State Of The Franchise

State of the Franchise: Rams, Sean McVay must reverse 2019 slide

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Los Angeles Rams organization, Rams fans around the world and those who think the team's new logo really isn't as bad as everyone is making it out to be:

In Hollywood, your luck can turn just that fast. One minute, you're an A-lister turning down all of the top roles. One year later, you're begging TMZ to "stalk" you picking up your dry cleaning on Santa Monica Boulevard. And while Sean McVay is far from doing infomercials to make money, the Rams are in a quite different spot than they were heading into the 2019 season, as the darlings of the NFL coming off a Super Bowl appearance. Every team with a head coach vacancy was trying to find the next McVay, like when the USA Network struck it big with Psych and CBS responded with The Mentalist. (Hey, at least Zac Taylor hasn't been canceled.)

This is kind of a prove-it year for McVay. The Rams are in need of a soft reboot -- and adding to the pressure is the fact that they're set to open up SoFi Stadium. McVay has shown he can do it in the past. But will he be able to produce another runaway hit this season?

How the Rams got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019:

The highs:

  • Starting off 3-0, including a convincing home win against the Saints. L.A. trounced New Orleans in a kind of "ball don't lie" performance to follow up the Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman no-call win over the Saints in the previous season's playoffs. And you started to think this team was going to overcome the dreaded Super Bowl hangover after losing the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots.
  • Cooper Kupp scoring 35 fantasy points for me against the Bengals in Week 8. Enough said.
  • Beating the Seahawks in Week 14 to improve to 8-5. Even as things began to look very rocky and L.A. started to struggle, there was still the convincing December defeat of Seattle. It seemed like the Rams had everything figured out.

The lows:

  • Losing 55-40 at home to the Bucs in Week 4. This commenced a three-game losing streak that dropped L.A. to 3-3. 
  • Losing to the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers after the Week 9 bye. And, to top it off, Kupp didn't catch a single pass in that game. I knew I should have traded him when his fantasy value was at an all-time high. 
  • Dropping back-to-back games to the Cowboys and 49ers in Weeks 15 and 16. This took the Rams out of the playoff race.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Sean McVay. It would be easy to say the shine is off McVay right now; it feels kind of like when a band follows a killer first album with a meh second effort. (I know this is sort of a reach, because McVay is a millennial, and you guys don't listen to full albums. But please, play along.) Like, when so much work and energy goes into getting the sound right on that debut, it can be hard to duplicate that success. Maybe that's what's happening here with McVay. He took the NFL by storm as an innovator in his first two seasons, but after the league had a few looks at him, he became easier to solve. Now the Rams are hoping that he's as smart as everybody thinks he is.

But here's the thing: The Rams were 9-7 last year in the NFC West, one of the best divisions in football. McVay's won 33 games during his first three years, and he's never had a losing season. So let's not act like 2019 was a total disaster. The Rams ranked seventh in total offense and eighth in big plays, and they finished in the top five in red-zone touchdown percentage. The final results just weren't what was expected. Take Off Your Pants and Jacket wasn't Enema of the State. But it was still pretty good. (And ardent Blink-182 fans will tell you the self-titled album was great, too.)

Quarterback: Jared Goff. This is a tough one right here. On one hand, Goff led the Rams to Super Bowl LIII. Which is great. On the other, his final ranking of 20 in NFL.com's Quarterback Index seemed about right. There are times when Goff looks like a high-end quarterback, like after he throws for 4,500-plus yards in a season (4,638 in 2019). And then there are times when he looks like West Coast Mitchell Trubisky, like when he barely produces more touchdowns than turnovers in a season (22 to 16 in 2019).

Goff has a lot to prove this year, even more than McVay. In fact, it wouldn't have been the worst idea for the Rams to take a page out of the Titans' 2019 playbook and bring in a guy like Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton to push Goff -- alas, the Saints and Cowboys beat them to the punch on those vets. I guess Cam Newton is still out there to fill that role if he's willing, but it seems like the Rams are content with Goff. I just wonder if the team will end up regretting its commitment to him.

Projected 2020 MVP: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. He's starting to get some competition for the title of top non-quarterback in the NFL, but Donald is still one of the best in the business. The Rams' defense piled up 50 sacks (fourth-most in the NFL) last season, their most since they returned to Los Angeles in 2017. Donald's personal sack total fell from 20.5 in 2018 to 12.5, but he was as dominant as ever for the Rams.

New face to know: Michael Brockers, defensive end. The Rams scored here, landing Brockers from the Ravens. Yes, I'm just kidding. I know the Rams nearly lost Brockers to Baltimore in free agency before some weirdness led Brockers to return to the Rams for his ninth season with the only franchise he's ever known. (It made Aaron Donald happy!) The team also added former first-rounder Leonard Floyd to the mix. Floyd never really became the pass rusher the Bears wanted him to be, but he's a solid football player, for sure.

2020 breakout star: Tyler Higbee, tight end. While Kupp led the Rams in receiving yards last year, he never topped more than 100 yards in any one game after that 220-yard outing against the Bengals in Week 8. Instead, Higbee became the go-to guy for the Rams' offense, topping 100 receiving yards in four consecutive games from Week 13 through Week 16 before "struggling" in Week 17 to 84 yards and a touchdown. Higbee finished the season with 734 receiving yards, the most by a tight end in Rams' history. OK, so Higbee's breakout might have already happened. But we might also look back at last season as Phase 1, seeing as how McVay has "big plans" for him this year.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency is: HIGH.

The Rams are still a talented team. You don't trade away first-round picks if you're rebuilding. So the Rams need to remain competitive in a division that is likely to be the toughest in the NFL.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Cowboys (Sunday night): The Rams have a lot of new faces, but this is a huge game for them. L.A. is undefeated in season openers during the Sean McVay era.
  • Week 6 at 49ers (Sunday night): The 49ers swept the season series last year, and if the Rams want to win the NFC West this season (or even make the playoffs), they need to win these tough matchups. (They'll host the 49ers in Week 12.)
  • Week 11 at Buccaneers (Monday night): The Rams get a chance to see Tom Brady for the first time since the Super Bowl. I don't know if you would consider this one a revenge game ... but I'm going to go ahead and allow it.

Will the Rams be able to ...

Move forward with a revamped cast? Don't get too sentimental about any of your Rams stars. This team's players are like those people you see on those click-bait internet links at the bottom of stories with headlines like, "Rams stars of 2019: Where are they now?" Because the Rams have made a lot of changes. Todd Gurley? Gone. Clay Matthews? Gone. Eric Weddle? Retired. The team is also without Brandin Cooks (traded away), Dante Fowler Jr. (free agency) and Cory Littleton (free agency). In other words, if you're ordering a Rams jersey, you're better off going with an all-time great like Jack Youngblood, Eric Dickerson or Jim Everett (underrated). It's the smart move.

But at the same time, I admire the organization for moving forward with some younger and more cost-effective pieces. The Patriots have been able to do this kind of thing for years, locking in Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and a favorite receiver or two for Brady and moving forward. Of course, that plan worked so well because it featured Tom Brady. But still. I like what the Rams are thinking here. That said, there is one loss we really need to talk about ...

Survive without Wade Phillips? The Rams' success during McVay's first three seasons is often cited as evidence of McVay's genius. And while that is accurate to an extent, Phillips deserves a lot of credit. The Rams' defense ranked in the top 10 of Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency ratings twice in Phillips' three years as coordinator, while he helped Donald become one of the best football players on the planet. If you really want to be a jerk, you could point out that it wasn't Phillips' defense that cost them the Super Bowl. But if you've seen enough buddy-cop movies in your lifetime, you will know that the brash youngster with all the answers will always ultimately rebel against the older partner who has helped him along the way. That means the Rams are now all-in on McVay. And a huge burden will fall on new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.

Run the football? The Rams finished 26th in rushing last season. Todd Gurley did not rush for more than 100 yards in a single game in 2019 after posting 12 such games in the previous two seasons. If the Rams are going to be highly successful again (and let's be real, they were seventh in total offense), they need to strike a balance they just didn't have last year. Not to take a shot at Goff, but he's at his best when the team can run -- as evidenced by their run (pun intended) to the Super Bowl in 2018, when the Rams ranked third on the ground.

The key question, though, is who will carry the ball? The Rams spent a third-round pick on Darrell Henderson last year. And the move was curious, because it came even as the Rams were saying everything was cool with Gurley. When Gurley was released, you figured Henderson would be the guy. But then the Rams went out and drafted Cam Akers in the second round this year. The film on him is great. He looks like a true star and a perfect fit for their zone-blocking scheme. The question remains, though: Why did the Rams use a third-rounder on Henderson last year? Have they given up on him already? The Rams have a history of piling up running backs. The St. Louis version of this team had Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy on the roster when Gurley was drafted. That season, Gurley carried the rock 229 times. Different coaching staffs, sure. But I expect Akers to be the guy for the Rams.

Fly under the radar again? Nobody is talking about the Rams anymore. People have moved on. It's like when people really get into a sitcom for a couple of years, then shift their attention to something else. And the Rams totally have that vibe right now. The 49ers are the new hotness. The Cardinals won the offseason by trading for DeAndre Hopkins. And Russell Wilson and Seattle are always consistently good. There are now folks who anticipate the Rams will just fall off the map, football-wise, this season.

One storyline ...

... people are overthinking: The weakness of the offensive line. People looking for reasons behind Jared Goff's sometimes-poor performance often hone in on the offensive line, which was ranked 31st by Pro Football Focus last season. That seems terrible.

But note also that the Rams gave up the fewest sacks last season (22) in the league. And a quick check of Next Gen Stats reveals Goff was 17th in terms of time to throw (2.80 seconds) for quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts. He had more time than other quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, or division-mates Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyler Murray. The fact is, Goff needs to make better decisions with the football.

ANOTHER storyline people are overthinking: The lack of first-round picks until 2040. Or at least, it just seems like 2040. Yeah, it is kind of a bummer when your team doesn't have any picks in the first round of the draft. Trust me, as a Bears fan, I get that. But the Rams traded away their first-round pick this year -- which ended up being No. 20 overall -- as part of the package for Jalen Ramsey. You would love to get someone of Ramsey's caliber at No. 20, or wherever next year's first-rounder (which also went to the Jags as part of the trade) is likely to end up. You're fine. The Rams, to me, have always drafted well. I remember when they took Donald back in the day, even though he'd been mocked to the Bears for months. And even though it wasn't a need pick. My point is: The Rams have done a great job of adding talent. Not having a first-round pick for the next few years also indicates that this team is willing to do what it takes to win. That's a good thing.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Rams MUST:

Get their credibility back. You do that by making it to the playoffs. Remember, they were 9-7 last year and missed the playoffs by a game -- if the expanded 14-team postseason set to begin this season had been in place, they would have made it. Sure, it was disappointing, because they had reached a point, at 8-5, where they controlled their playoff fate to some extent. If the Rams don't want to look like some sort of one-hit wonder, like the NFL version of Brandon Routh -- who went from playing Superman to cameo-in-a-Kevin-Smith-movie status -- they need to keep winning.

In closing

This is a huge year for the Rams. The biggest of McVay's career. What makes it so difficult is that the they are in the toughest division in football, which means there is a very real possibility they could be competitive and one of the best offensive teams in football and still risk failing to make the playoffs once again. Not because McVay is a fraud or the organization isn't good. Instead, it would be a testament to how good the teams in the West really are. Their situation kind of reminds me of Independence Day. Humanity had Will Smith, at the peak of his powers, leading the charge -- and yet, it would have been completely plausible for the monument-destroying aliens to overrun the planet. Well, like Bill Pullman says of Jeff Goldblum upon learning of his plan to bring down the invaders, the Rams have to hope McVay is as smart as we all think he is. I believe McVay is smart enough to get it done.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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