The Los Angeles Rams are facing a very difficult offseason.
Less than a year after making Super Bowl LIII, the Rams missed the playoffs in 2019. Now tasked with tinkering around the edges of the team, the Rams head toward free agency with about $20m to play with, a long list of impending free agents that include six starters at key positions and a draft order already curtailed to be without first- and fifth-round picks. Don’t expect a ton of top tier personnel moves. The Rams simply don’t have the capital to pull them off.
That’s led, inevitably, to questions about the coaching staff. The Rams won’t have a significant roster turnover at the top of the depth chart, but they arguably don’t need it given how successful they’ve been under Head Coach Sean McVay and the fact they still exit 2019 with a winning record. Overhaul is need less than adjustments. And maybe those adjustments come about on the staff under McVay.
Recent reports have suggested that Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips could be the first to go. First was FOX Sports’ Alex Marvez:
I'm hearing there's a chance Wade Phillips doesn't return as @RamsNFL d-coordinator. In final year of his contract. He's expected to meet with Sean McVay at season's end. Rams LBs coach Joe Barry would be strong replacement candidate. More tonight 8-11 pm et on @SiriusXMNFL— Alex Marvez (@alexmarvez) December 21, 2019
Two days later, NFL Media’s Mike Silver added to the buzz:
Multiple sources expect there to be a shakeup on McVay’s coaching staff, perhaps including veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
And then on Saturday, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora (who, admittedly, has a less than stellar track record compared to the other two) put it under his byline:
The Rams are set to make significant changes to their defensive coaching staff following a disappointing 2019 season, sources said, with a front office shakeup also likely.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is out of contract in 2020, is virtually certain not to be back, sources said, along with assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Barry. The Rams defense has suffered critical breakdowns throughout the season and it has been apparent there for weeks that changes were coming, sources said.
Head coach Sean McVay has lost several trusted assistants to head coach jobs in recent years and will be looking to add veteran coaches to his staff after the Rams went from nearly winning a Super Bowl to missing the playoffs entirely.
McVay himself referenced the reports the day after Christmas noting that they discussed things behind closed doors and that “it will be good for us to all take a step back” once the season ends.
Well, the season has ended.
And while many will be looking at Philips because of the reports, I’d suggest keeping an eye and/or ear out (Is that possible? Can you do that at the same time? Need one keep an ear in with an eye already out?) for any news about Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Co-Offensive Coordinator Aaron Kromer.
Kromer joined the staff in 2017 with the initial wave of hires for McVay as his offensive line coach. A year later though, McVay remade the top of the offensive staff with the departure of Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur. McVay split the mid-week OC duties between Kromer and Tight Ends Coach Shane Waldron. Kromer took on responsibilities as a “run game coordinator” while Waldron oversaw passing game coordination.
So following a season where the offensive line was at the center of much of the criticism week-to-week and the run game revolved around questions about RB Todd Gurley’s usage, perhaps Kromer should be the center of attention and not Grandpa Wade.
That’s not to suggest that Kromer should be fired. In fact, I might suggest he deserves a raise.
Kromer was pressed to manage a running game in 2019 that played Gurley like early career Just Todd while limiting his carries on a new load management plan due to the situation with his knee. That was an incredibly difficult task and one that probably deserved more credit than he was given throughout the year. Certainly, there’s a criticism to be lobbed at the Rams for tying one hand behind their back by playing Gurley but not running him at optimal rates rather than playing either RB Malcolm Brown or RB Darrell Henderson, Jr., and using them conventionally. But beyond that, to then go to Kromer and tell him to figure it out nonetheless? That’s a tall task.
Making that task taller was the state of the offensive line in 2019. The Rams moved on from LG Rodger Saffold III and C John Sullivan and plugged in second-year solutions in OL Joseph Noteboom and C Brian Allen. The early results weren’t great, but that was beyond just those personnel changes. LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Rob Havenstein, veterans with very strong track records, hardly played themselves beyond criticism. And then the injuries. First, OL Austin Blythe rolled his ankle in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints which saw OL Jamil Demby plugged in for the rest of that game and in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns. The Week 1 starters were restored, but made it less than two games as OL Joseph Noteboom tore his ACL against the San Francisco 49ers in mid-October. Demby filled in for Noteboom in Week 6, but heading into Week 7 the Rams made a change and opted to play rookie OL David Edwards instead of Demby. That change didn’t even last three games as the Rams lost C Brian Allen and RT Rob Havenstein in Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers prompting the inclusion of OL Austin Corbett and OT Bobby Evans down the stretch while kicking Austin Blythe from right guard inside to center.
That’s one hell of a gauntlet for a coach to navigate.
While it’s relatively impossible for us on the outside to effectively assess how well or poorly Kromer did as a coach, it’s quite easy to see how difficult of a job he had this year especially in the wake of 2018 where his offensive line remained healthy and played outstandingly all year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thought of more highly than ever due to the adversity he was tasked with managing.
That being said, the path ahead for the line is murky. It’s also crucial the Rams put themselves in position to get more consistent, positive play from the unit even with the upcoming transition.
LT Andrew Whitworth, for all his public commentary, is likely not to return. Blythe, also an impending unrestricted free agent, offers a more difficult decision. The Rams have eight offensive linemen under contract for 2020 who played at some point this year. Sorting out the depth chart to assess (a) if they think they already have sufficient resources to put together the line for Week 1 next year and (b) what roles those eight would have moving forward is perhaps paramount to any other personnel work over the next few weeks. Perhaps nobody’s voice is more important to that conversation than Kromer.
The Rams have their work cut out for them. With the Niners and Seattle Seahawks atop the NFC West (and not much separating them...) and the Arizona Cardinals ascendant under HC Kliff Kingsbury with QB Kyler Murray having put in a very impressive rookie season, things look difficult for the Rams out of their own division. Recalibrating this team for a more successful 2020 is going to have to require fine-tuning moreso than major overhauling.
Perhaps no coach on the Rams’ staff represents that more than Kromer who had to oversee the 2019 line while dealing with the Rams’ run game.
Perhaps no coach on the Rams’ staff deserves more attention this offseason than Kromer for all the work he’s done over the last three years.
And perhaps no employment decision on any coach on the Rams’ staff, for better or worse, will have more of an effect than what McVay and the Rams decide to do with Kromer moving forward.