As Robert Griffin III trotted onto the field with over 12 minutes left in the Baltimore Ravens’ blowout road win over the Los Angeles Rams last Monday night, you could feel the air change. The first three quarters of the affair had all centered on the NFL landscape’s earned love affair with Lamar Jackson. With the Ravens passer out of sight on the sideline, the conversation slowly turned from magic to misery as our collective gaze went from the 40-plus points he piled on the Rams to the mere six their once revered offense mustered.
The two teams are a gorgeous representation of how rapidly fortunes of a team can change. Just over one year ago, the Ravens and Rams could not have been on more opposite ends of the spectrum than where they were as they left the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last Monday night.
Heading into Week 11 of 2018, the Ravens were again mired in mediocrity after eating three straight losses. Their long-time franchise quarterback was at the peak of a now annual refrain. Joe Flacco’s health was failing him and his performance was slipping with his physical well-being. Baltimore was forced to turn over the reins to a radically different force in its first-round rookie quarterback and remake its identity on the fly. The Ravens had re-charted their course straight into uncharted waters.
On the other side of the country, the Rams were riding at the highest heights in the regular season. Sporting a 9-1 record, Sean McVay and company were prepared to take their offensive juggernaut to battle with a worthy adversary in Patrick Mahomes’ unit. As the Rams emerged victorious from a 54-51 Monday night show-stopper against Kansas City, it wasn’t uncommon to hear NFL analysts say that the shootout had altered the sport forever.
A new era was said to have arrived. And the Rams were meant to be at the forefront.
Since that time, it has been one set of disappointment after another for the Rams. Weeks later, two NFC competitors hung losses on them that began to write the blueprint on how to stop an offense that had befuddled the league. Bill Belichick would go on to perfect it two months later in the Super Bowl. The All-Pro running back who was a foundational piece in their scoring unit would become one of the NFL’s most mysterious figures as his health became the center of weekly public debate. An offensive line that had long been the unsung hero to their franchise’s turnaround got old and ineffective seemingly overnight.
The most consequential decision came in the shadow of all these negative events. The Rams unfurled a $134 million deal for Jared Goff just before the 2019 season kicked off. It contained over $110 million in guaranteed money, the most ever handed to an NFL player at the time. It was as firm a commitment as the team could make to a QB who was universally looked at with one eyebrow raised. His down-the-stretch and Super Bowl face-plant only increased the skepticism that his admittedly gorgeous statistical profile was anything more than a Sean McVay-created illusion.
McVay for his part, rejected the notion that he was the puppet master behind Goff’s success. He tied the two at the hip when he told NFL Media in June that, “all the narratives out there are wrong,” regarding Goff’s worth and that a contract extension would get done. He doesn’t dictate personnel decisions but he made it clear where he stood on this one.
That’s because for all his brilliance as a play-caller, swank as an offensive designer and majesty as a leader of men in his locker room, when it comes to one tried and true principle, Sean McVay is as much of a coward as anyone in the NFL. No team will willingly walk out of the faux comfort of quarterback purgatory and into quarterback wilderness. Believe someone will, when you see it and never a second before.
The Rams were a test study for anyone who wanted to see a team eschew paying elite-level money to a non-elite passer. With a sharp offensive-minded coach who was proven to be a quarterback elevator and on the same page with GM Les Snead and the organization’s all-in mindset, the Rams had the ecosystem to experiment. Snead could continue to fortify one of the NFL’s most enviable rosters with talent while McVay coached up a cavalcade of new quarterbacks auditioning to be the point guard of his tantalizing system. But they were unwilling to mix their potion in that cloudy beaker.
Now they sit in a wilderness of their own creation. As the ecosystem has crumbled around him, Jared Goff ranks 27th in adjusted yards per attempt and 31st in QBR. Let’s be clear: it’s not all his fault. The offensive line is broken. Gurley’s health, and therefore deployment continues to be a weekly roller coaster. A few of the passing game weapons have been in and out of the lineup all year. But let’s be equally clear: the Rams are not the only bad offensive line in the NFL nor the lone operation rolling out a skill position battlestation operating at less than full strength.
The beauty of an elite quarterback is they’re meant to cover up the sins of the rest of a roster. For the Rams, it seems their transgressions are on display with a mega spotlight with each passing week.
Those same sins will be a ferocious talking point as L.A. heads toward its first official crossroads of the McVay era. Here in 2019, the Rams sit at 6-5 and are unlikely to make the playoffs. Yet, the bills on their two-year “all-in” approach are about to come due. The team already has 53 percent of its 2020 salary cap tied down to five players: Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Jalen Ramsey. Of that group, only Donald and perhaps Ramsey will exit this season without major questions surrounding them. The roster gets thin fast and they don’t have the resources to stockpile cheap talent. As things stand now, they’ll go without making a Round 1 draft selection until 2022, marking a near unheard of five-year drought.
McVay will decide much of where the Rams go from here. The central figure in a remarkable turnaround from a league bottom-dweller to Super Bowl participant, we should still believe he’s up to the task. His resume tells us he’s a sharp coach. As we know, contending over the long haul is near impossible. The Patriots are one of the only operations to pull it off. The key phrase to New England’s multi-layered success is evolution. Now it’s time for McVay to evolve along with his Rams squad.
McVay must navigate the next chapter of the Rams, one that won’t look like the first. The roster won’t be as pristine. The offensive system cannot remain the same. Contributions from players like Goff and Gurley must be properly contextualized to the new reality of their capabilities, not how they were viewed years ago. Perhaps McVay considers no longer going it alone on offense as the head coach/offensive coordinator figure, instead placing himself more as the CEO of the team that still leans toward one side of the ball in a Belichick-like way. Either way, he’ll pull off this remake in the pressure cooker a move to a massive new stadium will naturally require.
We got one glimpse of evolution from McVay back in Week 11, as he suddenly reversed course with his shuffled offensive line. He pivoted the offense to a power-blocking, run-first team that took shots off play-action from two-tight end sets. That was enough to beat the lowly Bears on Sunday night, but it will need to be more drastic and cannot take as long as it did to unfold in 2019 as he prepares to go down one path of this crossroads.
In the NFL, the clock is always ticking. The time to flip the page to the next chapter of the Los Angeles Rams has already begun.
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