Time to throw some fuel on the hopeful fire.
ESPN is starting to put out some 2017 preview material. Today, they’re covering which team they think will make the playoffs after missing out last season (insider subscription required). Of the six experts they polled, two chose the Los Angeles Rams:
Dan Graziano, NFL Insider: I like the Los Angeles Rams. Coordinator Wade Phillips' impact on the defense and head coach Sean McVay's intelligence and energy will be enough to vault them to their first winning season since 2003. Also helping their case: The Cardinals are due for a downturn and Seattle's ship looked a little leaky last year. Obviously, there's some concern about how Jared Goff meshes with the new coaching staff and learns a whole new system. But I'll give that staff and running back Todd Gurley the benefit of the doubt. Don't underestimate the impact of veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the offensive line, either.
Aaron Schatz, editor of Football Outsiders: I'm driving the Rams bandwagon this year. OK, I guess it's more of a minivan, but more folks should be hopping aboard once they realize Phillips' phenomenal record of improving defenses in his first year as coordinator. (I wrote about that in detail here.) The offense isn't going to be good, but there's no way it will be as bad as last year. The 2016 Rams had the fourth-worst offense in the history of our DVOA stats, which stretches all the way back to 1987. The other teams in the bottom dozen improved by an average of three wins the next year, and three of those teams had winning records.
Schatz’s support isn’t all that surprising given that FO recently updated their mean projections that have the Rams at 8.2 mean wins this year. The sheer fact that 1⁄3 of the experts have the Rams making the playoffs though is what’s striking.
And perhaps the real takeaway is just how volatile projecting this season is.
You’ve got experts, quantitative and analytical and...well others, offering legitimate reasons to buy into an immediate revival of the franchise under new Head Coach Sean McVay. And then you have oddsmakers who have the Rams as underdogs in EVERY...SINGLE...GAME measured up against the odds that have the Rams as the second-longest shot to win the conference.
Really what this comes down to is a referendum on coaching. It partly depends on how much you think former Head Coach Jeff Fisher held the talent on the roster back and how quickly you think McVay can resuscitate the careers of some that talent that Fisher suppressed.
From QB Jared Goff to RB Todd Gurley to WR Tavon Austin to OL Greg Robinson, the offensive depth chart under Fisher featured a bunch of failed first-round picks. If McVay can capture a shred of improved production from that group while making good on the additions through free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft while facilitating a defensive improvement under Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, you’re looking at a scenario in which the Rams could have the chance to end a 13-season run without a winning record.
It’s asking a lot of ducks to line up in a row, but hey. Crazier things have happened.