Free agency, the draft, training camp...all those things are a welcome relief from the offseason doldrums. I even look forward to the preseason because it heralds the return of football. What I really get excited about each August is the release of Football Outsiders' Almanac, the only comprehensive, in-depth preview I still bother reading from cover to cover.
Imagine my surprise when this year's FOA had a mean win projection for the St. Louis Rams of just 5.5 games, far off the expectations. I needed an explanation. As they usually are, the gang at Football Outsides was more than happy to talk to us for a little more insight into their projections for the Rams. Brian McIntyre wrote the Rams' chapter in this year's book, and he kindly took answers to our questions.
The low projections for the Rams wasn't pulled out of thin air. There is method to the projection, and one factor is the expectation of the offense struggling to pick up a new system in the early part of the season. It's a very real possibility. We saw just a limited amount of the offense, and a high flying preseason rarely translates into smooth sailing when the shooting starts. Not to worry, the Rams have the ability to overcome the odds, thanks to Sam Bradford.
It's a long interview with FO, but it's well worth your time. Brian even throws in a little teaser about the Eagles game this week. Check it out.
1. FO's mean projection for the Rams' total wins in 2011 is 5.5. Obviously, that reflects a much tougher schedule. Curiously, other teams within the division have better projections. Why do AZ and SF project better than the Rams this year?
Several factors go into the slightly better projections for the Cardinals and 49ers. For starters, there's the plexiglass principle: The idea that teams that improve dramatically from one season to the next tend to settle back the third season. In addition, the Rams have a new offensive coordinator and question marks at the wide receiver position. With no offseason to acclimate to the new system, the Rams' offense can be expected to struggle in the early part of the season. Another factor in the slight difference in expected wins is the Cardinals and 49ers are playing third- and fourth-place schedules this season, while the Rams are playing a second-place schedule. The Cardinals also addressed their biggest question mark - the quarterback position - in free agency, and the 49ers are likely to have a better defense this year.
2. Which teams on the 2011 schedule do the Rams have a chance to surprise?
If there was ever a perfect time to catch the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL's alleged "Dream Team", it would be at home in Week 1. The Eagles recently juggled their offensive line, plus their young linebackers - 2011 fourth-round pick Casey Matthews is starting at middle linebacker - could be susceptible to a steady dose of Steven Jackson.
3. The Rams' struggles against the play action pass last year was one of the more glaring statistical comparisons. How do they improve that this this year? Have they done enough to improve that this year?
Upgrades at safety (Quintin Mikell is a better fit in Steve Spagnuolo's defense) should help, as could a better supporting cast around middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Though he lost time to Chad Greenway in Minnesota, free agent addition Ben Leber had a 71 percent success rate against the pass last season, which ranked fourth among NFL linebackers. Leber's 4.8 adjusted yards allowed per pass ranked 13th, four spots ahead of Laurinaitis.
5. Guessing what Josh McDaniels' offense will look like became the offseason sport of choice in St. Louis. People looked back to what he did in Denver and New England only to find not easy, direct correlation with the Rams. They intend to leave some of the old playbook, roughly 40 percent, and install the new one around that. Given the players surrounding Sam Bradford and what little the preseason revealed, what can we expect this offense to look like?
As much as McDaniels would love to be aggressive with downfield, I'm expecting the Rams to be a balanced, run-first offense that makes heavy use of slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end/h-back Lance Kendricks. If/when Mark Clayton gets healthy, or Mike Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas and Danario Alexander emerge as legitimate threats downfield, McDaniels will open his playbook and take advantage of Bradford's downfield passing ability.
6. Related to the above question, what can we expect from the players in this offense? Who on the roster really stands out as someone who can help push the team beyond its dull, unproductive offense from last year?
It all starts with Sam Bradford, who was outstanding as a rookie and should be even better with an offensive coordinator who won't be as consistently conservative in his play-calling as Pat Shurmur was in 2010. Nothing against Adam Goldberg, but Harvey Dahl should be significant upgrade at right guard. Dahl wakes up in a bad mood and takes it out on opposing defensive linemen, so he brings a little edge to what has been a high-priced, but Downy soft interior line. If the preseason is any indicator, tight end/h-back Lance Kendricks (11-155-3) is going to make an immediate impact on third downs and inside the red zone, the latter of which was an area the Rams struggled in last season. Bradford's DVOA in the red zone last season was-55.0%, second-worst in the league.
Thanks again to Brian and everyone else at FO. Be sure to check them out on the web...you might as well, we'll be referring back to their stats time and time again throughout the season.