If we give effort to find the usefulness in literally anything, then certainly we could find some positive outcomes to reading NFL power rankings. So long as we don’t associate power rankings with anything that’s meaningful to our lives and the careers of players and coaches in the league, surely we could eventually get to a nugget of gold or a hunk of diamond that’s not destined to whither away in our hands as we argue “How could you have that team ranked 17th when they’re clearly 21st?!”
That is useless. What’s worth keeping in the tool belt instead?
Power rankings are a way to gauge not only outside (or inside) opinion of a team, but to also evaluate the narratives that are being pounded into our heads by national media. There’s a story that they want to build and they want that story to speak louder than stats or facts or reasoned expectations. No matter what happens in the future — whether they win more, fewer, or the same number of games as expected in the narrative that was sold — you can simply tie the end results into the preseason narrative.
For the LA Rams, that preseason narrative is that this is your 2020 NFL team to have a recent and ongoing “fall from grace.” Oh how exciting. A team that was recently great missed the playoffs, had offseason “turmoil” (again, a constructed narrative), and might be even worse than they were last season. If they do poorly, the power rankings were “right.” If they do well, “Wow, they’re a surprise team! After all, look at where they were (based on my opinion) preseason.” If they do the same, “See, I told you.”
A year ago, coming off of an appearance in the Super Bowl, the Rams were a top-five lock for preseason power rankings. One season later, having gone 9-7 with multiple opportunities to win a couple more games and fall within range of their 2018 record, LA is already being viewed by some as a team that is worse than their most recent season would indicated. Why?
It’s the narrative.
In ProFootballTalk’s power rankings on Sunday, the LA Rams came in 23rd. They are one spot behind the Las Vegas Raiders and one spot ahead of the New York Jets. Those teams went 7-9 last season with the Jets ranking 31st in scoring and the Raiders finishing 24th in points on both offense and defense. The Rams were 11th in scoring, 17th in points allowed. But times change and we shouldn’t expect teams to simply repeat, right?
But isn’t it interesting that this is how you sell 23, 24, and 25:
23. Rams: Todd Gurley? Gone. Brandin Cooks? Gone. Wade Phillips? Gone. A pair of first-round picks and a fourth-round pick for a cornerback who may soon be gone? Gone. The Rams have pinned their hopes to a quarterback who needs more around him than what he has to justify the contract he’s gotten. Two seasons after getting to the Super Bowl, the Rams could end up at the bottom of their division.
24. Jets: Like the Falcons, the Jets went 6-2 after starting 1-7. They remain overlooked and disregarded. Which could play right into their hands.
25. Bears: Up and down and down and up and who knows how it will play out for a team that finally has a quarterback that fits the offense? There’s a chance it all falls together. There’s an equal chance it all falls apart.
The team ranked 23rd has a few names you know that are “Gone” and one who I guess could be “Gone” in a year (though I have no idea what bearing that has on a power rankings that is presumably supposed to be meant for the present) and the end result is “bottom of the division.”
(They have the Arizona Cardinals ranked 20th.)
And yet the team ranked behind LA, the Jets, are “overlooked and disregarded” and this is a positive that “could play right into their hands.” It is now good to be disregarded which I guess is what the Rams are to these power rankings.
Then there’s the Bears at 24, your classic neutral ranking. “Could be this or could be that, I guess we’ll see.” The same was given to the Raiders at 22.
22. Raiders: There are reasons for optimism. There are reasons for pessimism. This one truly could go either way. Being stuck in the AFC West with a dominant Chiefs team and a dramatically improved Denver franchise will make it harder to make it go the right way.
So what’s so wrong with pointing out the obvious? The Rams did part with Gurley, Cooks, and Wade Phillips, and they did trade two first round picks for a corner whose yet to be extended. None of that is false. But also, is it bad?
Todd Gurley was one of the biggest problems with the LA offense last season. He wasn’t able to play like he had been the previous two years and though he scored 14 touchdowns, he averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Whether it is Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers, or Malcolm Brown, the Rams seem more likely this year to have a healthy running back and they’ve got two day two resources to hand the ball to now.
Brandin Cooks was also more of a detriment than a help to McVay’s offense in 2019. He played in 14 games but caught only 42 of 72 targets for 583 yards and two touchdowns. In the five games where Cooks was targeted two or fewer times, including the two games he missed, LA went 4-1. Is replacing Cooks with Josh Reynolds and Van Jefferson and moving some of his targets over to Tyler Higbee really to be spun as a negative on the field?
Wade Phillips is a name you know, perhaps a name you even trust, but the Rams struggled against the run more often than not and are 20th in points allowed over the last two seasons combined. How can anyone confidently predict that Brandon Staley would be worse?
One way to spin the events of the 2020 offseason is the way you see above: It’s bad. (Strangely though, no mention of the losses of Dante Fowler and Cory Littleton or the ongoing uncertainty at all five offensive line positions when factoring in Whitworth’s age, which I sure would have presumed to be more detrimental than Gurley, Cooks, or Phillips.)
But I think you can just as easily spin them as signs that the Rams will win more, not fewer, games next season. It’s really not fair to predict a team to win more than nine games unless they’re the 2003-2019 Patriots or have some sort of divisional and conference advantage like that — something that LA clearly does not have in the NFC and especially the NFC West — but is it easy to write a story that makes you believe that they could?
Yes. That wasn’t the story written by ranking them 23rd. That would have been harder to sell. If a team was good not long ago, and now you’ve ranked them 23rd, you must write from that trajectory. “They’re on the way down. Jets though, they’re on the way up.”
Except there is no “way.” There is no down or up. It’s a fake list and has no bearing on the real world. The Rams are not headed anywhere, they’re already where they’re at: here. That won’t ever change.
But maybe after a few games next season we’ll at least have some concrete evidence of where “here” is.