2021: A Rams Odyssey

O Vermeil, Where Art Thou?

Rams fans are a surly bunch these days. What's with all the gloom and doom?

I am a Fan of Constant Sorrow, have seen troubles all my days. The Super Bowl's in California, but the Rams' hopes are in a grave. For 20 years, we've been in trouble, no Lombardi trophies have we won. Through this world, I'm bound to Ramble, we have no more draft picks to help us now.

Don't be so glum Rams Nation. Keep on the sunny side of life.

Big Picture

The 7-4 Rams currently are the 5th seed in the NFC playoff standings and are 2 games clear of the logjam for the 7th and final playoff slot. Since the teams nipping at the heels of the Rams don't seem particularly strong (e.g. the Saints) there isn't an immediate reason to panic. The Rams are still in very good shape to qualify for the playoffs. According to FiveThirtyEight's projections, the Rams have an 84% chance of being in the playoffs (but only a 2% chance of winning the Super Bowl.)

The picture would dramatically change if the Rams were to lose to the Jaguars. The Rams have a tough final stretch of games compared with the Vikings, who have a relatively easier path. The Rams and Vikings play each other on the day after Christmas and a loss to the Jags could make that game a pivotal showdown. Playing around with FTE's calculator, it looks like if the Rams lose their next 2 games (Jags and Cards) and the Vikings win their next 2 (against the Lions and Steelers), the Vikings and Rams would have the same odds of being in the playoffs. Currently, the Vikings are listed as only having a 50% of being in the playoffs.

It would take a pretty epic collapse for the Rams not to get into the playoffs. Something similar has happened before to Stafford. In the 2013 season, Detroit at one point was 6-3 and in first place in the division. They proceeded to lose 6 of their final 7 games. I don't see this happening to the Rams in 2021. The Rams are too talented. Just need to take care of business and not take a win over the Jags for granted.

Assuming that the Rams get into the playoffs, I believe that FTE underestimates the odds of the Rams winning the Super Bowl. I don't think there is a clear favorite in the NFL this year. Too much parity. I wouldn't even venture a guess right now as to which team will ultimately win the SB. Given the choice between Arizona and Baltimore (currently the top seeds in the NFC and AFC) or betting on the field, I'd take the field. How many playoff wins do Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray have combined? One? So, if they had to face Mahomes, Brady or ARod in the playoffs are we really going to say that the Cards and Ravens would be prohibitive favorites in those games?

These were the top 12 teams in the preseason ESPN power rankings and how they are doing at the moment:

1. KC 7-4 (4th seed in AFC). The top preseason favorite has exactly the same record as the Rams. Mahomes has looked mortal at times.

2. TB 8-3. One game better than the Rams.

3. Buffalo 7-4 (6th seed). Same record as Rams. Josh Allen has more INTs than Stafford and 7 in his last 4 games.

4. GB 9-3, one game up on the Rams in the loss column.

5. Rams 7-4.

6. Ravens 8-3, won their last game despite 4 INTs by Jackson.

7. Browns 6-6, the first team on this list that I'd say fans have a legitimately strong reason to be down in the dumps, especially since we're talking about Browns fans. FTE says the Browns only have a 19% chance of being in the playoffs.

8. Hawks 3-8. If Seattle had been as good as expected, the Rams would be in bigger trouble. Flip that W earlier this year to an L and the Rams would be a nervous 6-5.

9. Titans 8-4. Lucky to beat a depleted Saints team, lost to the Texans. Hit by key injuries, not going to be easy for them down the stretch.

10. Niners 6-5. Whatever.

11. Steelers 5-5-1. Since they tied the miserable Lions, shouldn't the Steelers be automatically disqualified from being in the playoffs? If that's not the rule, we should make it one and apply it to the Rams against the Jags.

12. Dallas 7-4. (4th seed NFC). Similar to the Rams, one week the media will go on and on about how the Cowboys are so great and how Dak is an elite QB, then the next week they'll bury the Cowboys and say the sky is falling. More hype than substance when it comes to both squads, but if the 2 teams faced each other in the first round of the playoffs, that means one of the 2 will advance to the Divisional Round.

Other teams:

Chargers 6-5. Justin Herbert had a costly and ugly end zone INT in the 4th quarter against the Broncos. Later in the 4th quarter, he threw behind a receiver who was wide open and the deflection went for a devastating pick six, part of a pivotal loss to the Broncos. Now, the Chargers and the Broncos have identical records. Only a tiebreaker gives the 7th seed to the Chargers ahead of the Broncos. Remember how Von Miller was leaving the Broncos with their poor record and joining the Rams with their great record? Now, only one game separates the Rams and Denver. Things can change fast in the NFL.

Patriots 8-4 and Bengals 7-4. The media loves these teams at the moment. Both the Pats and the Bengals have the same number of losses as the Rams. True, Pats fans should be happy that the team can win without Tom Brady. Bengals fans should be excited about the future of the team (In the preseason, some people thought Ja'Marr Chase was a bust. I mentioned before how I wasn't concerned that Burrow had terrible deep passing stats last season. He only ranked 31st in the Deep Ball Project analysis. I wonder what Burrow's deep passing numbers look like so far this year?) Cincy holds the 5th seed in the AFC with former Rams assistant Zac Taylor as their HC. Good for them. But, have they really accomplished anything? They lost to the Jets, the Bears and got smashed by the Browns. They've beaten some bad teams, like the Jags, Lions and Steelers. Progress for sure, but it remains to be seen whether they have truly arrived or if their bubble will burst.

Things Don't Need to be Perfect to be Good

I never bought into the fairy tale that the Rams were going to be this super unbeatable juggernaut in 2021 or that Stafford was going to transform the Rams into another GSOT. The 2021 Rams are about what I thought they would be. That being said, I think there is a danger in burying them too soon, just because they lost a couple of games. Stafford is still a good QB and the Rams are still a good team. The Rams in the thick of the hunt just as much as the other playoff teams.

Throwing a pick six is not a good thing. But, in the 2007 season when the NYG won the Super Bowl, Eli Manning had a game in late November where he threw 3 pick sixes (it was nearly 4, because one was returned inside the 10 and set up a short TD run.) No, that doesn't mean the Rams are destined to win the SB, but I'm saying that "style points" don't matter. First order of business is get in the playoffs. Once in the tournament, survive and advance. That's the bottom line.

Yes, I do think that Stafford is dealing with nagging injuries. I suspect this was an issue even in the early games this season, before the recent losses. He had some misses even in the first couple of games this year that made me wonder if something was wrong with his hand. No, I don't think any injury he might have has anything to do with some of his missed throws. Sometimes, Stafford is simply lazy with his mechanics. He's always been like that. If the QB doesn't move his left foot 6 inches to properly line up the pass, I don't think it is because he back or elbow hurts. Favre, Mahomes, a bunch of QBs with great arms sometimes do things like that, and often they get away with it. Other times, they miss the throw. Even that 2 point conversion play Cooper Kupp caught in the back of the end zone, in my opinion that was a "bad throw" by Stafford. Just happened that the WR made it work.

I think fans should just accept that there will be some clunkers every now and then from Stafford. He's not going to be right on the money every single time. No QB is going to be perfect. ARod made a bad decision or throw, but was bailed out when Nick Scott was unable to come up with the pick. In a different game earlier this year, ARod forces the ball into coverage, it should have been an interception, but the defender drops the ball.

The goal for the Rams wasn't to try to get Stafford an MVP award, it was all about trying to win the SB. If you win the SB, no one cares about what happened in the regular season. The 2020 Bucs lost 38-3 in the middle of the season to the Saints. The 2019 Chiefs lost 4 out of 6 games in the middle of that season. The 2018 Patriots were mired in a slump in the second half of that regular season, leading the local media to ask "What is wrong with the Patriots this year?" in the middle of December. Another expert at the time said the Pats weren't playing like legitimate SB contenders. He broke down how the offensive line was having problems in both the run and pass game, and how Brady struggled to deal with the resulting pass rush pressure. There were whispers that Brady was simply getting too old and that the dynasty was ending. All of those types of things get forgotten when you finish the journey as champions.

Brian Allen against the World

I'm surprised Allen has such a high PFF grade. He's currently the 6th best center in the NFL, with a 78.1 overall grade. Allen is playing much better compared to his 2019 season and has been a nice surprise. PFF shouldn't be taken literally (one example could be Brandon Linder of the Jags. He has a middle of the pack PFF grade, ranking as the 18th center, but he has the 2nd best pass block win rate and the 8th best pass block win rate in the league, per ESPN. Is Linder overrated by ESPN or underrated by PFF? I don't know, but the 2 metrics don't align. Maybe both models are flawed. There isn't really such a thing as an "absolutely correct" way of evaluating offensive linemen, so how would we even go about trying to answer this question?)

I still think that Allen is too small. One play against GB in pass pro, Allen appeared to get knocked on his back, completely run over and bulldozed by Kenny Clark. On a run play, Allen got ripped to the ground. Nevertheless, there has been more good than bad from Allen this season.

If the Rams hadn't drafted Atwell, they could have gotten Creed Humphrey, who is PFF's top rated center with a 90.9 grade. Long term, this could be a colossal mistake, because if Creed continues to play at such a high level, he'll end up being a HOF type player.

On the other hand, if Allen plays well for the remainder of 2021, it probably won't make a huge difference for the current season. Consider how Allen compares to many bigger named centers and guards.

Erik McCoy 48.6 grade, 37th out of 39 centers. McCoy was hampered by a calf injury and is graded as one of the worst centers in the league. If his health improves, presumably his level of play will also improve.

Cesar Ruiz 57.9, ranked 59 out of 81 guards. A former 1st round pick, Ruiz filled in some at center when McCoy got hurt. Draft scouts loved Ruiz, but he has yet to breakout.

Tyler Biadasz 62.7, 21st out of 39 centers. Very similar grade as Linder's. Has a better run block win rate than both Creed Humphrey and Brian Allen, but PFF not impressed.

Josh Myers 60.9, 25th out of 39 centers. Had knee surgery and has been out, which is why GB played a backup against the Rams. I would have taken Myers over Creed, but you have to be healthy in order to play.

Austin Reiter 48.4, 38th out of 39 centers. Involved in a strange fumble this season for Fins when his shotgun snap hit a WR who was going in motion. Fans of many teams, including the Rams, wanted their team to grab Reiter when he was an unsigned FA.

Kendrick Green 56.6, 29th out of 39 centers. Rookie for the Steelers.

Ryan Kelly 56.6, 29th out of 39 centers. Colts star center has played through injury this year, which is why he grades so poorly and is tied with the rookie Green.

Rodney Hudson 55.6, 32nd out of 39 centers. Hudson went on IR back in October with upper body injuries and probably will return at some point.

Quinn Meinerz 50.1, 74th out of 81 guards. Rookie for Broncos has started some games at guard as an injury replacement. Not surprisingly, there are some growing pains.

Quenton Nelson 61.1, 48th out of 81 guards. It is interesting that the Colts have run the ball so well despite both Ryan Kelly and Nelson being slowed by injuries. Nelson has dealt with an ankle injury for most of the season.

Tytus Howard 43.7, 79 out of 81 guards. Prior to last week, Howard was the lowest ranked OG in the NFL. Former 1st round pick in his 3rd season, his season grade went up after having a good game playing left tackle (he had been playing LG before that.) It will be interesting to see how he does the remainder of the season if he continues to play LT. Can a player go from being the worst guard in the NFL to being seen as a franchise LT in the same season?

Damien Lewis 56.8, 60th out of 81 guards. As a 3rd round rookie last year, Lewis had a very good PFF grade for a rookie and was widely praised for his level of play. His sophomore season hasn't been as strong.

Alex Leatherwood 43.6, 80 out of 81 guards. When it comes to building an NFL roster, I believe in investing money and draft picks to build strong offensive and defensive lines. What you don't want is to have a 1st round pick (17th overall this year) grade out as one of the worst guards in the NFL.

Austin Jackson 47.6, 76th out of 81 guards. Copy and paste Leatherwood paragraph here for Miami's 1st round 2020 pick (18th overall).

Jackson Carman 46.6, 78th out of 81 guards. Second round rookie for the Bengals.

Max Scharping 55.7, 61st out 81 guards. The Texans investing high draft picks in Howard and Scharping (2nd round 2019) and getting very mediocre results is an example of how building an OL can be easier said than done.

Rodger Saffold 69.5, 25th out of 81 guards. Saffold is still a good player. But, with his cap hit this year being $12.3 million, I'd say it would have made zero sense for the Rams to have kept him compared to the combined $2.5 cap hit for both Corbett (71.3 grade) and Edwards (65.7).

Net Gains

I've been impressed by how well Greg Gaines (78.7 PFF grade) has been playing. Yes, he was going up against backup players for Green Bay, but he makes an impact on both run and pass downs. Gaines ranks 10th out of 123 interior defenders per PFF.

When SJD got injured he had the best run stop win rate among DTs at 48%. The top 4 DTs in run stop win rate per ESPN are all essentially tied and Gaines is part of the tie for the top spot at 45%.

Greg Gaines is one of my favorite "unheralded Rams" on the roster.

Still the Best

Aaron Donald only has 6 sacks this year. He's on pace to finish with single digit sacks on the season and conceivably he could end up with the fewest sacks of any season of his career. An odd thing about this stat is per ESPN's metrics, Donald's level of play is still jaw dropping.

AD's pass rush win rate isn't just far and away the best of any DT in the NFL, per ESPN, but it is solidly the best of any defender at any position. He's 2% clear of even the best edge rushers. He's 9% better than the 2nd best DT. Seth Walder created a graph that plotted pass rush win rate against the rate the defender was double team blocked and Aaron Donald is in a class all by himself. No one else is remotely close to him.

Which season was more impressive, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and hit 0.328 or the season where he had 232 walks, hit 0.362, but only had 45 HRs?

AD is the top ranked interior defender in the NFL, with a 92.7 PFF grade. He's not going to get the same level of media buzz as in the past and he might not have the sacks and video highlight plays he did in previous seasons, but if you watch him closely on a play to play basis, he's still a great player. Arguably, AD is having just as strong a season as any of his NFL DPOY seasons.

Big Things Come from Small Things

On any single play in a football game, if something goes wrong, it frequently is because of a combination of different little things, not always because a single player.

Brian Baldinger did a video clip highlighting a failed short 3rd down run by the Rams where Hendo gets stopped short of the marker. Baldinger criticized the seal off style of zone blocking used by the Rams, saying that in short yardage they needed to move defenders back off of the LOS instead. I only partly agree with this. I do think that it helps if a team can be versatile and run a variety of different types of run plays. If you rely too much on outside zone, it is tough to execute that near the end zone or on short 3rd and 4th downs when the defense is crowding or attacking the LOS.

On the other hand, I think the problem with this particular 3rd down play boils down more to execution than it being a scheme or play design problem. McVay's call should have worked and resulted in a first down, the blocking just wasn't quite good enough. Brian Allen is in pretty good position to seal Kenny Clark, but it appears that Allen misses his initial hand placement with his right hand, which goes to the back of Clark's nameplate instead. Clark is then able to push Allen, free his left arm and reach out to try to grab the RB, forcing Hendo to go wider.

A second issue happens on the backside of the play. Corbett is late climbing to the 2nd level to block the safety. He should sense that Hav is in good position and immediately climb, but instead Corbett momentarily hesitates. While he does force the safety to at least change course, Corbett can't pick him off or make good contact. If Corbett makes even half a block, then Hendo still picks up the 1st down after going around Clark. The safety is the defender who spills the RB short of the line to gain. Football is sometimes a game of inches and split seconds.

On the punt return that Koski fumbles, it is true that the returner either needs to hold onto the ball or learn to go to the ground earlier so that the ball can't get ripped or punched out. In my opinion, however, the start of the problem happened way upfield at the line, where Brychen Hopkins whiffs on his block attempt. That Packer was the guy who put the big initial hit on Koski. There were also secondary problems due to lackluster blocks by David Long and Robert Rochell, resulting in Koski getting swarmed by 2nd and 3rd Packers after absorbing that big hit. And, if Nick Scott catches the interception, there isn't even a punt in the first place to be fumbled.

Raheem Morris has been heavily criticized by Rams fans. Maybe some of it is warranted, but in general I don't believe in creating scapegoats. When things go poorly, it often is because many people aren't doing their jobs well, not because one person is responsible. Similarly, if a team is winning, it is because many people are contributing and deserve credit. On some plays, it looks like individual Rams defenders aren't executing their assignments properly. For example, there was a 3rd down pass to Kittle against SF where initially I thought that the Rams had him single covered. I got angry, wondering why the coach wouldn't bracket Kittle on a medium 3rd down where it seemed obvious he'd be the 1st option for the Niners.

After watching the play again, my guess is the defensive call was to have Kittle double teamed. I don't know for sure, but that is how I'd interpret the defensive coverage. One of the defenders just for whatever reason doesn't keep proper leverage, so the Rams end up with 2 defenders standing next to each other instead of the TE being sandwiched between them. Maybe it was a communication problem. Maybe it was just a mental blunder. A similar thing happens on some run plays. The Rams have enough defenders to cover the gaps, but a single guy gets beat or loses containment and it results in a good gain for the opponent. On some level, the DC is responsible for the entire defense, but by the same token the players need to be held accountable for doing their jobs properly.

If the Rams want to make a change, remember that Ejiro Evero, who is the secondary coach, is considered to be a rising star. He was a candidate for the Green Bay DC job before they went with Joe Barry, our former linebackers coach. One problem with elevating Evero is that he's listed as the defensive passing game coordinator and this is his first season with his increased responsibilities and promotion to secondary coach. So, if fans think a major concern with the 2021 defense is how they defend the pass (e.g. how Ramsey is being used, the dropoff in the play of Darious Williams, the use of zone coverage, how Rapp is positioned, etc.) much of this potentially is Evero's responsibility. Maybe instead of blaming Morris, we should be pointing the finger at Evero (and part of it might be he just needs more experience.)

Evero strikes me as being very intelligent, he's a really nice guy with good people skills, and he's relatively young (he turns 41 next month). He is a coach to keep an eye on as a future DC for some franchise. Just as roster decisions with players can be tough, important decisions sometimes involve the coaching staff. If you think Evero is a younger version of Tony Dungy, you don't want to lose him to another team, the Rams should keep a person like that in the organization. On the other hand, if Evero has bitten off more than he can chew this year, maybe he's struggling without having the other former assistants like Staley and Joe Barry in the room. It is impossible to guess from the outside, because we don't know what goes on in building the gameplan and what is really going on.

Remember Me?

A unit that I haven't seen discussed much by the media is the offensive line for the Washington Football Team. Per ESPN, the WFT ranks 1st in run block win rate and 3rd in pass block win rate. The individual PFF grades for all of their starters are solid across the board. They lost their best player, center Chase Roullier to a broken leg a month ago. Both Wes Schweitzer and Tyler Larsen got hurt, so at one point WFT had to turn to essentially their 4th string center. Often injured guard, Brandon Scherff, has missed several games due to injury this year. So has rookie Samuel Cosmi. Despite all of those injury challenges, the OL has performed well and the WFT is in the hunt for an NFC playoff spot.

The OL coach for the WFT is John Matsko, a veteran position coach who was the OL coach for the Rams under Mike Martz. Is Matsko a great OL coach? I wonder what Bulger and SJax would say.