If I do this for another 50 years, I may never be as wrong about a playoff team as I was about the 2023 Los Angeles Rams. At least, I was not alone.
Coming off of a 5-12 season and left with only three true “stars” from the Super Bowl champions, all of whom were coming off of injuries and are over 30 years old, the Rams were widely predicted to be bracing for a season of growing pains and rebuilding. You could call it “re-tooling”, “re-setting”, or “reloading” if you wanted to, the words all boil down to the same meaning:
Nobody outside of you really believes in you. Not right now.
I praised the Rams offseason because L.A. was doing the needful things. They didn’t hang onto players for the sake of it, they didn’t make aggressive moves to trade back into the first round, they reverted from their previous team-building philosophies of yesteryear and Les Snead returned with a new vision for this iteration of the Rams.
The Rams didn’t try to be those Rams, they tried to be the best Rams they could be for this season, and they accepted their fate as a team that would have to overachieve based on a lack of draft capital, experience, and an ability to spend money against a salary cap that left Snead almost no wiggle room.
I applauded their acceptance to be these L.A. Rams, but what I didn’t know then is that these L.A. Rams could end up as a top-10 team in the NFL over the second half of the season. Not just a playoff team, not just a surprising wild card, the Rams rank top-5 in scoring and point differential since their bye week.
L.A. has the best record in the NFL since then: 7-1.
Holy shit, I was wrong. These are some reasons why.
Rams fans grade offseason as a C
Because I will be accused of being a hater for not believing that the Rams could be this good, let me at least remind everyone what the tenor of fans was last Summer:
In a poll last July, 38% of Rams fans gave the team a C grade for the offseason, followed next by 32% for a B, 17% for an F, and only 13% gave them an A.
Rams fans: What grade do you give the Rams front office for the 2023 offseason?— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) July 20, 2023
(twitter polls have max 4 options)
As I said, I was not alone. There was healthy skepticism everywhere about the torn down Rams: Vegas projected them for 6.5 wins prior to the season.
Despite a 3-6 start, this was a total that Sean McVay passed in Week 15’s win over the Commanders.
CBS Sports had a consensus “third place” finish for the Rams, and only because the Arizona Cardinals were expected to be one of the worst three teams in the NFL. Not one of their six writers had the Rams finishing above the Seahawks and ultimately not only did L.A. sweep Seattle, and blow them out of the water in Week 1, the Seahawks ended up as probably the worst team in the division by the end of the year.
Obviously nobody at CBS predicted the Rams to make the playoffs.
At The 33rd Team, the Rams were predicted to finish 4-13 and they noted: “The Rams’ abysmal predicted record is driven by their difficult schedule.”
The Sporting News pegged the Rams at 6-11. ESPN’s simulator put the Rams at 8-9, which was one of the most generous predictions, but in April they projected L.A. to have the second-fewest wins in the league. NFL Network’s Adam Rank said 7-10.
Even for people who literally cover the L.A. Rams, hopes were not high for this season: Cameron DaSilva projected the team to finish a respectable 7-10 for The Rams Wire.
The Rams finished 10-7 with a regular season finale win over the 49ers in a game that didn’t feature all of the starters, and while that doesn’t sound DRAMATICALLY better than 8-9 or 7-10, that doesn’t take into account the fact that L.A. wasn’t just a decent team. They had the least amount of resources in the offseason and by the end of the regular season are one of the best teams in football.
They’ve been playing more like a 13-win team recently and it makes the first half of the season appear to be the growing pains that were expected, but the evolution happened far sooner than expected.
Resources Don’t Matter
The consensus opinion on the Rams offensive line in the offseason was that it would be a bottom-5 unit in the NFL. PFF ranked them 28th, which was generous. ESPN’s Mike Clay went with 30th:
2023 NFL Offensive Line Unit Ranks and potential starters.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) May 12, 2023
The Eagles remain elite...and the 49ers surprisingly low (Trent is a stud, but the rest of the line doesn't quite stack up) pic.twitter.com/tOibRAbK6Q
Now at the end of the season, where are the awards and accolades for the jobs done by Snead, McVay, and new offensive line coach Ryan Wendell?
Despite benching two of their three highest-paid OL, Brian Allen and Joe Noteboom, and not having a first round pick again, the Rams have had success with a line featuring a rookie left guard, a former undrafted free agent at left tackle, a center who had been waiting his turn for several years, and a right guard who was on the market for only a day three pick swap.
Steve Avila, Kevin Dotson, Coleman Shelton, and A.J. Jackson have gone well above and beyond even the highest expectations...and there weren’t any expectations higher than 28th.
This unit was being depended on to protect Matthew Stafford, the NFL’s oldest starting quarterback going into the season aside from Aaron Rodgers, and that seemed like a huge concern given their experience, pedigree, and salaries. It turned out to be one of the best offensive lines that McVay has ever had.
Similar stories could be told about almost any position unit on the 2023 Rams.
The team’s best receiver, Cooper Kupp, was coming off of a serious injury and then he aggravated his hamstring in camp and was put on IR. Outside of him, the team would be relying on a fifth round rookie, a journeyman free agent, and some underwhelming second round picks like Tutu Atwell and Van Jefferson. Even needing to trade Jefferson and getting inconsistent production from Atwell, the Rams found that they had more than enough at the receiver position thanks to the record-setting season by Puka Nacua.
I was high on Nacua after writing a profile on him in June, but not in my wildest dreams did I expect a 1,000-yard campaign, let alone the NFL rookie record of 1,483.
Then late in the season we saw the emergence of Demarcus Robinson and now Kupp enters the playoffs as healthy and ready as anyone could hope him to be. They will not only complement Puka, but also the breakout season of Kyren Williams at running back. There was no evidence from his rookie campaign that Kyren would lead the NFL in rushing yards per game, but here we are.
Kyren Williams (@RamsNFL @Kyrenwilliams23) is the first player in NFL history to finish Top 3 in rushing yards while missing 5+ games.— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) January 10, 2024
Coincidentally, Lions legend Barry Sanders is the only other player to rank top 5. (via NFL Research) pic.twitter.com/33IGGoDNaN
The best anyone was hoping for was that with McVay calling the shots and Stafford potentially back to full strength, the offense might be good enough to call the Rams a legitimate scoring threat. It’s really the defense that took everyone off guard.
A unit that finished 23rd in points per drive allowed and allocating most of its financial resources to Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey (dead money), Leonard Floyd (dead money), and Bobby Wagner (dead money), the Rams defense surely would sink the ship, right?
Even though the Rams still didn’t even draft a defensive player with their second rounder, the team managed to find a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate (Kobie Turner) and a productive edge rusher (Byron Young) in the third round. Turner led all rookies in sacks.
Furthermore, Ernest Jones emerged in year three as a Pro Bowl snub at worst, with a potential All-Pro future. The Rams got six sacks from Michael Hoecht, eight from Young, nine from Turner, and another All-Pro season by Aaron Donald.
The Demarcus Robinson of defense, Ahkello Witherspoon, finished with three interceptions and 14 pass deflections. Jordan Fuller also had three, while the return of John Johnson brought two interceptions even though he’s mostly been a part-time player. Front to back, the Rams defense has been way more effective than the most optimistic predictions.
Though they have slightly improved, not become a top-10 or top-5 unit, this is still a shock for a team that had no resources to get better and were thought to be a bottom-5 defense.
Again, Clay ranked the Rams as having the 32nd-ranked secondary. They did far better than he, or anyone, predicted.
I say with no hesitation that the Rams are playing better football right now than the Detroit Lions, but I would say that about almost any team in the playoffs. The only team that has come close to beating the Ravens in Baltimore lately: The Rams. The only team that could give the 49ers a run for their money in the NFC right now: The Rams. The only team that can say that they have a top-3 QB in the conference, top-3 HC, top-3 WR, top-3 RB, top-3 DT, top-3 LB, top-3 Defensive Rookie, and none of those people are even Cooper Kupp: The Rams.
A year ago, I didn’t know if the Rams could possibly have even ONE of those top-3 things based on the future we thought we knew for them. The lack of early draft picks, cap space, players asking to be traded (yes, I’m talking about you Jalen Ramsey, another person I would label as a Rams SKEPTIC), rumors of what they would do and wouldn’t do...the evidence is there to say that nobody thought the Rams would be where they are right now.
I’ll admit I was one of the people who was wrong. Maybe I was more wrong than anybody.
The Rams saw the mistakes they made a year earlier, admitted it, and corrected it. They “modeled the way” for it. Surely, when it comes to the L.A. Rams, we could all learn from them how to admit our own mistakes too.