Where does every NFL franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set 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.
This franchise is coming off the most exciting season it has ever enjoyed in Los Angeles, reaching heights last seen in Southern California when the Rams represented the NFC in Super Bowl XIV -- after the 1979 season. The outcome of Super Bowl LIII was not one Rams fans clamored for, but you can't deny how great this team has become since moving back to L.A. from St. Louis in 2016. After all, in that season, L.A. won just one of its final 12 games. That same team is now the defending NFC champions.
How the Rams got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
-- MNF for the ages. L.A. beat the Chiefs in the most exciting "Monday Night Football" game anybody can ever recall, a 54-51 win that featured 1,001 combined yards and 14 combined touchdowns. In fact, it might have been the most exciting Monday night moment since Scott Hall jumped the rail at Nitro in 1996.
-- Winning 13 games. That's the most by the franchise in any Los Angeles season.
And here's the troubling thing about it: It wasn't just that they lost, but how they lost, held to 3 points and 260 total yards, with the high-flying offense never able to get started. I could see why that would concern some, seeing as how Sean McVay is considered an offensive genius. But to me, this was probably an instance of the Rams not quite knowing what they were getting into. Like the first time you try Fireball. Sure, it seems like fun because it tastes like candy, but eventually, the night just gets away from you.
Head coach: Sean McVay. The man who has never seen a play out of 11 formation he doesn't like is considered one of the top coaches in the NFL, one of the brightest minds in the industry, someone who echoes the revolutionary spirits of Paul Brown, Bill Walsh and Don Coryell. In 2017, McVay inherited a team that scored just 224 points the year before -- now, his Rams could hit that total on any given Sunday. L.A. also finished 10th in yards in '17 and second last year (behind only the Chiefs) after finishing last in '16.
McVay has been so good at his job, he's getting other dudes jobs just because they are Facebook friends. Just kidding. The 32-year-old McVay is a millennial, so he obviously doesn't use Facebook. But consider that new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor (coached receivers and quarterbacks with the Rams in 2017 and '18) and new Packers coach Matt LaFleur (McVay's offensive coordinator in '17) have direct ties to McVay, while other hirings (like Kliff Kingsbury with the Cardinals, Matt Nagy with the Bears and Freddie Kitchens with the Browns) fit the trend of looking to the young and offensive-minded. The coaching tree and circle of influence is rapidly expanding.
Quarterback: Jared Goff. After an exceedingly rough rookie year (0-7 record, 63.6 passer rating, 5:7 TD-to-INT ratio), Goff has developed into one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He's thrown for 8,492 yards and 60 touchdowns over the last two seasons. And you can't find anybody anywhere who would now argue that the team should have gone with Carson Wentz with the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft instead of Goff. Those people don't exist anymore. Yes, I'm aware he had what you can technically call a really bad game in the Super Bowl. But don't get distracted by that -- see below for more.
Projected 2019 MVP: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. Donald was a hipster pick for league MVP last year and is clearly the best player on the Rams. Which is odd, because the Rams are known for their offense. But that's kind of par for the course when you're talking about Southern California. Consider that my favorite coffee shop in town is actually a clothing store/print shop in Huntington Beach. Donald had 16.5 sacks last year. He's seemingly a lock for double-digit sacks this year. He hardly touches the ball -- and yet, of all the players on the Rams' roster, he has the greatest ability to take over a game.
2019 breakout star: Greg Gaines, defensive tackle. Let's stick to the defensive line. Gaines comes to the NFL with solid credentials as a fourth-round pick (No. 134 overall) in this year's draft. And with most teams employing double- or even triple-teams on Donald, Gaines is due to get plenty of opportunities to make plays.
Another new face to know: Darrell Henderson, running back. The rookie (drafted No. 70 overall, in the third round) has a lot of exciting potential in McVay's outside-zone scheme. The most obvious comparison for Henderson would be New Orleans' Alvin Kamara. There is a chance the Rams use Henderson similarly to how the Saints have used Kamara with backs like Mark Ingram in the past, with Henderson and Todd Gurley splitting time in the backfield or maybe even being on the field together. After all, the Rams have to take care of Gurley. They're playing for the Super Bowl, not my fantasy championship. I mean, I appreciate the concern for my fantasy well-being, but it's not necessary, Sean.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. The Ramsneed to win the Super Bowl this year. Los Angeles is getting too familiar with its various professional teams reaching the championship round of their sport, only to get blown out by a team from Boston. (Well, not you, Lakers. You have your own set of problems.) But the Rams need to win now. The city of Los Angeles hasn't won a major championship since 2014, which is like 79 seasons in Cleveland years.
Keep Todd Gurley upright? Gurley is one of the most talented running backs in the league. But a lot of people were concerned when his production dropped off at the end of last season -- in Weeks 14 and 15, Gurley averaged 38 rushing yards and 91 yards from scrimmage. All right, most of the concern was coming from fantasy dorks like me. Then, when he missed the final two weeks of the season as he dealt with a knee issue, panic started to set in, even though C.J. Anderson played well in his absence. Most observers reasoned that the Rams were making sure Gurley was healthy for the playoffs -- until Gurley was barely involved in the Super Bowl (11 touches, 34 yards from scrimmage). Which started another round of panic and speculation. And questions about his kneejust haven't gone away.
McVay intimated he's not going to dial back Gurley's usage, and that he's still going to be the focal point of their offense. But will we end up in the same predicament in 2019 as we did last year? Even though it's going to hurt fantasy enthusiasts, the Rams really should use Gurley -- who has led the NFL in touches (1,229) since entering the league in 2015 -- with some discretion. Don't be like the guy who gets so full on the free chips and salsa that he can't eat his tacos. Just chill.
Get the defense back up to par? The Rams have Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. And yet, in 2018, the unit ranked 19th in total defense and 20th in points allowed, even after bringing in Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and -- via in-season trade -- Dante Fowler. That needs to be fixed. The team did use draft capital on safety Taylor Rapp (No. 61 overall) and corner David Long (No. 79), who join veteran signee Eric Weddle in the secondary, and L.A. added the above-named Gaines and veteran Clay Matthews to the front seven. Still, it is crucial that the Rams' D performs better on the field this season, to add a little more balance to their equation. They don't need to be the best in the league, but some improvement would be encouraging.
Deal with expectations? It's good to be the underdog, and the Rams have enjoyed that role in the recent past. Even after they won the NFC West in 2017, an early playoff exit cast some doubt about them. But now they're the defending NFC champs, seeking to become the first back-to-back conference winners since the Seattle Seahawks did it in 2013 and '14. No one will sleep on them this year.
Three key dates:
-- Week 2 vs. the Saints. Too bad this isn't in New Orleans. Although, I'll be honest: I'm literally (not figuratively) fatigued from seeing that non-pass-interference call.
-- Week 13 at the Cardinals. For the first time ever, Kliff Kingsbury will go up against the guy with whom he once shared an Awesome Blossom at Chili's.
One storyline people are overlooking:Was WR Cooper Kupp really the most valuable player in this offense? Gurley is obviously important, but as I mentioned above, C.J. Anderson played great when Gurley was out, whereas the Rams' passing attack looked completely different after losing Kupp for the season in Week 10. Goff completed 70 percent of his passes in seven of 10 games to start the season and accomplished that feat just once (in Week 16 against the lowly Cardinals) after Kupp tore his ACL. The good news is, Kupp is expected to return Week 1. The Rams are better with him. Goff is better with him.
Although we shouldn't trip too much about Jared ...
One storyline people are overthinking:Jared Goff didn't play well in big games. Goff struggled in Chicago in prime time. And, of course, there was Super Bowl LIII, in which Goff completed 19 of 38 passes for 229 yards, zero TDs, one pick and a 57.9 passer rating against New England. But the Bears had one of the best defenses in the league last year, while the Patriots are, well, the Patriots. I can think of some other big-name quarterbacks who didn't always come through in the clutch. Not to call any of them out, but one of them has a name that rhymes with Peyton Manning. Goff is entering his FOURTH NFL season, and just his third non-Jeff Fisher year. He's going to be fine! As long as Kupp is back and ready to go, we're square.
One more thing: The Rams kind of find themselves in familiar territory, as anybody who has a keen eye for NFL history would know. Super Bowl LIII did not mark their first Super Bowl loss to an NFL juggernaut in the final period of its dynastic reign. In Super Bowl XIV -- as alluded to above -- the Rams fell to Pittsburgh. It was a game that (like last year's Super Bowl) they could have totally won. What Rams fans need to hope for is that history does not repeat itself. Soon after that loss to cap the 1979 season, the Rams moved out of the Coliseum and into Anaheim Stadium, then started a bit of a downhill slide. They finished 2-7 in 1982 but did reach the NFC Championship Game in 1985 and 1989. Neither were memorable in a good way.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Rams MUST ...
Let's not overthink this. Windows aren't open long. According to Over The Cap, Goff counts for just 4.7% against the cap this year, which is the fourth of his rookie contract. That figure will go up soon. Capitalize on this opportunity!
This won't be easy. Staying ahead in the NFL is hard. But I can promise you, when all is said and done, the Rams will once again prove themselves to be one of the top teams in the NFC. And it's going to be no surprise when they make a huge run in the playoffs.