Well, here it comes. The biggest game of Head Coach Sean McVay’s head coaching career. And QB Jared Goff’s career. And RB Todd Gurley’s career. And just about every player on the Los Angeles Rams’ roster’s career.
The Rams host the Dallas Cowboys tomorrow in the divisional round of the 2019 NFL Playoffs. It’s just a massive event. And the result of the game will come down to these three factors.
Adjusting for Gurley’s knee injury
Todd Gurley is the most dynamic player on the Rams’ offense. And he’s playing with an injured knee.
We don’t really know just how significant the injury is. Gurley and the Rams have been coy about it since, well, before we even knew about it.
McVay revealed that Gurley was suffering from knee inflammation as early as Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders...after Week 16:
It’s inflammation of the knee. I think just like anything else, when you just look at just the overall pounding that a running back takes. I think a lot of it, too, was a result of, probably wasn’t going to come back in the ‘Philly’ game. He was such a warrior that he ended up coming back in as a result to some of the things that occurred in that game and his ability to gut through and fight through that, probably made it swell up. It was a similar situation earlier in the year after we played Oakland (Raiders) as well.
This was the first time anyone had disclosed publicly that Gurley had suffered any kind of injury at all.
Gurley himself followed up later that day with more info on the knee after Week 1:
Felt like (expletive). It was bad. I was contemplating on giving the Rams back their money and everything (laughs). It was bad. It was real bad.
Yeah, it was kind of one of those, but it was different because I had felt that. I came back in on Wednesday like Oakland game and was like, ‘Oh, I’m back right.’ But, unlike this one, it was more like I got better on Wednesday, but then it was just like slowly like progressing. It was different, but the pain was like kind of the same type.
And so it was that against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15 that Gurley aggravated the injury to the point that the Rams held him out of the final two regular season contests and he still wasn’t healthy enough to fully participate in the first two practices this week.
For the medical perspective, this video explains things pretty well:
So here’s the kind of calculation involved. Gurley isn’t 100%. During warmups, Gurley, the medical staff and the coaching staff will get together to assess what percentage he is at. 90? 80? Whatever it is, he’s going to play. And there are two factors at work here.
For one, McVay is going to have consider two things from a gameplan standpoint. Will he gameplan Gurley’s inclusion as if he were 100% or not? If a fully healthy Gurley were to get 20 rushes and 5 passing targets, how many will a less-than-100% Gurley get? Sure, this is a literal must-win, but if you push Gurley to the wall in a win...you’ve got a game in one week. Everyone was crowing about Gurley’s health on three weeks rest. Imagine pushing him to the wall and then having to play a week later when he couldn’t play or practice for two weeks. So McVay has a tough decision to make here planning-wise.
The second aspect is if he pulls back a bit. If those 20 carries and 5 targets on, say, 95% of offensive snaps becomes 15 carries and 3 targets on 80% of the snaps, how does McVay account for the decreased usage? Do plays that would normally be runs for Gurley become passing plays with Gurley in? Do they become runs for new backup RB C.J. Anderson? How much does Anderson’s performance in the final two weeks affect this kind of decision making?
Preparing to use an injured Gurley in a must-win game is a function of about 20 different decisions. Getting them “right” for whatever the course of the games brings us will be crucial.
McVay’s situational coaching
Sean McVay’s hiring has been a transformational one both for the Rams as a franchise and for the rest of the league which seems committed to either finding the next McVay or just hiring people who have worked with him at any point in their lives.
So while his hiring has been universally lauded and, at least on offense, has been spectacular, the biggest flaw in his management of the team on gameday has been obvious.
His situational coaching hasn’t been great. And sometimes not good. And sometimes downright abhorrent.
There are really two aspects that invite concern.
One, McVay’s preference for the passing game in situations that would normally invite running attempts. We’ve all seen it before. In the redzone or throughout games when Rams fans and even neutral observers alike are screaming at the tv to run the ball as McVay calls for Goff to continue flinging it around. Consider the Rams’ loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 14 when Gurley got just 11 carries with 7 passing targets while Goff threw the ball 44 times on a night when the passing game looked pretty abysmal with just 180 passing yards for Goff to go with four interceptions. Of course, there’s a method to McVay’s madness here. He’s not thoughtless in this overpursuit. But it is overpursuit. And his comfort with the passing game can allow things to get away from him sometimes. This is of course complicated by the entire section above as McVay has to factor for a less-than-100% Gurley as his primary running back with his primary backup, Malcolm Brown, out injured. Still, getting the balance right (which isn’t to suggest a 50/50 balance, but more the natural balance that best suits the offense whatever that may be) will be crucial.
The other is more finite. Time outs. McVay has shown a comfort level for burning timeouts to get out of formational disadvantages early in halves. The logic isn’t unsound, but you have finite resources at hand. And burning a timeout because you don’t like the look of your offensive playcall on 2nd and 10 early in a half can be, well, disastrous depending on how things look at the end of the half. Consider the most recent NFL game: the Eagles-Bears wild card game. Chicago got the ball back with 56 seconds on the clock and one timeout in their pockets having spent two on the preceding possession by the Eagles. We all know what happened. Consider this hypothetical though. If the Bears had more than one timeout on that final possession, could they have gotten the ball closer than the 25-yard line giving K Cody Parkey a chance to place the ball on a higher trajectory so it doesn’t get blocked? Of course you can make an easier hypothetical to agree with in that the Bears might not have gotten down to the 25 without that one timeout in hand. It’s just very easy to imagine a situation where the Rams have the ball late in either the first or second half with a chance for points. How many points might well be decided based on how many timeouts they have to begin that drive. And how many timeouts they have might be based on nothing more than McVay’s predilection for burning timeouts just to get out of a formation disadvantage in less crucial situations.
Living up to the moment
Coming out of the games following the bye week in which the Rams played their worst football of the season, many fans looked toward the playoffs as an opportunity to respond to that stretch with a better performance on a bigger stage.
I’d frame the response based on a different starting point.
January 6, 2018.
The Rams hosted the Atlanta Falcons in the wild card round of the 2018 NFL Playoffs and came up short. Decidedly short.
Goff was 24/45 for less than 300 yards and found the end zone just once. Gurley had 43 rushing yards through three quarters. Former Rams KR/PR Pharoh Cooper had two turnovers in the return game.
The AP recap of the game led with the notion that the Falcons “showed the [Rams] what playoff poise is all about.”
That’s what this game tomorrow is a response to. A lack of poise. Of readiness.
Of living up to the moment.
In a perfect world, McVay would put in his best single-game coaching job of the year. Goff would have a career game. Gurley would find a way to top his career-high 208 rushing yards that he logged against the Denver Broncos in Week 6. The offensive line would return to its early season form. DL Aaron Donald...well, he could just be himself. But his linemates of DL Ndamukong Suh and DL Michael Brockers would step up in the way fans hoped they would this year and which they haven’t all season. The linebackers wouldn’t look like the weakest unit on the team. CB Marcus Peters would erase memories of his midseason stumbles.
In a perfect world, the Rams would play their best game of the year collectively and individually.
This is not a perfect world.
We’re not going to get all of it. We likely may not get any of it. We just need some of those guys to come close. And for none of them to get too far off.
Players have bad games. Tomorrow is not the time.
Put simply, the Rams have to be capable of summoning their best selves when it’s needed. And tomorrow night, it’s needed.
None of this is terribly insightful.
The Rams’ star player on offense is hurt. Figuring out how to adjust for that is crucial.
The Rams’ star coach has faults. Avoiding them is crucial.
The Rams’ spotlight is shining brighter than ever. Not getting burned by it is crucial.
Football is a complex sport. There are millions of decisions and impacts and outcomes and moments that shape each season, each game. But this game has these three very simple factors at play.
When the game’s over, you could give someone who didn’t watch the results based on these three factors and they’d be able to know whether the Rams won or not.
Here’s hoping we get them right. We need to.