Playing the Washington Generals
The Rams in 1999 were supposed to be bad. At least after Trent Green got hurt in the preseason. They were 25th in ESPN's power rankings to begin the season. In 2023, the Rams ranked 27th in ESPN's preseason power rankings. One of the key factors behind the surprising 1999 Super Bowl season wasn't Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Mike Martz or the GSOT offense. It was the long list of opposing backup level QBs the Rams faced in the 1999 regular season.
In week 1, the Rams played Scott Mitchell and the Baltimore Ravens. Mitchell was benched in the 2nd game of the year and didn't play the rest of the season. Baltimore traded 3rd and 5th round picks to Detroit to get Mitchell. Later in 1999, the Ravens made Tony Banks the starter. The Rams traded Banks to the Ravens after acquiring Green. In 2000, Banks was benched in favor of Trent Dilfer, who remained the QB for their Super Bowl victory.
The Rams had a bye in week 2. That week, the Atlanta Falcons lost their star RB, Jamal Anderson, to a season ending injury. Starter Chris Chandler got hurt in week 1, then sat out the 2nd game due to injury. He started against the Rams, but reinjured his leg in the 1st half and exited the contest. After the game, he said that he shouldn't have tried to play. Backup Tony Graziani replaced him. Graziani went on to become a successful Arena Football player.
Other QBs the Rams faced in 1999 included Jeff Blake, Tim Couch, Shane Matthews, a struggling rookie Donovan McNabb and a rookie Jeff Garcia instead of injured Steve Young. Even in the NFC title game vs Tampa, the Rams were facing a rookie backup QB, Shaun King, and still nearly lost that game. King was a 2nd round pick and only started 1 season in his NFL career.
The Rams had very good defensive stats in 1999 (6th in total defense, 1st in rushing defense), and they were more talented (Kevin Carter, D'Marco Farr, Grant Wistrom, Leonard Little, London Fletcher, Dre Bly, Dexter McCleon, Todd Lyght) than the 2023 team. Some of those players went on to be good defenders for other NFL teams after leaving the Rams. Part of the reason the stats were good, however, was because many of the opponents had weak offenses. Back in 1999, there were 31 NFL teams. This is how some of the Rams' opponents ranked in scoring offense that season: Ravens 14th, Lions 15th, Giants 21st, Niners (2 games) 22nd, Falcons (2 games) 23rd, Bengals 24th, Bears 25th, Eagles (26th), Bucs (27th), Saints (2 games) 29th, Falcons 30th, Browns 31st. In other words, the Rams played almost all of the worst offenses in the NFL that season.
If you look at the 2023 schedule for the Rams, there is at least an outside chance where if things fell into place, the Rams would avoid facing many (or any) elite QBs this season. The Rams need a combination of several things to all happen at the right time. First, they need certain running QBs (e.g. Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson) to get injured. Second, they need young QBs (Kenny Pickett, Jordan Love), who might be inconsistent, to have off performances. Third, injured QBs (Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray) need to remain out or aggravate those injuries. Fourth, they need QBs who were unexpectedly good in 2022 (Geno Smith, Brock Purdy) to regress.
If those types of things happen frequently enough in 2023, many of the games on the schedule that otherwise would appear to be difficult to win suddenly could swing in favor of the Rams.
On paper, the 2023 Rams don't look like an imposing team. But, all they have to be is at least one point better than each opponent on the day of the game and one way for that to happen would be for the opponent to be limited by substandard QB play.
The Rams Aren't in the Clear Yet
How did we get to a point where the Rams enter 2023 as underdogs instead of Super Bowl contenders? One key reason is the way the front office has managed the salary cap.
1. The Rams have the 2nd biggest dead cap hit this year in the NFL, behind only the Bucs. The Rams have nearly $73 million in dead cap money. There are 17 teams with less than $25 million in dead cap. Allen Robinson, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd and Bobby Wagner all contributed to this huge dead cap figure.
2. The Rams rolled over only about $400 thousand in cap space from 2022, one of the lowest figures in the league. This contributed to the Rams having one of the smallest adjusted salary cap numbers. The Eagles rolled over about $5 million more than the Rams and this was way less than the prior 2 seasons. Philly had the 2nd highest rollover amount in 2022 at $16 million and had the most rollover cash in 2021 at $22 million. The NFL salary cap doesn't mean that all 32 teams have exactly the same amount of money to spend on players.
3. Last year, PFF did a study of each team's cap situation and ranked the Rams 27th. The Rams ranked particularly low in 2 categories. They were 30th in draft capital, a measure of the quality of the players under rookie contracts, a reflection of the result of Snead trading away so many 1st round picks. They were 29th in prorated money, meaning they had large amounts tied up in signing and restructure bonuses, which limits their ability to make moves without creating large dead cap hits.
4. If you look at the projected 2024 cap space for the Rams, it might look like there is plenty of room, because spotrac lists it at $55 million, but I think this is misleading. At the moment, the Rams don't have enough players under contract for next year to field a full roster. Moreover, the pending FAs are cheap young players (e.g. Van Jefferson, Anchrum, Hopkins), making it difficult to replace them without spending more money, except with rookie draft picks. The way the Rams structured (or restructured) contracts for Stafford, Donald and Kupp create cap pressure, because all 3 of those guys will see large jumps in their cap hits in 2024 (Stafford from $20 mill to nearly $50 mill, AD from $26 to $34 mill and CK from $17 to $30 million.) The projected cap room also assumes that the Rams won't spend any more of their current cap space and roll it over and that nothing unexpectedly bad will happen that would create a large dead cap charge (e.g. Donald retiring.)
Demoff and Snead elected to absorb some 2023 cap pain to clear room for 2024 and beyond, but that doesn't mean the Rams will be able to go on a huge shopping spree in Free Agency next offseason. The team might want to earmark some of those dollars to hand out new contracts to current players or to plug holes created by departing free agents, which could result in the team treading water instead of achieving substantial upgrades. There should still be some room after such moves to pursue new players, but it isn't going to be $55 million to splurge.
One of the key things to decide in 2023 is how the team should dedicate their cap space next year. They likely can't go out and get a new LT, outside CB, EDGE rusher and WR. But, maybe they'll have enough money to target 1 or 2 of those positions. So, what should be the top priority? How young and unproven Rams perform this season could be critical in answering those questions.