Peter King recently left his Sports Illustrated MMQB gig, and has embarked on a new chapter at NBC Sports. But things are not only changing for King; according to him the guard is also changing in the NFC, and all this time it was “really only four or five cutting-edge decisions,” away.
Yes, from his new perch King has proclaimed that the Los Angeles Rams are his favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. He reached this conclusion after touring 22 of the league’s 32 camps over the last five weeks.
Here we are, three days before the start of the NFL’s 99th season, and there is no team in recent history that has done a 180 like the Rams of the past year. I’m about to do something that is either insane, or an illustration of how quickly life changes in a league that churns so fast and so furious, or maybe it’s a sign that building a good football team really takes only four or five cutting-edge decisions. But after seeing 22 teams in five weeks on my camp trip, it was hard to come away from Rams camp thinking they shouldn’t be a Super Bowl favorite.
Labor Day 2017: The Rams were trying not to be a laughingstock anymore, with the youngest coach in modern NFL history, a quarterback desperate for a detour from bust-dom, a GM hanging on for dear life, and no one to put on a billboard in a sprawling market that demanded stars. Best two players on this team: a defensive tackle and a punter.
Labor Day 2018: The Rams, defending NFC West champs, are darlings. That chortled-at peach-fuzzy coach, Sean McVay, is the reigning coach of the year. Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald are returning offensive and defensive players of the year. That disastrous quarterback, Jared Goff, had a 100.5 rating, fifth in the league and higher than a few great QBs—Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Ryan, Rivers and Wilson.
And now I’m going all-in on a franchise that last won a playoff game in January 2005, when “Meet the Fockers” was the top movie at the box office.
The real substance of the article though is when King provides up with a glimpse into what head coach is cooking up on offense this year. Despite radical improvement last season, McVay is well aware that success means staying ahead of the league’s plotting defensive coordinators; and therefore his offense cannot remain the same.
I’m picking the Rams because they’ve done a good job playing down their worst-to-first offense last year, realizing if they were really the Warriors of the NFL they wouldn’t have stunk it up in the playoffs against Atlanta. They added the kind of versatile and durable deep threat that Sammy Watkins wasn’t in Brandin Cooks, who can play all over the offensive formation.
McVay told me in camp he realizes he has to stay progressive to remain ahead of the defenses that have spent an offseason studying his play-calling, his tempo, even his cadences. Early one morning, in his tape den on the campus of UC-Irvine, McVay told me what he’d spent the last few months working on. “The basic thing for us is: What are we doing offensively in order to try and conflict defenses? Whether it’s their matchup responsibilities, or being able to learn our cadence, learn our formations and motion and tempo. We have to use those as weapons to apply pressure to the defense. Our offense is totally different now from this time a year ago. I think it’s all about adjusting and adapting to our players.”
Why would McVay want to make his offense “totally different” from the best offense in the game last fall? “I would say that in terms of some of the core ways of we run the football—some of the personnel groupings that we operate out of might be different. But the way we’ll do it, whether it be formationally, whether it be tempo-driven, at the line, in the huddle … In the span of a year, our players’ ability to process has enabled us to have a little bit more versatility.”
The Rams got better on defense too, if a pair of incendiary corners can stay on the field. They added cover corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, who need the kind of gentle but smart hand of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to make them each 16-game factors. The Aaron Donald signing was vital, not just for Donald’s peace of mind, but to know this great player is the center of a strong defense for the next seven years.
Of course, the continuing development of Jared Goff is vital. I trust McVay here. How can you not?
Division winners: Philadelphia, New Orleans, Minnesota, Los Angeles.
Wild-card teams: Atlanta, Green Bay.
Seeds: 1. Philadelphia, 2. Rams, 3. Minnesota, 4. New Orleans, 5. Green Bay, 6. Atlanta
NFC title game: Los Angeles 26, Philadelphia 24.
In case you weren’t already fired up to get this season started, this read should get you there.
If you were already fired up, then boy, is it gonna be hard to wait until the final game of Week 1 to see the Rams finally kickoff against Oakland on Monday Night Football.