The Matrix is the story of one man’s obsession with a supposed savior who nobody else on the team was quite so sure about.
Morpheus has been fixated with redpilling Neo as the last ditch attempt to save his hometown of Zion. His efforts are met with little resistance — perhaps Neo was just a fan of Boyz N The Hood, but he was just as convinced that life would be more fulfilling if he were able to escape something called “the matrix”, even though he had no idea what that was until Morpheus handed him the bot’s playbook.
Nobody doubted Morpheus’s unflinching belief in Neo, but every man, woman, child, and synthetic organism aware of the plan were skeptical that a middle tier computer programmer getting chewed out by his boss in a 10th floor corner office could also be the savior of the human race. Not even Thomas Anderson — Neo himself — believed it.
He had to die first.
The 2021 Rams season could have just as easily been constructed by Lana Wachowski as it was by Les Snead. Maybe the Wachowskis could have even found a way to avoid a three-game losing streak, capped off with Sunday’s 36-28 loss to the Packers.
Will Matthew Stafford come back to life as easily as Neo did? Can he at least channel his inner John Wick?
I may be willing to settle for Ted “Theodore” Logan and the Wyld Stallyns.
Sean McVay was no innocent bystander when it came to LA’s decision to trade two first round picks and Jared Goff in exchange for rescuing Stafford from something far more dangerous than a digital prison of the human mind: the Detroit Lions. McVay has been the focal point as the reason for why Snead made such a bold move and pairing him with Stafford was meant to create something even more powerful than a race of sentient mechanical overlords.
Or at least, should’ve kept the Rams in the hunt for the number one seed in da football games we watch.
"I have total confidence and belief in Matthew Stafford."— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) November 29, 2021
Rams coach Sean McVay standing up for his QB after the loss to the Packers. pic.twitter.com/G7hzrv3vlV
Instead, the Rams are 7-4, the same record that McVay managed after 11 games a year ago with
Cypher Jared Goff at quarterback. But the change from Goff to Matthew Stafford is only one of many differences between the 2020 and 2021 iterations of the Rams’ machine. Not only from January 1 to now, but from Week 1 to now. The Rams have been exceptionally altered over the last few months alone, whether that be due to injuries or atoning for offseason mistakes like signing DeSean Jackson or drafting certain players over other certain players.
Even if I am more confident than ever that Stafford is not “the One”, I still think that the decision to trade Goff and two first round picks for Stafford was the right move. Most of the LA’s problems exist not at quarterback; there are simply too many holes on the defense and now one too many injuries on the offense.
These are some decisions made by McVay and Snead in 2021 that have come back to haunt the Rams during their four losses so far this season. Can they start a midseason revolution, while managing to avoid the letdown that would come with a sequel like Revolutions?
Time to step out of The Matrix and into the LAtrix.
The Rams had a lack of urgency at middle linebacker...again
As a Super Bowl team in 2018, the Rams had Mark Barron and Cory Littleton at inside linebacker. That doesn’t rank LA as having the top interior duo in the NFL, but it’s respectable: Littleton went to the Pro Bowl that season and Barron was a top-10 pick for some reasons.
In 2019, 30-year-old Barron was out, but was replaced by 33-year-old Clay Matthews.
In 2020, McVay felt he could entrust Micah Kiser to replace Littleton, despite Kiser having never played a defensive snap in the NFL before. LA also avoided making moves at inside linebacker because they anticipated the presence of Travin Howard, a player with all of 102 career defensive snaps.
Kiser was hurt and then benched. Troy Reeder ended up leading LA’s inside linebackers in snaps and tackles, while Kenny Young filled in the rest of the gaps; up to the point that Young is capable of filling gaps.
The 2021 plan at inside linebacker included few alterations: Ernest Jones is the highest-drafted inside linebacker of the McVay era, but he still wasn’t a top-100 pick and nobody could have anticipated him being a year one starter, including McVay and Snead. Instead, McVay treated Young and Reeder as if they were “priceless starters” during a snapless preseason, and Kiser was cut and dropped to the practice squad.
Kiser was eventually picked up by the Broncos, and the Rams shipped Young to Denver to complement him shortly thereafter. Now Reeder and Jones start on the inside, with Howard remarkably sticking on the roster as a special teamer who is apparently not viewed as an upgrade to either on defense.
Given what we’ve seen from Reeder in the last few weeks — all losses — it would appear that opposing offenses have found the weakness in the hull that they’ve been looking for. Here’s one play from Sunday’s loss to the Packers that perfectly encapsulates what happens when you’ve got Troy Reeder in coverage:
While so many other teams in the NFL have taken note of the importance of speed at inside linebacker, Sean McVay has the Rams funneling all of their defensive energy into one “Star” in coverage and little else. There is pretty much no way now to fix LA’s problems at inside linebacker in the middle of the season and that’s why overlooking linebackers in 2020 and 2021 in favor of moves at wide receiver and running back has been so puzzling.
Letting go of John Johnson and/or Troy Hill
I’m counting this as two mistakes and you can put this mistake two ways: Letting go of John Johnson because the team preferred Leonard Floyd is one thing, but it would be acceptable had Terrell Burgess been the answer to replace the outgoing free safety. Because Burgess can’t even touch the field (35 defensive snaps all year) though, you could just as easily point to the decision to draft him in the third round in 2020 as a mistake too.
Johnson signed a three-year, $33.75 million deal with the Cleveland Browns, a contract that carries only a $3.65 million cap hit in 2021.
Troy Hill signed a two-year, $9 million contract, which carried only a $1.875 million cap hit in 2021.
Looking at the Rams free agents (since they're way over the cap now)....John Johnson is a *super* underrated player. One of the better safeties in the NFL.— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 31, 2021
I can’t sit here and tell you that Johnson and Hill would’ve re-signed with the Rams if the Rams had made those offers — comments from former Rams like Aqib Talib would suggest that not every player is a fan of Sean McVay and Les Snead — but I can tell you that both of these offers were affordable to the Rams.
Especially if they hadn’t made unanticipated decisions, like signing DeSean Jackson.
Because of the decision to let JJIII leave, Taylor Rapp was reasserted as a starting player and also got the royal treatment during preseason. Why?
Because of the decision to let Hill leave, LA has suffered through a cornerback rotation of David Long, Jr., the inexperienced Robert Rochell, and a “love ‘em but leave ‘em” practice squad player in Dont’e Deayon.
That’s like asking Apoc, Mouse, or Switch to play single coverage against Agent Smith.
Worst of all, Darious Williams hasn’t been the starting caliber outside cornerback we had all expected him to be and while I won’t make a section for it, giving Williams the first round tender — a rarely seen level of commitment to restricted free agents — was also an offseason mistake.
That choice cost the Rams $4.76 million in 2021 cap space, which is nearly as much as JJIII and Hill combined.
Johnny Hekker over Corey Bojorquez
I’m not going to harp on a punter decision for very long, but this is twofold: Not only do the Rams have the worst special teams unit in the NFL probably, with Hekker serving as a partial reason for it, but he carries a $3.937 million cap hit. The largest cap hit for any punter in the NFL.
The decision to trade Bojorquez — and not Hekker — to the Packers was one defended by many people who felt that the Rams would be in contention for the number one seed and that having a veteran like Hekker around for the foreseeable future was the right decision for the long run.
Special teams from Johnny Hekker to the return team is just awful. Meanwhile, Corey Bojorquez who the Rams traded away has three punts inside the 20.— DOWNTOWN RAMS [DTR] (@DowntownRams) November 29, 2021
Instead, the Rams are running out of chances to compete for the NFC West, Hekker has been bad, and the savings they would have gotten from releasing him could have been used to shore up other positions, including cornerback.
Johnny Hekker is certainly not the one who should ever take credit or blame for what happens to the Rams — that would be like spending the entire two-hours focused on the woman in the red dress — but when you combine this decision to keep him with all the other choices that McVay and Snead have made to construct this year’s roster, it adds to the befuddlement one should feel when players like Johnson, Hill, Morgan Fox, and Michael Brockers are walking (or pushed) out the door.
Sean McVay seems un-Coordinated
I don’t think that McVay can get away with just making another change at special teams coordinator, but he also may have no other choice. Again, you’re not supposed to win or lose games because of special teams — if you are a team that has that identity, it’s only because you lack talent on offense and defense — but LA is consistently handing points to the other teams due to getting embarrassed in the third phase of the game.
That would be like if Neo went up to Cypher prior to his betrayal and said, “You know what buddy, you’ve had a long day, I got this” and pulled the plug on Switch himself.
McVay parted with John Fassel after 2019, then pulled the plug on John Bonamego after one season. And now Joe DeCamillis can’t be allowed to continue onto 2022, barring a miracle and I don’t think Tank’s gonna get up this time.
What’s perhaps most amazing is that DeCamillis has taken some — certainly not all — of the heat off of Raheem Morris and the much more important job of coordinating the defense. As you’ve already read, these LA Rams simply aren’t as talented on defense as they were last season, but the drop off shouldn’t be this steep. I would have no confidence in the Rams defense against playoff teams and that’s essentially what we’ve seen now following losses to the Titans, 49ers, and Packers.
Games that were not even close in the fourth quarter.
Morris had practically no good defensive coordinator experience prior to 2021 and he doesn’t seem fast tracked for a return to head coaching any time soon. And while there’s virtually no talk about Kevin O’Connell — rightfully so, it’s McVay who takes credit and blame for what LA does offensively — maybe there should be talk by now about whether or not the Rams have the right person calling plays on offense. The Rams have seen a number of offensive coaches leave in the last few years, including Matt LaFleur, the very Cypher to our Morpheus.
Which of those two seems like more of a guru today? You don’t need to be the Oracle to know the answer to that one.
Writing about Les Snead’s last two draft classes and how it relates to the failures of the past month deserves its own post. So to make sure this article doesn’t stretch on longer than an unholy Matrix sequel, I’ll keep it brief: There were glitches.
I’ve defended the Tutu Atwell pick since I was 5’7, but let’s be blunt: Most of you in the comments section were clamoring for Creed Humphrey. He went six picks after Atwell. Some people are now saying that Creed Humphrey is already the best center in the NFL.
I learned long ago to not play the “this guy or that guy” draft game and yet every game needs exceptions: the Rams should have drafted Creed Humphrey, and we all kind of thought that they would if he was available. They didn’t. It was a stupid thing to do and I don’t care if Brian Allen is fine.
The offensive line is also not a supreme strength of this team and there’s never been any question that the unit is facing considerable turnover in the next year or two. To have once again ignored it in the draft is a puzzle that draws much more attention when a team is 7-4 instead of 9-2 or better.
And when you’re going for it on fourth-and-1 on a power run play and failing.
Matthew Stafford is just one guy. He’s a pretty good just one guy, but he’s not the savior and that means fortifying the rest of your team, keeping them healthy, and not handing over advantages to the robots. The Rams need more than a reload.
They need a revolution.
(A watchable revolution.)