The 2017 Los Angeles Rams are going to be a team of change, for better or for worse.
Going from the Jeff Fisher era to Sean McVay’s first season as head coach, everything is subject to transition. Practices. Offseason schedules. Game week. Roster moves. Inactive 7-man groups on Sundays. Culture. Gameplans. System. Everything.
Given the overwhelming scope of the change the team is undergoing coupled with a 4-12 record last year on the back of the NFL’s worst offense, it’s easy to see where early projections have placed the 2017 Rams. Of the nine staff members who offered our win-loss predictions back when the schedule was released, seven of us had the Rams as a 6- or 7-win team. Only Brandon Bate had the courage to posit the Rams could win 8 games.
Now, he has company.
In their updated post-draft projections (insider subscription required), Football Outsiders has set the mean win level for the Los Angeles Rams at 8.2. The mean. That’s...encouraging. Their justification isn’t wildly irrational either:
Our Rams forecast got a lot of surprised reaction when we published our projections in April. There are two big reasons for the positive prediction. First, it is almost impossible for the Rams' offense to be as bad in 2017 as it was in 2016. Last year's Rams had the fourth-worst offensive DVOA in the past 30 seasons. Improving that to just garden-variety bad, something akin to last year's Texans, would be worth a win or two. Second, Wade Phillips has a phenomenal record of improving defenses in his first year as head coach or defensive coordinator.
Phillips' scheme will likely have a similar effect in Los Angeles, where the defense was already loaded with talent in the front seven but underperformed and finished just 15th in defensive DVOA in 2016. Our current projections put them 28th on offense, second on defense (behind Seattle), and third on special teams (behind Baltimore and New England), which would be enough to make the Rams playoff contenders.
In their compiled standings based on mean wins, the Rams finish just outside the playoffs with the seventh slot in the NFC despite finishing third in the NFC West behind the 11-win Seattle Seahawks and 9-win Arizona Cardinals who both make the playoffs.
Now to help buy into their projection, there’s no doubt this is one of the easier schedules the Rams have faced in recent years. FO has it as the 23rd most-difficult strength of schedule in 2017. And there’s certainly an easy case to be made that the Rams have played below their talent level, especially in 2014 and even 2015.
But there are SO...MANY...VARIABLES working against the Rams just to get to .500 in year one under McVay. The two that stick out to me with these projections? The loftiness of the defensive projection (2nd in the NFL...) and the fact it doesn’t touch on injuries. FO themselves ranked the Rams as the healthiest team in the NFL in 2016, meaning they were lucky, fortunate just to get to 4-12 and post that league-worst offense. Injuries on either side could have made the team even worse. We’re certain not to enjoy a similar level of circumstance this season.
Nonetheless, the lack of supporting evidence means this season is wildly up in the air. Anything (within reason) is possible. That’s more deserving of anticipation and attention than anything Rams fans have been presented with for the last two seasons.