The Los Angeles Rams are going into the 2020 season entering a new, state of the art stadium, and welcoming new senior coaches to head coach Sean McVay’s staff. By far the biggest change will be how the organisation adapts to COVID-19 protocols, and whether the players abide by them. Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and his family all caught COVID-19 during the summer. No one at the facility is in any doubt about how close to home the threat will be. The Rams pride themselves on doing things the innovative way. It made sense that when an NFL reporter was given a behind the scenes feel for how a professional football facility should equip itself for COVID-19, that it was the Rams showcasing its protocols. Reggie Scott, Vice President of Sports Medicine with the L.A. Rams showed NFL Media’s Steve Wyche around, placing the emphasis on education. Testing took place all last week. Players came in wearing masks and got their temperatures checked. New face shields to go with the players helmets are being fine tuned. The locker rooms and cafeteria have been overhauled to reflect social distancing guidelines. The onus is on mitigating the risk of spread.
The seismic challenges facing Rams management will be felt at every NFL facility. Some players believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Others believe that if someone sneezes fifteen feet away they might die. There is a lot of educational work underway to tackle perceptions and address player safety. This week, I’ll look at how the Rams have evolved as a franchise to the team opening up a new stadium in five weeks with some essential building blocks in place to help them compete. Down and Dirty Pictures After a longstanding period based in L.A., the Rams moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1994. Five seasons after relocating, they won the Super Bowl in 2000, beating the Tennessee Titans 23-16, completing a sensational ride for quarterback Kurt Warner, who four years earlier was stacking shelves in a grocery store in Iowa. The team earned the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf” for their explosive and historic offense. The Rams played in St Louis until the end of the 2015 season before returning to L.A. When the team moved back to L.A. in 2016, they were one of the worst teams in football. Amazon’s documentary series All or Nothing followed the Rams for the entire season and was at the Rams facility when head coach Jeff Fisher told the players he had been fired. In a surreal turn, cameras capture Fisher, with a puppy in his arms, standing in front of the gate at the team facility when the buses left for the airport a couple of days after his firing, saluting his former team.
With Fisher gone, the Rams brought in an offensive whiz from Washington, Sean McVay, to be their new head coach. Scheme Fit Sean McVay’s speedy ascent in the NFL can in part be attributed to his remarkable photographic memory. His ability to remember and recite plays called ten years ago serves him well as the youngest head coach in the modern era of the NFL. He might have learned the offensive scheme from Kyle Shanahan, under whom he worked in Washington, but he certainly has put his own twist on it. It enabled him to become Coach of the Year in his first season and take the Rams to the Super Bowl in his second. He has terrific swagger and is deeply charismatic, whether speaking to the media or his players.
To listen to McVay, is to hear a young coach immersed in his work and yet appreciative to be where he is. I’ve heard other head coaches talking about ‘being efficient’ the week building up to a game. Never before have I heard one thoughtfully reference how this applies to his own sleep cycle. McVay told ProFootballTalk that on Monday through Wednesday he gets a brutal four hours sleep per night, while Thursday through Sunday he aims for nine with a daytime nap. The formula seems to be working for him. Little wonder he received a contract extension after Super Bowl 53 through the 2023 season. The Rams most precious asset is locked up for the long run. When asked about his coaching philosophy, McVay described the need to never shy away from an opportunity to be aggressive if it will benefit the team. He also could have been describing the aggressive manner in which the Rams have handled their roster since 2017. The Roster I normally start each team preview with the quarterback and offense, but this week I’ll start with the best defensive player in football: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is making the case to be the dominant interior lineman of all time. He is capable of making so many disruptive plays in a game and evading offensive linemen, even when they double team him. Donald is adept at strip sacking quarterbacks. The Rams have a new defensive coordinator now that legendary Wade Philips has moved on. They won’t be a top five defense, but with Aaron Donald, they still have the best defender in all of football who can single-handedly lead the defense. Pro Football Focus analyses every player and team, and they named Donald their NFL Defensive Player of the Year over Stephon Gilmore, the actual player of the year. He was second in forced fumbles.
They gave up two first-round draft picks and a fourth for Jalen Ramsey, a player who is signed only through 2020. Ramsey agitated for a trade from Jacksonville, and very soon, he’ll be the highest paid cornerback in the league. He is one the best, and he gives the Rams a chance to shut down top wide receivers in the NFC West, including DeAndre Hopkins, Tyler Lockett and Deebo Samuel. Coming off a poor showing in the Super Bowl, 2019 was a tough season for Rams quarterback Jared Goff. He struggled to read pressure, albeit wasn’t helped by his offensive line. A former number one overall pick in the draft, Goff is joined at the hip to the head coach Sean McVay, who turned him into a very good player during the 2017-18 season. Goff is a good system quarterback, throwing one of the best deep balls in the NFL. The Rams made him one of the best paid players in football and they can still win with him, even if he is a middle of the road quarterback. His chemistry with wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods is crucial for the Rams. At running back, Cam Akers looks like an excellent replacement for Todd Gurley and will take pressure off Goff.
Way Out West The NFC West is the best division in football. Last season, the San Francisco 49ers were eight minutes away from winning the Super Bowl, and in the division decider in Seattle, the Seahawks were inches from winning the NFC West, and confining the 49ers to a more perilous playoff route.
Bar the revitalized Arizona Cardinals, each team including the Rams has a very solid head coach and general manager partnership. Part of the building blocks of competitiveness of each of the top three franchises in this division emanates from those stable foundations.
The Rams know they’re in a dogfight to get a playoff spot. It is conceivable that three teams can advance from the division. I expect each team to take games off each other and predict that the 49ers will win the division by winning only eleven games. The Seahawks, emboldened defensively by the Jamal Adams trade, will follow them and the Rams will sneak into the playoffs with eight wins.
City of Angels
Opening night for the Rams sees the Dallas Cowboys come to town. Just getting to Sunday Night Football in a new stadium will feel like a major achievement. With players opting out and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford placed on the COVID-19 list as of Saturday, five weeks is a long way away.
Since losing to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2019, rumors of the Rams demise have been a little exaggerated. The NFL is littered with teams that have a hangover after losing the biggest game of all. Todd Gurley, to whom they gave superstar money, has departed and is still eating up salary cap space. Nonetheless, they are still a decent team. Sean McVay remains a play calling mastermind and has established a winning culture at the club. And when you have a talent like Aaron Donald you always have a chance to give your offense the ball back.
As the L.A. Rams have shown with their COVID-19 preparations, the team that adapts best has a competitive advantage come week one in September 2020. Don’t sleep on them.