I trust Sean McVay. Not only for his offensive vision, scheme, and the respect that he’s earned from the rest of the NFL based on how many former assistants have earned promotions around the league. But I also believe that the defense will be able to pick up where they left off last year, and maybe even find a way to be better under the coaching of Raheem Morris.
And you won’t find me out as a skeptic about Matthew Stafford either. He has the talent to win the playoff games that his former team couldn’t help him win before. So trust me when I say that I believe in the Rams harder than Fox Mulder believes in aliens.
Here comes the “but...”
On the other hand, there’s the cautious side of me who lived through the St. Louis Rams teams of the mid-to-late aughts. Not just the iterations of the team under Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo that re-defined “bad” but also the times that the Rams ended a promising season at 6-10 or 8-8, or a Jeff Fisher special, as well as the more accomplished teams that ended up in the playoffs and not much further than gaining entry.
I firmly believe this current Los Angeles Rams squad is more talented than many of those that came before them, but the glaring lack of depth leaves me feeling nervous for what could happen over the course of the 2021-22 season.
Preparing to be the BEST means knowing what pratfalls you must avoid so that you don’t end up in a WORST case scenario.
So, what could go wrong?
The Offensive Line Fails
Uncertainty has swirled around the Rams offensive line for many months now and, at first glance, these concerns may seem warranted. I am a big Andrew Whitworth guy, not only because we share the same follicle limitations, but because he seems like a genuinely good person and is a Hall of Fame teammate.
However, it’s the same note you’ve heard all year about Whitworth: he is 39 going on 40. That’s impossible to ignore and it does lead to missed practices for Whitworth due to needing rest.
Rams DL A'Shawn Robinson (Knee) was a limited participant in today's practice, according to official report. LT Andrew Whitworth and OLB Terrell Lewis, both listed as rest days yesterday, were full participants.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) September 10, 2021
And Whitworth could be LA’s best offensive lineman.
Moreover, Brian Allen is currently penciled in to start at center, which didn’t turn out so well in 2019 and that’s something no Rams fan forgets. Although we should always take PFF grades with a grain of salt, Allen’s low rating by that site and every other site is not something that anyone disputes about his play that year. Including Sean McVay.
But McVay says that Allen is a different player in training camp this year, and until Sunday, we’ll have to take his word for it.
On the other hand, Los Angeles is returning four of five starters to their line from last season and that continuity will pay dividends, especially given that Whitworth and Rob Havenstein have been the tackles since McVay arrived. David Edwards and Austin Corbett are going into their third and fourth NFL seasons, respectively, and have played well-to-good at guard over the last year.
But with so many new faces on offense (Stafford, Sony Michel, Jake Funk, DeSean Jackson, Tutu Atwell, just to name a few), will the lack of a preseason — trying to learn the intricacies and tendencies of a new line during real, live, game time action — cost the Rams points early in the year? We saw this play out to a lesser extent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season and while it ultimately turned out well enough for Tampa, it only takes one or two ill-timed losses in the NFC West to be left on the outside looking in.
Whitworth is still playing football because he believes that LA has a chance to do what the Bucs did a year ago — win the Super Bowl at home — and how he leads this line will speak volumes:
“We’ve figured out how to win playoff games, we’ve made some runs in the postseason. And this time for us and this opportunity we feel like this team, nothing short of going to that Super Bowl and winning it is good enough. And that’s really the expectation level for us, even though we know that’s a slippery slope. But that’s where we want to be. And if that’s what you want, then you got to be able to speak about it and let people know that that’s the only thing you see is the goal, and the only thing you see as accomplishing this season is just going and winning a Super Bowl.”
The Running Backs Struggle
Since I’ve already made the commitment to avoid the injury conversation, I won’t bring up Darrell Henderson’s oft-discussed durability or perceived lack thereof. While a valid argument could be made for or against, none of that really matters unless Henderson proves to be a high-quality starting running back.
The reality is that Henderson has had multiple opportunities to be LA’s top back and we are still waiting for him to secure that title in year three.
Cam Akers was clearly meant to be the lead horse but, once he went down with an Achilles tear, it quickly became evident McVay was going to employ a back-by-committee strategy; the trade for Sony Michel all but cemented this notion. Without a true RB1, where do the tough, grinding, downhill Malcolm Brown yards come from?
Los Angeles signed undrafted rookie Otis Anderson and third-year back Buddy Howell to the practice squad, but the former has no meaningful NFL experience while the latter can only claim a career average of 3.5 yards per attempt on a grand total of 21 carries and was mainly signed for special teams abilities.
It’s notable that Sean McVay decided to only keep 3 active RBs on the 53-man roster, meaning he may be waiting for the right opportunity to add the right type of running back at the right time, because it doesn’t seem to be Anderson or Howell. (See a list of free agents right here.)
The value of Marshall Faulk can’t be measured. The value of Todd Gurley to McVay’s offense in 2017 and 2018 has clearly proven to be no less than “a lot.”
What will it mean for the 2021 edition of the Rams if they don’t have a weapon at running back?
The NFC West is just too damn good
It seems like a yearly talking point for countless NFL analysts and commentators: the NFC West is the toughest division in football. With teams from this division representing the NFC in two of the past three Super Bowls, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
The Seattle Seahawks have made the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons since hiring Pete Carroll has head coach, and seven of nine since drafting Russell Wilson; the San Francisco 49ers often struggle because of injuries, but with Trey Lance as an insurance policy to Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Bosa returning from missing most of 2020, the Niners are picked as a favorite in the conference two years after reaching the Super Bowl; even the Arizona Cardinals, nearly a playoff team a year ago, boast a recent number one pick at quarterback, an all-pro number one receiver, and a defense with Chandler Jones, Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins, and free agent signee J.J. Watt.
After going 12-4 last year, the #Seahawks return most of their roster intact ready to defend their NFC West crown.— Corbin K. Smith (@CorbinSmithNFL) September 7, 2021
With Russell Wilson back for year No. 10, can the franchise make a deep playoff run this time around?
My annual preview for @SInow:https://t.co/ba7h9qhiKb
McVay must figure out how to continue his dominance against the Cards (8-0), build an even bigger lead against Seattle (6-3), and make things right against Kyle Shanahan (3-5), otherwise, the Rams could be the third-place team in a four-team division.
With turnover in the 49ers defensive coaching ranks, McVay’s ability to successfully scheme against Carroll, and his sterling record against the Cardinals, it’s fair to assume that LA has an opportunity to finish atop the standings once all the dust settles.
However, a few potential question marks remain, not the least of which comes with Shane Waldron’s defection to the Pacific Northwest to take over the role of Offensive Coordinator with the Seahawks. Having spent time as McVay’s assistant coach, Waldron could provide key insights on how to slow down McVay’s offensive game plan. Add to it the unlikelihood of remaining spotless against any opponent, it is as reasonable to picture the Rams winning the division as it is to envision them slipping to the third or fourth spot with just a few surprising losses.
I do not believe that McVay will end up in third or fourth place though. I do believe that LA has a clear road towards getting back to the Super Bowl, three years after falling just shy of their second Lombardi Trophy.
But even the most optimistic fan must acknowledge the possibility for a different outcome, even if said outcome is uncomfortable, ugly, or convulsion inducing.
Ace Frehley once sang of the joys and pitfalls of being a 2000 man and, if that decade taught us anything about Rams football, even the most promising of rosters can still finish a season with less than desirable results.