There is no use beating around the bush. The Rams' passing offense in 2015 was a train wreck.
QB Nick Foles was a disaster when he was healthy. The offensive line was a broken shell of what it was supposed to be. The receiving corps lacked a real threat outside of WR Tavon Austin.
Trading for Foles was a mistake from the jump. His film in Philadelphia did not match the numbers he put up, especially in 2013. The situation he had in Philadelphia was much better than what the Rams were going to give him, too. The move’s only net positive was that it rid the team of Sam Bradford’s contract, but Foles ranking 34th in yards per attempt and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns temporarily distorted the idea that the trade had any sort of value.
The receiving corps that Foles was working with was abysmal in its own way. Austin provided a legitimate deep and underneath threat, but he is not the type of player who can catch 100 passes a year and efficiently spearhead a passing offense (Editors' note: Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher seems to disagree...). WR Kenny Britt was the wide receiver equivalent to a pack of Jelly Belly BeanBoozled candies. He didn’t bother blocking in the run game, but TE Jared Cook had his moments as a pass catcher, though he was generally an afterthought. WR Brian Quick, like every other season, was taking another year to prepare for his eventual breakout campaign in 2024. In its entirety, the Rams' receiving group was an eye sore last season.
Being as futile as the passing offense was last year, the Rams made a point to rebuild the offense over the 2016 offseason primarily through the NFL Draft. Improving the quarterback position was priority number one. After two trades, Les Snead and company were able to land the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, using the pick to select their could-be franchise quarterback Jared Goff.
Goff operated in a tweaked Air Raid system dubbed the "Bear Raid" at Cal. The system incorporated a few more "pro-style" concepts than a normal Air Raid and also asked Goff to be more responsible at the line that a lot of other Air Raid quarterbacks. Still, throughout his career, Goff developed an affinity for certain route concepts, while others gave him trouble. In general, timing routes and hole-shots were a big part of Goff’s success at Cal, and that should be carried over to the NFL.
The front office entirely retooled the receiving corps too, and they will also need accommodations with certain route combinations. Britt and rookie WR Michael Thomas can, for the most part, be used in the same ways, providing size and a nice catch radius on the boundary. Rookie WR Pharoh Cooper can be a do-it-all for the Rams. He can be lined up anywhere and be schemed into success, though he would have the best opportunity to succeed as a slot receiver. Tavon Austin is the undisputed top receiver on the team, who can be used primarily as a deep and underneath threat. He needs to be allowed to simply make plays.
Even the tight end position was reinvented with the move to Los Angeles. Cook was not re-signed by the Rams and is now with the Green Bay Packers. Lance Kendricks went with the team to the golden state, but the Rams took it upon themselves to get younger and more athletic at the position through the draft. In the fourth and sixth rounds of the draft, respectively, the Rams drafted Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway. Both young tight ends are agile for their size and provide more as pass catchers over the middle of the field than they do as run blockers- a typical trend in today’s NFL.
Lastly, Todd Gurley can be a weapon out of the backfield. He caught 21 passes last year, and that number should end up on the better side of 30 if Gurley plays the entire season. Gurley is a menace any time he touches the ball. Manufacturing touches to him in the passing game, especially with a young receiving corps, would be a smart move.
Offensive co-coordinators Rob Boras and Mike Groh will need to concoct a passing attack that not only makes Goff feel comfortable in his rookie year, but one that also best utilizes each of its unique weapons. While the youthful offense will have growing pains regardless of how well the offense is put together, there are a handful of passing concepts that the Rams can lean on to ease those pains and provide comfort for both the quarterback and the receivers.
Using Other Athletes to Feed Todd Gurley
It’s no secret that Gurley and Austin are easily the team’s best playmakers.
Gurley has already established himself as a top three running back in the NFL, while Austin has proven he can be a dynamic player once the ball is in his hands. The two were used in conjunction last year, though it was mostly in the run game. The Rams ran plenty of end-arounds and fake end-arounds that gave defenses trouble. When there is a possibility of two different electric ball carriers getting the ball on a given play, it’s tough for a defense to commit to defending either one. If the defense is wrong, the Rams are more than likely able to move the chains, if not score. The Rams can incorporate that same idea in the passing game next year.
Goff ran plenty of concepts in college that used other receivers to create space on the perimeter for a running back running a swing/shoot route out of the backfield. It’s a concept he has familiarity with and proved that he execute well.
In both plays, all the room near the boundary to the running back’s side is cleared out. The first play goes to the side with a lone receiver, creating what should be a 1-on-1 situation on the perimeter for the running back. If Austin is that receiver running the slant, cornerbacks will be hesitant to pass him off to the next defender because they know Austin just needs a sliver of space to make a big play. Cornerbacks being just a bit more hesitant than usual would allow Gurley to have a step or two extra to work with before finding contact, which is a lot for a running back who gains so much power with each step.
In the second example, a trey formation out of the shotgun, the receiver holding the defense to the middle of the field is a ‘move’ or ‘jumbo slot’ tight end, the same role Higbee and Hemingway would thrive in. With either of those two in that spot, likely Higbee because of his higher draft position, defenses will have to be cautious of giving a big athlete like him any space. As for the other two receivers in the set, it would be best to use the team’s best deep threats, which would put Britt on the boundary with Austin lined up inside of him. With those two running up the field, defensive backs won’t be likely to clamp down on Gurley running out of the backfield because they would be risking a big gain, especially if Austin was their coverage assignment.
The two play calls are not identical, but the goal is constant: create space on the boundary for Gurley to make a play. Defenses may eventually catch on and start jumping on Gurley’s routes earlier, but Goff is a smart enough quarterback to pick up on that, adjust his line of thinking and get the ball to a different receiver that has been left open because of the attention Gurley attracts.
Using the Middle of the Field for Timing Routes
Goff is not the next Peyton Manning, but there aspects of his game that are reminiscent of Manning. Manning made a living out of the ‘levels’ concept and other sharp timing routes over the middle of the field. Dig routes, deep curls over the hash, snag routes by tight ends; all of those in-breaking routes were staples of Manning’s repertoire, and the same could be said for Goff’s career at Cal.
The 6-10 yards snag or curl route is as basic as tight end routes get. It’s more about being able to create a small pocket of space by bodying a linebacker than it is about running the route quickly, but it doesn’t have to be. The Rams have options for this route. They can go the old-fashioned way with Kendricks, who is more of an in-line tight end, or they can look to the two athletic rookies.
With Kendricks, the route would probably be ran a bit shorter than it would with the other two. He does not have the speed to scare linebackers into a backpedal before he plants and turns around to look for the ball. He does provide a physical presence, though, and can be a player Goff trusts in the short game to box out linebackers fairly well and fight for the ball. Kendricks won’t be flashy or be a threat to run after the catch on these passes, but he can allow Goff to pick up a few easy yards.
Higbee and Hemingway, on the other hand, would be best suited running the route with more space to work with. As ‘jumbo slot’ receivers, both rookies would have enough space between themselves and the linebacker to pick up steam. If the Rams happen to run a fair amount of crossers, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, the rookies could sell the intermediate crossing route before planting and looking for the ball. With as deadly as either of them could be in space, linebackers may play off of them more so than other tight ends, giving Goff an extra half second to fit the throw in before a defender contests the route.
Deep curls over the hash were critical to Goff’s success at Cal. Having a receiver like Kenny Lawler, who had a sturdy frame and strong hands, allowed him to be comfortable firing that throw in. Britt has the frame and flashes of ability in contested catch points, but he should not be a player who is forced to create separation over the middle of the field. Thomas and Cooper would be much better suited for the job, but for different reasons.
Thomas is not a burner, but he has plenty of explosion in his legs to fly out of route breaks. When breaking off his route to work back to the ball, Thomas’ explosion will come in quite handy. He has has a spectacular catch radius, a strong frame and good hands, giving him more than enough tools to fight through the traffic that consistently floods the middle of the field.
Conversely, Cooper is a shifty route runner. He can trick cornerbacks into opening their hips early or jump on the wrong route breaks. When running routes that work back to the quarterback, Cooper excels at being able to sell his route up the field, then abruptly plant his feet, flip his hips and find the ball. His ability to create space for himself at the route break will make him a solid producer on sharp routes over the middle of the field.
The Rams have two quality options for tunnel screens. Austin does his best work when he gets the ball immediately and had a handful of big plays last season that came off of tunnel screens. In addition to Austin, Cooper can be used on these routes. He is not going to be as explosive or creative, but he has enough shiftiness to find a solid chunk of yards. He is also strong for his size and plays with a mean streak, which should enable him to fight for a few yards here and there. In situations like 2nd-and-three, tossing a quick screen to Cooper could be an easy first down.
Run-pass options can be a combination of a plethora of different concepts. For the Rams, it’s more than likely that the run options are inside or outside zone plays. The pass options have much more flexibility. Any route combination can be tagged to the run option, though it requires the reads to be shortened, often making it a single receiver concept.
In run-pass options, the offensive line blocks for the running play, meaning the quarterback has less protection and less time to get the ball out. The best run-pass option designs use the flow of the run option in unison with the pass option. For example, Hue Jackson schemed up a fair amount of ‘pop’ passes to his tight ends on run-pass options.
The right side of the line blocks for an outside zone play, while the left side of the line gets into a quick pass set. The run fake gets the middle linebacker to hesitate before dropping into coverage, allowing just enough room for tight end Tyler Eifert to bend inside of the Browns safety and haul in a touchdown pass.
The Rams can pull off this sort of thing with their own offense. Goff has plenty of experience with run-pass options due to his time at Cal. With Gurley at running back, these plays could work especially well because teams will always prioritize Gurley. He’s too dangerous not to be prioritized. The chance of him getting the ball will surely get linebackers to pause before returning to their coverage assignments. Goff, as aware as he is, should have more than enough time and space to complete his passes on run-pass options.
Putting It All Together
The Rams' passing offense is an enigma. In theory, the possibilities are endless. There is a smart signal caller leading the offense, a variety of different talents at receiver and a running back that can ease pressure off of the passing attack. In reality, Goff will make plenty of mental errors because he is a rookie. He is certainly intelligent, but there is a steep learning curve in the NFL. The wide receivers are also young, for the most part. They are going to struggle with the nuances of how to separate in the NFL. It’s a different landscape than college, and the defensive backs they will be facing are fare less forgiving.
As exciting as all the new pieces are, the passing offense still will not be good. It should be fun, though. A young quarterback, even with his blemishes, is always fascinating to watch and track how he develops from week to week. It will be refreshing to see a calculated, risk-averse passer such as Goff leading the Rams offense, because Foles was a reckless disaster and Case Keenum was the same type of passer, but he is not the caliber of player that should be starting for any team.
The receiving corps will also be refreshing. Four of the presumptive top seven targets, not including Gurley, are rookies, many of whom provide a unique trait that the Rams offense did not have last season. Seeing how they pair with Austin and open up his game will be intriguing.
It’s going to take time for the passing offense to develop into a legitimate threat, but the blueprint is there. There are a lot of young pieces that can grow together. Likewise, there is a core of concepts that can be ran, this year and going forward, to best maximize the talent that the Rams will work with in 2016.
Time will tell how good the Rams passing offense can become in the near future, but make no mistake, it should be better than it was in 2015.