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Rams don’t just have a kicking problem, they have a game management problem

The Rams problem at kicker is more than just the player kicking. Sean McVay’s decision-making is an issue.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In a move that didn’t come as a huge surprise, the Los Angeles Rams cut kicker Brett Maher after he missed a pair of field goals and an extra point in Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Maher was just 1-for-5 in his last five attempts from 50 yards out.

However, this is a situation where several things can all be true at the same time. I’m not going to sit here and defend Maher. Simply put, he needed to be better. His misses on Sunday changed the direction of the game. Both of his misses turned into 10 points the other way.

At the same time, the issue is deeper than just missed field goals. So far this season, the Rams have settled for three more field goals than any other team in the NFL. Their seven attempts from outside of 50 yards is tied for the most in the league.

Let’s put it this way. Maher had attempted seven kicks of 50 or more yards already in 2023. Meanwhile, Matt Gay attempted nine such kicks in all of 2022 and five the entirety of the 2021 season. The 2018 season was McVay’s best offense and they attempted just six 50+ yard field goals. Again, they have already attempted seven this season. Good offenses don’t settle for 50+ yard field goals.

Former Rams kicker, Greg Zuerlein is a great example here. Between 2012-2016, Zuerlein averaged seven attempts from 50 yards out under Jeff Fisher. His accuracy on those kicks was just 51 percent. Under Fisher, 24.8 percent of Zuerlein’s kicks came from over 50 yards.

Between 2017-2019 under McVay’s offense, Zuerlein averaged just over six attempts from 50 yards out. Zuerlein did improve his accuracy, but he was also asked to do less. Under McVay, only 19.2 percent of his attempts came from beyond the 50-yard mark.

It’s worth noting that Maher was 14-for-16 inside of 50 yards. This isn’t to say that Maher didn’t deserve to be cut or didn't need to be better. However, the issue runs deeper than just a kicker missing kicks.

McVay’s content with settling for long field goals is an issue. This season, the Rams have lost the fourth-most win percentage points by kicking in what analytics would describe as “go” situations.

Win percentage lost by kicking FGs
Win percentage lost by kicking FGs
Credit: Jourdan Rodrigue via Ben Baldwin

Looking at the chart above, it’s odd seeing McVay at one end of the spectrum and Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel on the other end.

A prime example of this came in the first quarter of last week’s game against the Steelers. The Rams had 4th-and-4 to set up a 53-yard field goal. On the play before, McVay called a run to Royce Freeman out of shotgun that only picked up one yard.

On the play, the Steelers had seven defenders lined up within a yard of the line of scrimmage. In other words, they were expecting a run. This is a pass-friendly look. Minkah Fitzpatrick was lined up well inside of Puka Nacua and was able to crash down and stop Freeman for a minimal gain. The same result happened on a similar play in Week 2 on 4th down against the San Francisco 49ers.

The primary issue here is the play-call. On 3rd-and-5 from the 35 yard line either McVay is running to set up a 4th-and-short or he’s content with taking the long field goal. It’s unlikely that a run play against that front picks up the needed five yards. The Rams could have picked up 1.8 win percentage points by opting to go for it on 4th-and-4 and instead decided to kick a long field goal that was missed.

Again, Maher is part of the issue here. However, it’s also a McVay issue and the consistency in which he decides to be aggressive.

Taking away the 4th-and-10+ situations, the Rams have kicked 10 field goals of 40 or more yards in 2023. The analytics called for McVay to go for it on four of those. Half of the “go” situations results in a missed field goal.

What's confusing here is that the Rams aren’t bad on fourth down. In fact, over the past two seasons, they’ve been really good in fourth down situations. Looking back at Week 4 against the Indianapolis Colts for example, they had 4th-and-3 from the Colts 32-yard line. Stafford hit Cooper Kupp for a first down and the offense finished the drive with a touchdown to go up 14-0.

The Rams are 6-for-8 on fourth down this season for a 75 percent conversion rate. That ranks second in the NFL. Last season, the Rams were 15-for-19 for a 79 conversation rate which led the league.

In 2023, the Rams offense has the sixth-best EPA per play on fourth down at 0.922. Their drop back EPA per play of 1.308 ranks fifth. The Rams have a fourth down success rate of 75 percent which, again, ranks inside the top-five. There’s nothing that says that they shouldn’t be going for it more in these situations.

Now, it’s fair to note that the Rams haven’t always been as successful, especially early in McVay’s tenure when they were one of the worst teams in the NFL on fourth down. That may go into the reluctance to go for it more. However, when your kicker is struggling as much as Maher was, do you trust Stafford and Kupp to pick up four yards or Maher to make a 53-yard field goal?

No team is going to go for it every time the analytics say to do so. There is an element of “feel to a game” that the analytics tend to ignore sometimes. That “feel” might be wrong, but it’s a human element that’s hard to ignore. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the decision-making from McVay in these situations is costing the team and hurting their chances to win in a similar way that Maher missing field goals was hurting the team. Both of those things are true at the same time.

The Rams will now move on to Lucas Havrisik or whoever else at kicker. Havrisik hardly feels like the answer as he made 64.1 percent of his field goals at Arizona and has never attempted a kick in the regular season. He was 2-for-2 between 40-49 yards in the preseason this year with the Cleveland Browns.

Will that uncertainty at kicker force McVay to change his thinking when it comes to his aggressiveness on fourth down or will he continue to trot out his kicker in potentially unfavorable situations?

McVay has been lucky with Matt Gay and Greg Zuerlein who were almost automatic from 50+ yards out. However, those types of kickers don’t necessarily come around often.

At this point in the season, it’s going to be difficult for the Rams to find a kicker with any level of consistency. That’s going to be difficult to change. What they can change is how they handle favorable offensive situations that call for them to go for it. That part is up to McVay.