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5 steps to help Matthew Stafford return to form next season

The plan to “run it back” was a disaster, so here’s how the Rams can “run it again”

Los Angeles Rams defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 to win the NFL Super Bowl LVI football game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams had one mission this year: “Run it back.” It turned out that the Rams couldn’t run at all.

Whether or not the Rams turn out to be the worst defending champions ever remains to be seen, but mistakes in the “run it back” plan are plain as day. L.A. failed to build an adequate offensive line for Matthew Stafford, they horribly misjudged the available options at the wide receiver position to reload their weapons, they keep swinging and missing at running back, and the coaching staff may have finally lost too much talent as last season’s offensive coordinator has the Minnesota Vikings at 8-1 and atop the NFC.

Did the Rams dynasty get toppled before they even had a chance to reign?

It’s not too late to start getting right for next year and the wheels for that plan could be in motion very soon. The number one goal has to be to get better around Stafford because he’s the one piece that can’t really be moved. These moves will push the Rams back in the right direction.

1. Shut Stafford down when the time is right

The Rams are 3-6 and Stafford missed the most recent game because he is in concussion protocol. FiveThirtyEight is currently giving L.A. six-percent odds to reach the playoffs, but even that low number is going to crater if the Rams lose to the Saints in Week 11.

At a certain point, playing Stafford this season is going to do more bad than good, plus it could lead to a disaster. Stafford’s four-year, $160 million extension hasn’t even kicked in yet and I highly doubt he plans to retire and let the Rams off the hook after moving his family to Los Angeles. These aren’t the house prices that the Staffords were accustomed to in Detroit.

They recently bought two homes from Drake.

It’s beyond clear that John Wolford is not an NFL passer, but that’s the bed that the Rams chose to sleep in this season if anything should happen to Stafford. Well, this qualifies as “anything”: The Rams are 3-6, Stafford is in concussion protocol, the offense is 31st in yards, 28th in yards per pass attempt, and 31st in yards per carry, and the offensive line can’t be trusted to protect the quarterback as Stafford’s 8.9% sack rate is almost twice as high as the rate from 2021.

If the Rams lose to the Saints in Week 11, playing Matthew Stafford now starts falling into the “unnecessary risks” category.

2. Decide who should call plays

I hate playing the game of scapegoating assistant coaches, as it too often feels like fans and media trying their darnedest to blame anyone other than the head coach or the quarterback. Liam Coen might not be the right choice in the offensive coordinator role for Sean McVay (which is different than say, being the offensive coordinator for a defensive-minded head coach like Brandon Staley or a do-it-all presence at quarterback like Patrick Mahomes) but that’s not for any of us to say.

Until it is said that Coen is the one charting out L.A.’s course on offense every week—which he isn’t, and if he were, the Rams would have already made a change—then the blame needs to fall on someone else. If McVay is the one to blame, then McVay might need to decide if he does bring in a new offensive coordinator next year, someone who can take all the responsibility for the success of the play calling.

The Rams have lost a lot of offensive coaching talent in the last few years, including Kevin O’Connell, Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur, Shane Waldron, and Andy Dickerson. If McVay opens up his offensive coordinator position, then he can be the one to steal an offensive coaching assistant from somebody else for once by offering them a position as OC with the Rams.

I hate to leave with no examples, but at the same time I don’t want to mislead you and so much of decisions like this one boil down to meshing personality types. I have no idea who McVay might already have on his short list of interview candidates for coaching positions, who he has relationships with, and who he knows already and dislikes. But I hate to leave you with no examples, so I’ll leave you with one that you might hate.

Joe Brady was in a very McVay-like position in 2019, a 30-year-old “offensive wunderkind” who just won a national championship by calling plays for Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase at LSU. He may have then gotten a little overzealous with that opportunity by agreeing to be Matt Rhule’s offensive coordinator with the Panthers in 2020, running the Teddy Bridgewater offense in his first season, then Sam Darnold in his second before getting scapegoated. Brady may have been better off choosing a smaller role under a better head coach on a better team with a better quarterback.

That’s where Brady is right now as the quarterbacks coach under Brian Daboll for the Buffalo Bills.

Some of you are shaking your heads right now because the only time you’ve ever heard of Joe Brady is when he was blamed for the failures of Bridgewater and Darnold, so you think that he’s to blame for the Panthers’ struggles. That’s the point of the scapegoat! Just like what Coen would be to the Rams if he gets fired after one season or less. But I’m not in a position to say if he’s going to be good or bad if given another chance.

That’s why I hate to leave you with too many examples. But I didn’t want to leave you empty-handed.

3. Strip down roster to the necessary parts

I think we can rule out a number of costly players from being “necessary” in the coming seasons:

  • Release Leonard Floyd ($3 million in savings if cut or traded pre-June 1, $15.5 million in 2023 savings if cut with post-June 1 designation) because he’s just not living up to the billing
  • Release/trade Joe Noteboom ($2.5 million savings if cut pre-June 1, $7.5 million in savings if traded pre-June 1, $8.5 million in savings if cut post-June 1) because he’s not the starting left tackle anymore
  • Release/trade Cam Akers ($1.4 million in savings)
  • Release/trade Van Jefferson ($1.3 million in savings)
  • Restructure Cooper Kupp (up to $14 million in 2023 cap savings)

This is a lot of boldness for me, a person who didn’t get his necessary freshman math credits until my last semester of college, but I have no hesitation with any of these moves and it could free up about $30 million in cap space with which the Rams can start building around Matthew Stafford again.

It seems to me that Noteboom has already lost the left tackle job to A.J. Jackson. McVay could choose to move Noteboom back to left guard to replace free agent David Edwards, since he’s already on the roster, but Noteboom has a long injury history and he doesn’t have a consistent track record anywhere on the offensive line as a starter. Maybe Snead could find a trade partner who is desperate for left tackle, a position with great need around the league, so that’s one dim light of hope for saving up to $7.5 million with roster bonuses due for Noteboom.

Floyd should not be on this roster next season, even if there is a $19 million dead money cap hit. The Rams made that mistake by re-signing him in 2021, then restructuring him in 2022, but that’s one they have to live with; Floyd’s being paid like an edge rusher, but that’s not what he even really does on defense. Floyd is on pace to blitz about 45 times, after blitzing 94 times under Brandon Staley in 2020 and 70 times under Raheem Morris in 2021.

The Rams have a $22 million off-ball linebacker. Unbelievable!

4. Fortify offensive line with draft picks and free agency

If the Rams take my advice and part with Noteboom, the offensive line that they could construct with players currently signed on the roster for 2023 is: A.J. Jackson at left tackle, Coleman Shelton at left guard, Brian Allen at center, a competition at right guard again (Tremayne Anchrum, Chandler Brewer, Logan Bruss), and Rob Havenstein at right tackle.

Time to go balls to the wall with interior offensive line help.

Look at the Miami Dolphins, one of the top offenses in the NFL after years of struggling. Guard Robert Hunt was the 39th overall pick in the 2020 draft, center Connor Williams was signed off of the Cowboys in free agency, and left tackle Terron Armstead was a big signing in the offseason. He was part of my “What the Rams should have done” article last week.

Look at the Philadelphia Eagles, as left guard Landon Dickerson was a second round pick in 2021 and right guard Isaac Seumalo was a third round pick in 2016. Or the Minnesota Vikings, with a 2020 second round pick at left guard, a 2022 second round pick at right guard, a 2019 first round pick at center, a 2021 first round pick at left tackle, and a 2018 second round pick (Pro Bowl) at right tackle.

The Rams think they’re “taking a shot at offensive line help” by drafting Logan Bruss with the 104th overall pick. No, not good enough!

Now set to have one of the earliest picks in the second round, the Rams absolutely have to consider drafting a guard or a center. Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence, a transfer out of Louisiana who has hit the draft radar like a missile, has been one of the fastest-rising players in the country this college season.

The buck can’t stop there though. The Dolphins, for example, had to draft a few dudes before they could land on a few studs. So finding offensive line help in free agency and the trade market is also a must and the reason why L.A. needs to cut some dead weight off of the salary cap. With Sean McVay as one of the lead salesman pitching “Hey we just won a Super Bowl and we’re gonna get things right again,” the Rams should be able to get a meeting with anybody, even the top names on the market.

That would be Elgton Jenkins of the Packers. Jenkins can play almost anywhere on the offensive line and he seems destined to be a perennial Pro Bowl name, up there with the likes of maybe someone like Kelechi Osemele, if you remember him. I can’t guarantee Jenkins will be available, but that’s one place to start getting your checkbook ready. There is some question of whether Jenkins has responded well to his latest injury.

Isaiah Wynn (if left tackle is open), Nate Davis, Kaleb McGary are among others set to be free agents. I think Brian Allen can stick around as the center, but the Rams should still draft a center who could—or should—replace him soon. The Rams could also choose to cut Allen and find an upgrade. Former first round pick Garrett Bradbury of the previously mentioned Vikings is a free agent, but his career has had a lot of ups and downs.

5. Make a move for a starting running back

I’m sure that the more popular move would be to acquire another receiver or a better tight end than Tyler Higbee, but the Rams are pretty much stuck with Allen Robinson for another season. And I think that if everything else that I’ve said so far goes right—healthy Stafford, better play calling, much-improved offensive line—then the passing game will be fine. If there’s a better running game.

I have little doubt that a healthy Stafford with time to throw and a good running back could make Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, Ben Skowronek, Lance McCutcheon, Tutu Atwell, and the other name that L.A. inevitably acquires, that the Rams could make that work. Why didn’t I include Van Jefferson?

If you want to swap out Tutu for Van, I won’t fight you. I personally think that McCutcheon has the most upside of any receiver on the roster after Kupp. While Atwell just serves such a unique and specific role, it’s not like he’s taking snaps away from any of those players.

I’m not worried about the Rams finding receivers!

But given what we’ve seen at running back since the end of the Todd Gurley era (late 2018 season), Les Snead and Sean McVay can no longer be trusted to evaluate that position. Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers, and Sony Michel have delivered little-to-nothing. I wrote about the insane running back market we could see in 2023 already and I think L.A. could pluck a great name off of that list.

Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, Rashaad Penny, Kareem Hunt, Raheem Mostert, Damien Harris, Tony Pollard, D’Onta Foreman headline free agents, while a few more notable names will be cut or traded.

Trade Allen Robinson and fire Liam Coen and problems are solved? I don’t think it’s that simple. Instead, give the offensive line a makeover, give Stafford and McVay a high-end running back who can actually create his own yards, get healthy again, and hand play calling over to someone else or change-up the philosophies with whoever you already have.

Do that and I think that the Rams could get Stafford right again in 2023. Leave Stafford vulnerable again to getting injured and Drake might get to buy back his houses.