their usual splashy trades and lavish signings, they would hold onto draft picks and get the salary cap in order. That’s why the Rams have an astonishing $72.2 million in dead cap space this year.

Going into the offseason general manager Les Snead called what the Rams had to go through a “remodel” and not a rebuild. He acknowledged, via the Los Angeles Daily News, the Rams would have to “not press the gas as much, pay a little bit of the debt that we’ve accumulated.”

“We’re the ‘boring’ Rams this year,” Snead said, via The Athletic.

It doesn’t have to take long for NFL teams to rebuild. If you hear that a team has set itself back a decade, you can ignore it. That’s two, maybe three, lifetimes in the NFL these days. Demoff’s letter to season ticket holders pointed out that the Super Bowl winning team had 19 starters that didn’t start in the Rams’ Super Bowl loss three years prior. Things can change, good or bad, in a hurry. The Rams know that well.

That doesn’t mean a “remodel” will be easy, or that 2023 will show many signs of progress. The Rams didn’t totally tear it down when they traded Ramsey, but it seems like they’re holding onto the past by not moving Stafford, Donald or Cooper Kupp. They have a full load of draft picks in 2024 including their first-rounder after a patient offseason. Maybe they should have dove in and traded anything of value, perhaps entering the Caleb Williams/Drake Maye sweepstakes. There was probably too much pride for that.

A rough couple years are coming but you can’t erase Feb. 12, 2022, when the Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals for the Lombardi Trophy. The many experts who want to dunk on their all-in approach seem to forget that. That will be remembered a lot longer than the Rams record these few seasons as they regroup. However, whenever the list of bad seasons for defending Super Bowl champions is brought up, the 2022 Rams will be the first one mentioned.

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was among the team's many questions this offseason. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was among the team’s many questions this offseason. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Rams were dreadful. It didn’t look that bad before the bye, when they were 3-3 with losses to the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Those were three of the best teams in the NFL. After that is was painful. They lost six straight after the bye. They did have a ridiculous comeback win against the Las Vegas Raiders with Baker Mayfield playing quarterback a couple days after he was signed, and a blowout of a Denver Broncos team that was having an even more awful season than the Rams. But those were rare highlights.

They lost Stafford, Kupp and Donald to season-ending injuries. The Rams built a top heavy roster and those injuries made their lineup look like it was the preseason. Their 12 losses was the most for a defending Super Bowl champion, beating the record of the 1999 Broncos who went 6-10 after John Elway retired. McVay, who contemplated retirement after the Super Bowl too, looked miserable most of the season and it sounded like he was going to step away. Then he suddenly said he’d be back.

That’s the first step back for the Rams. McVay and Snead are excellent at their jobs. Maybe Stafford, with growing health concerns, won’t be around much longer. Donald, on a short list of candidates for greatest defensive player ever, has considered retirement too. But there should be faith in the Rams’ brass to fix things quickly.

McVay and Snead are practically starting over. We’ve seen their approach in chasing a championship, and that hyper-aggressive strategy might not work with a total rebuild. We’ll see if the Rams can drive in the slow lane for a while.

Offseason grade

What does life in the NFL look like if you keep kicking your cap issues down the road? The Rams’ free-agent class this offseason is backup quarterback Brett Rypien and receiver Demarcus Robinson. That’s it. Meanwhile, these are among the players they lost in free agency, cuts or trades: cornerback Jalen Ramsey, edge rusher Leonard Floyd, receiver Allen Robinson II, punter Riley Dixon, kicker Matt Gay, safeties Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott, linebacker Bobby Wagner, defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines, and quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and John Wolford. The Rams did get back tight end Hunter Long (one career reception for eight yards) from the Dolphins in the Ramsey trade along with a third-round pick. That’s not getting anyone excited. The draft was all about quantity. The Rams didn’t have a first-round pick. Guard Steve Avila, at No. 36 overall, was their first pick. Edge rusher Byron Young and defensive tackle Kobie Turner were third-round picks. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was a curious pick in the fourth. The Rams had 14 picks but 10 came in the fifth round or later. Some of those players will contribute out of necessity, but it’s hard to rely on late-round picks to become difference makers. The Rams signed 26 undrafted free agents, a stunning number that is another indication of how thin the roster is. It was a dreadful offseason.

Grade: F

Quarterback report

Matthew Stafford ended last season on injured reserve with a spinal cord contusion. Before that he had a concussion. Stafford missed eight games and wasn’t great in the nine games he played, with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Not all of it was his fault. He took 29 sacks behind a beaten-up offensive line — Stafford was sacked 30 times in 17 games during the 2021 season — and it probably won’t get a lot better in 2023. Stafford has a Super Bowl ring, has made a lot of money and more than 52,000 passing yards. He also has taken 444 sacks in his career. Nobody would have blamed him if he retired. He wasn’t ready to walk away at age 35.

“I felt really confident I was coming back. I feel like more people were less confident that than I was,” Stafford said in April. “But no, I was ready to go, ready to play as soon as I was cleared. And I feel great. I feel healthy. And, you know, I’m not 25. But I definitely feel good.”

Assuming Stafford is healthy, he still has the talent to be a top 10 quarterback. The bigger question is if he can play at that level with the holes in the lineup around him.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The Rams’ win total at BetMGM is 6.5. While it’s hard to completely bury any team with Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald, the under seems like the right side. The Rams probably should have been lower in these preview rankings, but there’s still some blind faith in that key group of four individuals, who could all have Hall of Fame arguments when they’re done. But the Rams could be really bad. At least they have their 2024 first-round pick.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Cam Akers finally asserted himself as LA’s featured back in the final third of last year, and good numbers went on the board. Over his final six starts, he produced 512 rushing yards (4.9 per carry) and scored six touchdowns, checking in as the RB3 over that cumulative period. The Rams look like a non-contender on paper and the offensive line has concerns, but Akers has little backfield competition and likely marked his territory with that late-season run. Currently priced as the RB18 in Yahoo ADP, Akers probably isn’t a home-run pick — his national ADP is cheaper — but I can at least see profit potential.”

Stat to remember

One of the good stories from the 2022 Rams was Cam Akers. After a slow start to the season, Akers was inactive for two games before the trade deadline due to “personal reasons” and there were reports that he and coach Sean McVay disagreed about his role. The Rams didn’t get a trade done and brought Akers back to the lineup. By the end of the season he was back to a workhorse role, gaining 345 yards with a 5.5-yard average in the final three games. He had three 100-yard games for a miserable offense with an offensive line in shambles. Akers, who suffered an Achilles injury in 2021 and rushed back for the team’s playoff run, went from practically being off the roster to looking like the arrow is pointing back up. It was a really strange season for Akers, but it worked out pretty well for everyone involved.

Burning question

Who are the Rams’ building blocks?

Here’s a telling exercise: Figure out who is the fourth best player on the Rams. The first three are obviously Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford. And No. 4 is … running back Cam Akers? Tight end Tyler Higbee? Offensive tackle Rob Havenstein? Whatever the answer, it’s not good.

The strategy of trading picks means that you have to hit the mid- and late-round picks you do have, and the Rams haven’t done well in that regard. The best picks the Rams have made since 2017 (when they stole Kupp in the second round) among those still on the roster, are offensive tackle Joseph Noteboom (third round, 2018), Akers (second round, 2020), receiver Van Jefferson Jr. (third round, 2020), safety Jordan Fuller (sixth round, 2020), linebacker Ernest Jones (third round, 2021) and receiver Ben Skowronek (seventh round, 2021). There’s not one top-tier starter on that list. And no 2022 rookies made a notable impact last season, even with the team looking for answers.

Had the Rams hit more picks the past few years, a rebuild would be easier. But they haven’t, and that makes the hole a lot deeper.

Best-case scenario

It’s hard to be optimistic about the Rams, but it’s also hard to look past some of the key figures from the Super Bowl team. Sean McVay is an excellent coach. Aaron Donald might still be the best player in the NFL when healthy. Cooper Kupp had one of the greatest seasons any player has ever had in 2021 and he was having another monster season in 2022 before his injury. Matthew Stafford is a capable quarterback. And maybe with better injury luck, the pieces around them contribute a lot more. It can’t be that outlandish to believe the Rams can be in playoff contention, right? The only concern is if they’re in the race before the deadline and start trading off picks again.

Nightmare scenario

It’s possible, for different reasons, we’ve already seen the best of Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald and they’re all further down the back nine than we realize. We could actually be a year from a real Rams rebuild, which is scary considering they just had one miserable offseason. It’s not out of the question that the Rams could have the worst record in football if a few things go wrong, and that actually wouldn’t be the worst thing. What would be worse is if they’re really bad but also get enough wins to knock them out of position to start over with one of the top quarterback prospects in next year’s draft.

The crystal ball says

The Rams will win some games. They have no depth and will be starting some players who are not ready for that role, but there will be a few games in which their stars take over. It will still be a long season for a team that isn’t far removed from a championship, but that won’t be a surprise. The Rams had to make a decision this offseason. It couldn’t have been enjoyable to admit that they needed to slow things down and retool the roster, but it was the right move.

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