St. Louis Rams 2013 season outlook: Two steps back?

USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Rams will be a better team this season, right? Not so fast, according to the projection system from Football Outsiders.

After finishing the 2012 season with a 7-8-1 record, including the best record in the NFC West, people are expecting big things from the St. Louis Rams in 2013. Sure, maybe it's not a Super Bowl year (sorry, New York Post), but Jeff Fisher's team definitely got better during the offseason, right?

Maybe not.

Football Outsiders' rolled out it's playoff projections and DVOA projections this week. In short, the numbers don't add up to a very good season from the Rams.

How many wins?

Six.

That's what FO is projecting for the Rams this season, a 6-10 year, in terms of mean wins. Wait, we thought the Rams were supposed to get better. What gives?

Start with the schedule. Using FO's metrics, the Rams have the 7th toughest schedule in the league. And that matches what you see on the calendar, not to mention playing in the most difficult division in the NFL right now.

A second factor FO is banking on is the lack of experience the Rams have at wide receiver and running back. The receivers have a total of 1,371 career receiving yards. The running backs have a total of 529 career rushing yards. I'm less concerned about the running backs' lack of experience because it's usually one of the easier positions to pick up in the transition from college to the NFL.

For receivers, experience is a different matter entirely. The Rams have some real talent among their receivers, especially Tavon Austin, but the adjustment process for those players takes time. It's also prone to ups and downs, which can be costly in games.

Efficiency

Wins can be kind of flukly, a bad bounce here, a fumble recovered there, injuries ... wins are subject to things that a team can't always control. Where FO's projections get really frightening is projecting the DVOA for the Rams this season.

First, this is what they mean by DVOA:

DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and measures a team's performance on every play of the season compared to league average in the same situation, adjusted for opponent.

Offense, defense, and special teams DVOA are all projected separately using a system based on looking at trends for teams over the past decade. The equations include a number of variables based on performance over the past two seasons in different splits (by down, passing vs. rushing, red zone vs. whole field) plus variables based on recent draft history, injury history, offensive and defensive pace, coaching experience, quarterback experience, and even weather. Strength of schedule was then figured based on the average projected total DVOA of all 16 opponents for 2013, rather than based on last year's performance.

FO has the 2013 Rams with an overall DVOA of -17.3 percent. That's the third worst mark in the NFL, per these projections. By comparison, the 2012 Rams finished the season with an overall DVOA of 1.1 percent. That's a pretty big drop.

Their DVOA project a slide backwards for both the offense and the defense.

Last year's offense had a -4.4 percent DVOA. This year's offensive is projected to have a -14.7 percent DVOA. That means the Rams won't be scoring many touchdowns, if these numbers prove to be accurate.

The defensive DVOA drop was what I found to be the biggest head scratcher. This projection calls for a 2.2 percent DVOA (and remember, with defensive DVOA, negative numbers are better). Last year's defense had a -9.2 percent DVOA, which was the seventh-best number in the NFL.

I can see some drop off because of the safety position, and maybe a little more because replacing Jo-Lonn Dunbar with Alec Ogletree isn't a 1:1 swap, not to start with anyway. And replacing Dunbar with Will Witherspoon is definitely a big drop off.

There is some good news. The special teams numbers look better. After finishing last season with -3.4 percent DVOA on special teams, FO is calling for a -0.3 percent DVOA on special teams.

Conclusions

It was pretty startling to see these numbers, because it just doesn't look like the Rams should be taking that much of a dip in production this year. Football Outsiders isn't just pulling these numbers out of thin air. There's an established track record here, and they're still the best in the business when it comes to advance metrics.

However, projections are a different matter entirely. Take them with a dose of skepticism. The staff at FO even added in another post that they think the Rams will beat their projections.

Here's FO editor Aaron Schatz:

St. Louis. I think the defense is young enough to avoid the regression suggested by the system, although the offense still looks like a mess of unfulfilled potential.

And here's Tom Gower:

St. Louis Rams. As I discussed in Scramble, I think the defense will continue to be good and like the offensive pieces and Jeff Fisher's ability to get the most out of most mediocre teams.

We'll see what happens, starting Sunday.

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