The Los Angeles Rams open their season against the Chicago Bears, one week from Sunday night. There could be more anticipation than usual this year just because of the unusual two-week break from the final preseason game until the opener against the Bears, and now would be a good opportunity to talk about what to expect when the game finally gets here.
And what to prepare for.
I’ve covered a lot of Week 1s and this is what I’ve come to learn and how it will apply to the 2021 Rams.
1 - Week 1 isn’t as big of a deal as it will feel at the time
Anticipation and immediate reactions tend to carry a great deal of weight for our emotions. If Matthew Stafford throws an interception on his first pass attempt as a Ram, open your arms to welcome a flood of tweets about firing Les Snead and Sean McVay. Even though no different is it if Stafford throws an interception on his first attempt of his 201st and we should all expect him to make as many as 10 or more of those errors. It happens and we shouldn’t really care of it happens in Week 1 or in Week 10. It could happen in both.
The same holds true for a win or a loss. Even if LA should go 17-0, it may not turn out to be as good of a season as a team that goes 10-7, but then wins the Super Bowl.
The Rams beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 of last season and started 4-1 with the lone loss coming in the final moments against a very good Buffalo Bills team. And yet, LA was only 6-5 in their remaining 11 games and any hopes of playoff wins beyond the wild card round were dim because of a sputtering offensive performance as the year went on.
So, who had the better season?
The Bucs that started 7-5 or the Chiefs team that was 16-2 entering the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay?
If you want to be semantic or pedantic or if you want to bring any of your ‘antics’ into the equation, then yes, Week 1 does “matter” to some degree. Every game matters. To that point, every play matters. Every decision in between games matters. And everything that’s happened up until kickoff matters.
But whether the Rams win or lose to the Bears in Week 1, not a single one of us could tell you on September 12th how or why it will matter as it pertains to LA’s future Super Bowl aspirations. That’s only something we can find out at the Super Bowl.
2 - The Rams should hope to see Justin Fields
Count Los Angeles in among those who would like to see the rookie Fields make his NFL debut next Sunday in SoFi Stadium. We know that most Chicago fans are not interested in even one week of the Andy Dalton era. We know that most media members want to witness the fruits of their draft grades. And we know that both NBC and the NFL are hoping for the fourth quarter ratings pump that would happen if Matt Nagy makes a change at quarterback.
But if the Bears are pulling Dalton — the QB who has been called Chicago’s starter throughout the entire offseason and leading into Week 1 — because of a bad performance, then surely the Rams are in a good position in the game at that point.
Then what happens next is that they are facing a quarterback who might be more talented than Dalton, who might be more athletic than Dalton, who might be able to create certain plays that Dalton can’t create, and who will have a lot less film to offer LA coaches/players leading into the game than the veteran will.
But he’s also just a rookie quarterback, the fourth one picked in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Few rookie quarterbacks have found success in the league, even if for one game, so if everybody is pulling to see Justin Fields next Sunday, perhaps the Rams should say, “If you can beat them, join them.”
3 - This is Matthew Stafford’s “most freshest start” to a season since 2009
There was some talk of LA looking at wide receiver Marvin Jones in the offseason, a former teammate/favorite of Stafford’s in Detroit, but that never happened. Then as it turned out, little about the Rams offense would change other than acquiring Stafford and most of that side of the ball will look the same as it has for the last four years.
During his 12-year tenure with the Lions, Stafford saw several changes at head coach and offensive coordinator, he played with dozens of different offensive linemen, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers. Stafford is used to change, especially given that he was with an organization that was forced to rebuild several times since the rebuild that involved drafting Stafford in 2009.
But nothing is like the change that Stafford has experienced in 2021.
Not only did Stafford relocate and start anew with a franchise that offers a brand new $5 billion stadium and playoff trips in three of the last four seasons, but he’ll also have:
- A brand new starting five offensive line
- A new tight end
- A new set of wide receivers, including Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson, and Van Jefferson
- A new offensive coordinator in Sean McVay and Kevin O’Connell
- A new playbook
- A new parking space
In a recent interview on The Pat McAfee Show, former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler mentioned that he believes he’s still physically capable of playing in the league at 38, but that he doesn’t have the energy anymore to do everything that’s a part of the job off of the field. That includes developing chemistry with his offensive line and receivers, perhaps one of the most underrated parts of the job. Stafford had a ton of people who he had to get to know this offseason.
(Cutler also first mentioned Stafford as a guy who can “sling it” when asked about the other QBs in the NFC North during his tenure with the Bears.)
Consider how much time that Carson Wentz has missed since joining the Indianapolis Colts, but Stafford returned to practice one day after injuring his thumb in training camp last month; an injury that was expected to sideline him for at least a few days.
Stafford has a lot to do, so patience is deserved, but that doesn’t mean that you have to hold off for an entire year; Tom Brady had a lot to do with the Bucs last year and we saw how that worked out.
4- Defensive performance, year-over-year, is volatile; and nobody should ever be expected to ‘repeat’ a number one ranking
One of the easiest ways to predict a team that will do “better” or “worse” than the season prior is to look for the best and the worst to begin with.
If you rank first in a category in 2020, you should not be expected to repeat first in 2021. That’s just rare. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be top-five. It doesn’t mean you’ll sink to the middle or the bottom. It’s just the law of expectations.
In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman explains what can go wrong when you praise somebody for doing their best; if a novice is throwing darts and hits a bullseye, that is good. But if you think that the bullseye is an indication that the novice will throw another bullseye on the next throw, that is an unfair expectation. They just did...THEIR BEST. They should in fact be expected to do worse on the next throw and therefore, you don’t admonish them for missing the bullseye any more than you would praise them for finally getting their first bullseye.
The LA Rams ranked first in defense in 2020 and then Brandon Staley left his job as defensive coordinator to take over the LA Chargers this season. If new DC Raheem Morris leads a team that is ranked eighth in defense in 2021, that doesn’t mean he’s a worse coordinator than Staley. We’ll never know how a Staley-led defense would have performed for the Rams in 2021. We’ll never know that.
A lower ranking for Morris should be expected and therefore, we shouldn’t really be upset if the Rams don’t rank first or near-first in defense in 2021. Could they be considerably worse? If that happens, then surely something did go wrong; Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey alone should keep LA from being considerably worse than first.
But a little worse is normal.