It's a winner: Can the Rams surprise the league this year?

The excitement of downloading my copy of Football Outsiders 2009 Almanac was like Christmas in July, but cracking open the Rams section and reading that they have a legitimate shot at a winning season, even a playoff run, was like Christmas and the first time - the first time I saw the Rams win the Super Bowl that is - all rolled into one. A prediction like this, from a recognized legitimate source (i.e. this ain't no Peter King prediction) merits its own discussion.

However, because the FO Almanac is a great tool at an affordable price, I'm not going to delve far into detail (there's lots of detail) out of respect to their business and the service they provide. With that out of the way let's jump right and look at why they think the Rams will turn things around in 2009.

To begin, you have to understand something about the way FO analyses and project offense. In their work, offense is easier to project because it is more consistent from year to year than defense. At the heart of this idea is the closer correlation that offense has with winning than defense. This isn't the time or place to get into the whys and hows of that theory, but I'd invite to head over to Football Outsiders to llearn more about it.

Naturally, then, it's improvements and  turnarounds on the offensive side of the ball that could make Sundays fun again, which is sort of ironic on the sruface in a year where the Rams have hired a head coach who made his reputation as a defensive mind. Contributing to the Rams upward swing:

Drafting Jason Smith, improving the offensive line

This is about the improvements on the offensive line, something we've been pointing to for a while, and now the rest of the world is starting to understand too. Teams that use a significant amount of "draft value," i.e. the points assigned to the slots where players are picked, improve on offense the following season. From 2001-2008, twelve teams used 1200 or more draft value points on the OL, all saw their offensive DVOA improve the next season. Four out of five teams that used more than 2000 points (the Rams used 2500 this year) improved by more than 20 percent in terms of their offensive DVOA. I'm going to throw out the Miami example, because I think there are some correlations in the type of offensive systems. From 2007 to 2008, the Dolphins saw their offensive DVOA go from -5.3% to 16.6%.

Games lost to injury

Only two teams lost more games to injury from their players than the Rams did last season. Teams with a high number of injuries one season tend to bounce back in that department the next year. Of course, the Rams of 2007 and the Rams of 2008 were both burdened pretty heavily by injuries, and after being bitten by that once, I'll be gunshy until proven otherwise. However, this is a much younger team than the old (no pun intended) Rams squad. We'll all miss Orlando Pace, but his effectiveness has been slowed considerably as age and its twin injury caught up to the future HOFer. Releasing Pace, like it or not, was a good move for a rebuilding team. The big one here is Steven Jackson, who missed time with injury in the past two seasons. I think his holdout last year certianly contributed to that, but that argument doesn't hold up for 2007. One factor dogging Jackson in those two years was the state of the offensive line, which I don't need to remind you wasn't very good, and offensive line has A LOT to do with running back performance.

Red zone running

The Rams, for the second year in a row, were unsuccessful in the red zone when running the ball. Teams tend to regress to the mean in those categories; teams with two bad years improve at an average of 7.8% DVOA. Here again you have to throw offensive line improvements into the mix.

Red zone passing

The Rams were even worse when they passed in the red zone. As with rushing, those numbers tend to regress to the mean. As bad as Marc Bulger looked in 2008, he actually performed better than he did in 2007, save for those fantasy categories. His accuracy was improved between those two seasons, and if the new offensive line can better protect him (remember, it was the middle were the real problems came from) and the coaches help him get his head back on right, he should to well in Pat Shurmur's offense, a system that utliizes his strengths, i.e. accuracy.

Fumble recovery

Fumble recovery is a mostly random event, due largely to a player being in the right place at the right time, the bounce of the fumbled ball, etc. The Rams offense recovered just 5 of 17 fumbles in 2008. Surely the Rams luck will improve too?

Defensive front

On the other side of the ball, the improvements on defense cannot be discounted in the potential turnaround of the Rams. As with the offensive line, teams that spend a high number of draft value points on players for the front seven of their defense over two years, typically leads to measured improvement. The Rams, with DE Chris Long drafted second overall last year and LB James Laurinaitis and even fourth round DT Darell Scott this season, have spent 3,138 draft value points on their front seven.

There you have the basic ingredients for a real turnaround, but don't take it for granted. There are still plenty of factors that could sink the Rams again, particularly more injuries among the skilled players and new playbooks.

I don't think you have to be a blue and gold kool aid drinker to see that this is a team heading in the right direction. Still, even the most optimistic among us would have a hard time putting our life savings (if only you could wager student loan debt) on an 8-win season, but it is nice to know that such a thing is at least not out of the realm of possibility.

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