From 2nd to 17th to 23rd. That’s been the path of the LA Rams special teams unit as measured in efficiency by DVOA over at FootballOutsiders over the last three seasons. It is not the expectation that people came to have for special teams coordinator John Fassel and it is certainly a part of the reason that the Rams failed to make the playoffs in 2019 after going to the Super Bowl the previous season.
What can the Rams do to get better in that area?
Part of it simply boils down to randomness and luck. That’s a matter for the game in general but especially with special teams as there can be wild swings based on the fact that there are so fewer plays made by those units as compared to offense and defense. So one kick that’s two inches too far to the right, one punt that slips even by a fraction of an inch on the punter’s foot, or one muffed catch that bounces to the other team can drastically alter how a team’s special team unit is judged.
For years under Fassel, Rams special teams were judged as being perhaps the smartest, most innovative, and most effective in the league as St. Louis/LA struggled in the other phases of the game and excelled when it came to kicking, punting and returning. They overcame those special teams errors in 2018 to win the NFC but a few inches here and there, a missed Greg Zuerlein kick against the Seattle Seahawks, and we’re talking about a team that could have been 10-6 or better with improved luck on one or a handful of those overlooked plays.
The next will be coaching.
After eight seasons with the team including a stint as interim head coach, Fassel has moved on to take the same position with the Dallas Cowboys, who also happen to be the Rams’ Week 1 opponent. He has been replaced by John Bonamego, a longtime assistant who has been special teams coordinator for seven different teams since the early 2000s with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That includes return trips to the Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, and Detroit Lions, all of whom brought him back to become special teams coordinator for a second time.
The 56-year-old has had success throughout his career, albeit jumping around time after time. Last season he was with the Lions, who finished 10th in special teams DVOA. He is working with different personnel now but that’s nothing new to him.
That’s the final phase of course and the Rams are moving into the post-Zuerlein era after eight seasons with the team, same as Fassel had. He’s also now on the Cowboys. LA has a a trio of kickers without NFL track records competing to replace Zuerlein and predicting who that will be is pointless as of June. The team is just hoping it’s better than the 72.7% that Zuerlein had in 2019, including 5-of-11 in the 40-49 range.
The Rams will be returning punter Johnny Hekker though and he had really been building a Hall of Fame type resume six seasons into his career. He hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl since 2017 but that’s just something to put on the resume and Hekker doesn’t have to prove his talent anymore; regression for him should be going in the positive direction, not negative.
The unspoken players in special teams are the guy who don’t kick, punt, or return and LA is bringing plenty of those options back: Nick Scott, Marqui Christian, Travin Howard, and Troy Reeder were the four players who had more than 50% of the snaps on special teams, each totaling between 309 and 378. That’s not a small amount of playing time and not only are they returning but the team will have a plethora of competition awaiting among the players who know they’ve got to work on special teams to make the final roster.
Like sixth round pick Jordan Fuller and seventh rounder Clay Johnston, as well as over 20 undrafted free agents. Can Bonemago find two or three or four guys who we aren’t talking about at all right now because they won’t contribute on offense or defense but who will take that coverage or blocking up a notch?
Overall, the Rams did finish 23rd in DVOA but that wasn’t because they were horrible at anything. They just weren’t good at anything either. We know that Hekker can be great. We know that kickers can easily have better seasons than what Zuerlein just had. We know that luck plays a considerable factor and that regression should help in that area too. We know that coaching changes can inspire on-field changes that bring about desired results.
If Los Angeles can go from 23rd in DVOA back up to say, 10th, we know that they’ll have had a successful year on special teams, and how they got there won’t matter as much. It could also be the extra inch or three that gets them back into the postseason.