The Los Angeles Rams are in the Super Bowl. Armed with a strong rushing attack led by Todd Gurley for the majority of the season, Gurley led the league in rushing touchdowns while finishing fourth in yards from scrimmage. These gaudy stats were despite Gurley missing the final two games of the season.
With the nagging injury (that no one wants to admit to), Gurley actually doesn’t even lead the Rams in rushing for the postseason. That would go to NFL journeyman, C.J. Anderson. Anderson has been spectacular after being signed off the street.
The secret to the Rams' blocking success isn’t the linemen.— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) January 31, 2019
It's Sean McVay. https://t.co/W7crRLo7Lb
According to FiveThirtyEight, the secret to the Rams continued dominance isn’t solely that the offensive line is just that good, it’s that Sean McVay has schemed an attack that has truly maximized the talents of the team.
Don’t get me wrong, McVay is definitely important but adding Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan were huge personnel upgrades as well. Essentially half (due to Jamon Brown’s suspension/release and ascension of Austin Blythe) of the personnel are holdovers from the “middle school offense” era in Rodger Saffold (though healthy) Rob Havenstein, and the combination of Brown/Blythe (yes, Blythe was added in 2017 with McVay but Brown started all of 2017).
Swapping in Aaron Kromer as coach has also paid dividends as well. There are definitely some improvements in personnel and coaching but 538 makes a case that McVay’s gameplanning and personnel are the bigger reasons for the success.
Returning to Los Angeles, the Rams used the 11 personnel more than any other team in the NFL in 2018. So it’s possible that instead of the Rams being generationally superior at run blocking — or instead of Gurley being a one-of-a-kind game-altering running back — the Rams’ offensive line just faced fewer crowded fronts than other teams. This would at least provide some context for their overwhelming success — and help explain how Anderson could Wally Pipp an MVP candidate in the playoffs.
To find out, I created a reasonable facsimile of Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and then calculated the number of yards each team earned either over or under expected based on the number of men in the box and the field position from which the play originated.6
Both Football Outsiders’ line yards and my version agree that the Rams had the best rushing offensive line unadjusted for box count. When we look at line yards over expected after accounting for box defenders, however, the Rams aren’t the best run-blocking offensive line ever. In fact, they’re not even in the top four since 2009.
The Rams so far have proven that whether it is the second highest paid back in Todd Gurley or NFL veteran journeyman C.J. Anderson, they will maximize the running game because of their coaching, scheme, and personnel. FiveThirtyEight says it best to conclude the analysis.
While league observers can fall into the trap of over-weighting the effect of coaching, in some cases the credit and praise is warranted. The distribution of talent across teams is so even, it’s really not so much a matter of who you run the ball with — or behind — it’s a matter of when you run it. McVay chooses his spots as well as anyone in the NFL, and the Rams are in Super Bowl LIII because of it.