The 2019 Los Angeles Rams started the season viewed as robust Super Bowl contenders, generally considered co-favorites (with New Orleans) in the NFC.
They were coming off two straight playoff seasons and a Super Bowl loss to New England in 2018. Most "experts" thought at the very least they would win the NFC West.
However, as they await a Sunday night battle against the Chicago Bears, those predictions are in tatters. At 5-4, they trail the division-leading San Francisco Forty-Niners by three games with seven remaining and the two-loss Seattle Seahawks by two games. A division title is all but out of the question at this point. They could still potentially qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card team, trailing 7-3 Minnesota by a game and a half in that race.
Nevertheless, with a brutal remaining schedule, even the Ram's chances of snagging the final wild card slot seem like an uphill battle. Frankly, the Rams team we have seen since week four does not look like a playoff team today.
So....what happened? Here is one fan's opinion.
1--First and foremost and above everything else, the Los Angeles offensive line has been, well, offensive. A unit that may have been the best in the league in 2017-2018 has become arguably the worst. Part of the problem has been injuries (more on that in a moment), but let us not pretend the Rams front office does not share some blame, because they do.
The decisions to let center John Sullivan and guard Rodger Saffold leave have not worked out well in hindsight. In all fairness, Sullivan did not play well during the second half of 2018, particularly getting mauled in an upset loss to the Bears last season and generally slumping down the stretch. Saffold meanwhile was a good-but-not-great player who did a stable job and did not make too many mistakes. Saffold signed a four year, $44 million contracts with the Tennesse Titans. That is much money for a '"pretty good" NFL guard, and it is not hard to understand why the Rams did not want to pony up that kind of cash.
However, the problem is that the players have chosen to replace Sullivan, and Saffold did not get the job done. Center Brian Allen, a former fourth-round pick out of Michigan State, did not look like an NFL center much of the time. Former Third-round pick Joseph Noteboom, drafted as the heir-apparent to Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, stepped in for Saffold at guard. The results were not good. Throw in Austin Blythe, a career journeyman who returned to journeyman form after a strong 2018 season, and a mysteriously slumping Rob Havenstein, and we aren't left with much upfront. The final nail in the coffin was left tackle Andrew Whitworth finally showing his age at left tackle. Whitworth is still the Rams best lineman, but he is not the All-Pro caliber tackle of years past.
However, it gets worse. When Noteboom got hurt, Jamil Demby was a disaster filling in for him. Demby is a practice-squad level player who should not start for an NFL team. Demby replaced by David Edwards, a rookie from Wisconsin who has been substantial. Meanwhile, Havenstein is out for the Bears game, replaced by rookie Bobby Evans at the right tackle. Evans will have the unenviable task of trying to contain Khalil Mack on Sunday night. Good luck with that matchup.
2. The running game/play calling. We hate to criticize Coach McVay, but what is going on with the play calling? Is he possessed by the ghost of Mike Martz (yes, we know Coach Martz is still alive, even if his career is not)? When the Rams were winning division titles the last couple of seasons, Todd Gurley was an elite running back, and the Los Angeles passing game used the play-action pass to open up plays downfield. The Rams were third in the league in rushing offense in 2018. They go into the Bears ranked 21 in yards per game, averaging a little over 96.
The Rams handling of Gurley has been puzzling. Questions about his health remain unanswered, and there is little doubt that the decline of the O-line has been a factor. However, how do we explain how Gurley used in the Steelers game? TGIII looked like the old Gurley, averaging six yards per carry through the first three quarters. And then there is nothing? Why no one seems to know, or if they do, they are not saying.
The Rams need to get some balance in their offense; whether the rushing attempts come from Gurley, Darrell Henderson (who has shown flashes of ability), or Malcolm Brown or all of the above, somebody has to keep the defenses honest. A more balanced attack would keep opposing defenses from teeing off on Jared Goff. Moreover, though this O-line might be beyond help at this point, ask any offensive lineman, and he will tell us he would instead run block than pass block. Hitting people is fun and trying to stand his ground against 300 pounds of muscle and adrenaline in the form of oncoming pass-rushers not so much.
3- Injuries--This one is tough because it is so random. Sometimes we get hit with the injury bug; sometimes we do not. However, the bigger problem here is terrible decisions on draft day that have left a lack of quality backups, especially on the offensive line. Guys like Joseph Noteboom have not lived up to expectations, and we are not especially optimistic about Bobby Evans at right tackle. We hope we are proven wrong on Evans, but his performance in the preseason does not accurately fill us with confidence.
Speaking of backups, the less said about Jamil Demby, the better. The point here is that a combination of injuries and decisions on draft day and other problems have decimated this team.
4- Turnovers-- We are not going to pile on Jared Goff to the extent that others are, because a lot of his statistical decline has been due to inadequate pass protection and the decline of the running game. We think he is still a winning quarterback with a chance to reach the elite level IF some of the other problems get straightened out. Even so, he needs to do a better job of protecting the football. That means taking a sack sometimes instead of trying to get rid of the ball and not trying to compete for passes when his receiver is covered. He did not suddenly forget how to play quarterback in the NFL or lose his talent. However, he is trying to do too much at times. A sack is almost always better than a turnover.
Goff is getting an unfair portion of the blame for the disappointing season the Rams are having. People cite his declining numbers compared to when the Rams were dominating the NFC. His numbers ARE down, but the problem with that criticism is that football is a team game, and it is hard to complete passes when we are always under pressure.
Give him the running game and the pass protection he used to have, and he will shine once again. The ''Goff sucks" crowd does not want to hear that, because blaming the quarterback is always accessible. In Goff's case, the numbers do not exactly lie, but they do leave out a whole lot of details. Naysayers who have not watched the Rams play, or who lack a deep understanding of the game, cannot view it or comprehend the fact.
It is easier and more fun to blame Jared Goff. He is not perfect, but he is not the biggest issue with the 2019 Rams.
The 2019 Rams are probably not going to be a playoff team. It is a possibility that the Rams do not finish with a winning record. The offensive line is a mess, the running game has all but disappeared, and the remaining schedule is brutal, including games with the Ravens: Forty-Niners (on the road), Seattle and Dallas. A final record of 9-7 or 8-8 seems like a reasonable guess, and a losing record is not out of the question.
There are some positives. This team is a missed field goal and an obvious officiating blunder (an incomplete pass that ruled as a fumble) from being 7-2. The defense has been stellar. The special teams have been up-and-down but still rate as among the better units in the league.
The good news? The problems are fixable. The offensive line needs a serious upgrade. The Rams do not have a first-round pick in 2020 (or 2021), but hysteria about "not having any picks" among some fans is not pure. We should be able to pick up quality offensive linemen in the second and third rounds, and trades or moves to free up cap space are not out of the question for a team that has shown the willingness to pursue personnel moves that will improve the team aggressively.
The other critical factor going forward is some decision on Todd Gurley. Is he still a bell-cow back? Part of a running back by committee? He may never be the 1,200-yard rusher he has been, but it seems like the Rams are afraid to use him. The thinking here is that a committee of Gurley, Henderson, and Brown may sound like a law firm, but they could still form an effective rushing attack with a better 0-line and a genuine commitment to running the ball.
Indeed, the Rams face some critical personal decisions on people like Corey Littleton and Dante Fowler, both of whom are free agents after this season (as is Micheal Brockers). The future of Brandin Cooks with the Rams (and the NFL, is very much up in question. He has suffered multiple concussions, and the Ram's overall talent level is comparable to any team in the NFL.
There is no reason they cannot return to Super Bowl contention in 2020.