(I wrote this last night on my flight home. Thought I’d post it without adjusting for the day’s time shift.)
I’m writing this 37,000 feet above Meteor Crater. This pockmark was formed about 50,000 years ago when the a 160-foot wide meteorite crashed into the Earth, leaving a gaping hole in the Earth’s crust 40,000 feet wide and about 500 feet deep. That meteorite, about as big as half of a football field, left a hole almost a mile wide.
Last night, I sat not far from the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, not far from where the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons, not far from the where the Dirty Birds left a gaping hole in Rams fans hearts a mile wide.
The 2018 NFL Playoffs are now beyond the Wild Card Round with six games left before Super Bowl LII. Once we crown a champion for the season, I’ll look back with a more comprehensive retrospective. But in the aftermath of last night, I thought it worthwhile to look at three things that stuck with me the morning after the Rams’ first playoff game in well more than a decade.
The pass rush around the edge just isn’t sufficient
This is obviously one of the flashpoints the Rams are going to have to work out first through the approaching free agency period opening March 14 but also potentially through the 2018 NFL Draft. For as good as DL Aaron Donald was last night (and he was really, really good), the edge rush was nowhere near sufficient. Time and again as Donald flushed the pocket leaving QB Matt Ryan to push outward extending plays looking for WR Julio Jones or another outlet, Ryan did so with far too much comfort and ease. Bluntly, the combination of OLB Robert Quinn and OLB Connor Barwin does not give Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips enough edge pressure to rely upon consistently. Instead, Phillips has had to use creative blitz packages and plus coverage schemes to generate pressure leaving other gaps in the defense.
Last night, the Falcons exploited those gaps.
One factor the Rams will have to address here that they won’t for many other positions is the number of players returning from injury.
Michael Brockers’ exit last night affected the rush. The injury to OLB Matt Longacre certainly was prevalent. And DE Dominique Easley’s injury in training camp left the Rams without a key starter for the entirety of the 2017 season. Brockers will certainly be back for 2018. What role will Longacre and Easley have next season?
The Sammy Watkins trade effects loom large
The Rams traded CB E.J. Gaines and a 2018 NFL Draft second-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for WR Sammy Watkins and an upcoming sixth-round pick on August 11, 2017. We’ve talked about the trade all season. Both sides have been well-represented in those who support the trade and those who don’t.
For those who have backed the trade all year (including myself), the production of WR Robert Woods and WR Cooper Kupp in the WR2 and WR3 spots has been a frequent piece of evidence. Were they going up against a CB1/CB2 pairing instead of CB2/CB3 or even a combination of one of those corners with linebackers, they would have undoubtedly been less productive. Furthermore, Sammy Watkins’ mere existence as the WR1 doesn’t account for his deep passing game skill set which attracts attention both from the opposition’s top cornerback as well as safety help (and often requiring that safety help is there in the first place).
For those who have opposed the trade, they need not point to much more than Watkins’ production. STATS. And in the three-game stretch where Woods sat out with a shoulder injury, Watkins averaged 3.33 receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown per game. Whether that production is a function of Watkins’ unexceptional individual play or of a limitation put upon the role by the system overseen by Head Coach Sean McVay, it was hardly a statistical line fans will point to in and of itself to be able to justify the trade.
But after last night, we also have a playoff game to point to, the most important small sample size of them all.
In the Rams’ biggest game in 14 seasons, Watkins finished with a single catch for 23 yards. They head into the 2018 offseason in which Watkins is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on the back of a single 23-yard reception performance. It’s just very, very hard to support a major long-term contract on the back of 1-for-23.
Sure, the discussions of whether or not to franchise tag Watkins or perhaps to look for a WR1 replacement either through free agency or the draft or even to elevate the existing roster depth will be discussions we’ll have in the weeks and months ahead.
But they come on the back of one catch. And 23 yards.
And that’s not something that will be able to be changed…or forgotten.
Los Angeles showed out for Rams football
Prior to the game, I met up with tons of Rams fans around the stadium including numerous TST staffers. At one point while I was walking with seattlerams (name check), I mentioned that the attendance and atmosphere compared to Week 17 was notably, and understandably, different.
I remembered the way attendance was covered in the early 1990s as the team ultimately prepared to relocate. I remembered the way fans were slighted for not showing up droves to support a failing product that did not support them back, a way fans were slighted a few years ago in St. Louis. The narrative was the same. The outcome was the same. And the lazy, unprincipled analysis from various media members many of whom stood to gain most from a relocation that have rarely supported fan-driven incentives (which again threaten those same media members’ economic and professional standing) began doing the same thing again last season.
That’s why I thought it important to ask last year about interest and note the preseason attendance and track that story throughout this year because the narrative was always undoubtedly going to creep back. And creep back it did.
For much of the year, Rams fans were left to stave off comments that Los Angeles wasn’t interested in NFL football. Or Rams football. Or whatever. It was always silly, as silly as it was in the 1990s and as silly as it was in St. Louis.
Yesterday, hopefully, we put that to rest.
The Coliseum was raucous from the start last night. There was no late-arriving crowd. Falcons fans didn’t dominate the seats. LA showed up and showed out as Rams fans came from across the country to add to the already strong local base and create a dominating environment.
There will always be jokes. Hell, there might be Week 1 next year if the Rams play at home and there are empty seats again which there might well could be.
If the Rams put together a successful product, they’ll have a crowd behind them just like every other team. If they don’t, they won’t just like every other team.
Last night was special. It wasn’t anywhere close to the end. It’s still the beginning of the beginning.
The Rams fully return to Los Angeles in 2020.
It feels far off, but considering anything else is myopic. The way we think of the 21 years the franchise spent in St. Louis is shrouded in historical perspective. I try to consider a similar perspective when we discuss things contemporaneously. And it’s very, very hard to shake the idea that last night was a celebration of something bigger than a football game.
No the Rams didn’t win the game. They were outplayed and outworked from the go.
But when we look back at this game in three years or ten years or, God keep us longer, we’ll consider it part of a prologue.
And a damn good one.