As we inch closer and closer to NFL training camps being underway, it is time to start rolling out the predictions for the hopeful 32 teams in the league, and for the L.A. Rams it seems as though things could not get much worse than they were last season in terms of unluckiness. The main goal for every single team in the league is obviously winning the Super Bowl, but there is a certain route to take in order to increase your chances of getting there.
The very first step towards that ultimate goal is to win your division, which guarantees you AT LEAST one playoff game at home and gives you a better chance to get some real momentum going at the perfect time. Obviously, this step applies to the Rams as well, so their main priority heading into the year will be to win the NFC West.
The question is, do the Rams have any chance at winning the West?
As it stands today, many are projecting the Rams to finish 3rd in the division behind the 49ers and the Seahawks, both of which have higher expectations than Los Angeles at this point in time. The only team in the NFC West that most experts feel the Rams will be better than is the Arizona Cardinals, which is a team that will be without their starting QB for a good part of the beginning of the season.
It's NFC West week on the Bootleg offseason preview series... and we're giving you the "We have to talk" face. Yup, it's about the Cardinals. It's not all bad news, but I wouldn't call it pretty either. If you want to see them all you can't skip it https://t.co/7LMPCZlH5r pic.twitter.com/rrBIrCsGpE— EJ Snyder (@FootballEJ) June 26, 2023
Last season everyone thought the Rams were going to continue their dominance, or at least return to the playoffs, with folks dismissing the Seahawks and Geno Smith as the team that would finish at the bottom.
That was far from the case, as the L.A. Rams finished with the worst record for a defending champion in NFL history and the Seahawks made the postseason with Smith making the first Pro Bowl of his career. The fact of the matter is that NO ONE really knows what will happen and, although this Rams team will look a lot different, every team has an opportunity to do better than expectations.
With that being said, it would not surprise me if the Rams went out and shocked people by winning the NFC West, and here is the main reason why:
Sean McVay is still among the best minds in football.
For the first time since 2017, the Los Angeles Rams have low expectations. Coming off of the first losing season of McVay’s coaching career has the Rams win-loss over/under set at 6.5, a far fall from grace as they were projected at 10.5 wins coming off of a Super Bowl victory.
The last time the team was projected at 6.5 or lower? Prior to the 2017 season, as odds-makers has the projected win total at 5.5. The Rams ended up finishing 11-5, completely shattering the low projections from bookmakers.
During the team’s 12-season playoff drought, the Rams had a combined record of 60-131-1 with zero NFC West titles and six last-place finishes in the division. The franchise was one of the laughing stocks of the league, with no real direction or hope at the time. Then came McVay, started 11-5 in years one and totaling a record of 60-38 through his six seasons as the head coach of the Rams, with three NFC West titles, two NFC Championship appearances, two Super Bowl appearances, and a Super Bowl title in his short time with the team.
Could the surprise results of 2017 swing back around six years later?
Of course, there are also huge differences between now and 2017.
Why the Rams might not go above expectations
In 2017, not only did the Rams replace Jeff Fisher with McVay, they also added Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth, Sammy Watkins, and John Sullivan to the offense in free agency. L.A. hit a grand slam with Cooper Kupp in the draft, and so far it’s too early to say if any of the Rams’ 14 picks will be historic steals, even if there is buzz about Puca Nakua. The team also had Todd Gurley, Rodger Saffold, and younger versions of Tyler Higbee and Rob Havenstein.
Is it fair to compare Cam Akers to Gurley, Steve Avila to Saffold, or to think for a second that the 2023 L.A. Rams could rank first in scoring, as the 2017 team did?
But even if you argue that the Rams offense will be “good enough” with Matthew Stafford, Kupp, and a healthier offensive line, what do we make of the 2023 Rams defense? Six years ago, the team had a 26-year-old Aaron Donald right in the prime of his career, plus experienced starters everywhere: Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Trumaine Johnson, Connor Barwin, Alec Ogletree, Lamarcus Joyner, and Mark Barron. Then another rookie third round pick, John Johnson, made an immediate impression.
This 2023 defense is surrounding a 32-year-old Donald, who has been mostly absent from offseason workouts and practices, with the most inexperienced defensive roster in the NFL. Raheem Morris, L.A.’s second defensive coordinator since the team parted with Wade Phillips, is probable to start at least eight players who have never been starters before.
We attribute McVay’s impact to offense, but the 2017 defense ranked 12th in points allowed, fifth in turnovers forced, and was a borderline top-10 unit against the pass.
Winning the division won’t only required that the offense remains glued together this time as opposed to 2022, but that the L.A. Rams have unearthed several sleeping superstars on defense. Then Morris must do a masterful job of putting each of them in the right place at the right time.
Winning the West requires other teams losing the West
Though McVay started his own retirement rumors at the outset of the offseason, I have faith that as long as he is on the sidelines, the Rams have a shot to win the NFC West. Perhaps the most important factor though will be, “What if the 49ers and Seahawks fall backwards?”
Kyle Shanahan has gone to the NFC Championship in three of the last four seasons, but he’s also gone 6-10 or worse in his other three seasons at the helm. With San Francisco expected to start either Sam Darnold or Trey Lance until Brock Purdy is healthy, the 49ers could once again be in quarterback peril. And we don’t even know how good Purdy is going to be.
Meanwhile, Seattle did surprise people by going 9-8 last year, but that’s still basically a .500 team in the modern 17-game season. And .500 teams often can fall backwards instead of upwards. The Seahawks lost five of six games in the second half of the year and were demolished by the 49ers in the playoffs, so if Geno Smith shows signs of being the quarterback he was with the Jets again, who knows where Seattle ends up. Is 5-12 unrealistic for the Seahawks if it just happened to the team that won the Super Bowl?
Therefore, maybe the team that wins the NFC West only has to go 9-8 or 8-9, as we saw in the NFC South last year. If the Rams could win their five most-winnable games, then they only need go 4-8 the rest of the way to be 9-8.
Maybe the key to the Rams surprising people is not necessarily to be as good as they were in 2017, which is super unlikely. But instead to be as good as they were in 2020, which is potentially within reach.
Especially for a coach like McVay.