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From St. Louis to Atlanta: The Return of the LA Rams

Photo from Washington Post

Written by Sam DeCoste

The Los Angeles Rams are one win away from reaching the pinnacle of sports.

After a 26-23 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints, the Rams are NFC Champions, and they will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. It marks the Rams’ fourth Super Bowl appearance after a stellar 13-3 season led by the youngest head coach ever to coach in the Super Bowl, Sean McVay, who turns 33 years old on January 24.

Reaching the Super Bowl is always an accomplishment for any team, but especially for the Rams, considering where they were not too long ago.

As the Rams begin their preparations for New England, I thought it would be fitting to look back on what has been a remarkable journey for the Rams, starting as bottom feeders and ending as juggernauts.

Franchise Talents

The construction of the star studded Rams roster traces back four years, back to the 2014 NFL Draft. With the thirteenth pick, Rams General Manager Les Snead selected a defensive tackle from Pittsburgh, Aaron Donald. He was one of just five rookies to be nominated for the Pro Bowl, and he walked away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, after racking 47 tackles, nine sacks, and two forced fumbles in his rookie season. He followed up his impressive rookie season with another Pro Bowl nod in 2015, as well as one of his four First team All Pros, and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.

The following year, Snead selected a running back from Georgia recovering from a torn ACL, Todd Gurley, with the tenth pick in the first round. He made his NFL debut in the third game of the 2015 season, and took fire out of the gate. In fact, no rookie running back in league history since the merger ran for more yards than Gurley did in his first four starts (566). Gurley’s impressive rookie season was capped off with Rookie of the Year honors, after rushing for 1,106 yards and ten touchdowns. His prolific rookie campaign inspired many Rams fans to believe he could be one of the elite backs in the NFL for years to come.

Les Snead found two elite franchise talents who have proven to be the core of their football team so far in their young careers, and they will continue to lead the Rams into the future.

Final Year in St. Louis

In the 2015 season, the then St. Louis Rams were, at times, unwatchable. The Rams offense ranked rock bottom in yards per game and passing and 29th in points scored. Then starting quarterback, Nick Foles, was benched midseason for journeyman, Case Keenum, capping the only season in Foles’ career which he threw for more interceptions than touchdowns. Just two seasons gone from having the greatest touchdown to interception ratio in a season in league history (27:2), nothing went Foles’ way, and he later requested his release from the team in the subsequent offseason.

In his nineteenth season as a head coach in the NFL, Jeff Fisher led the Rams to another 7-9 season, below .500, and out of the postseason for an eleventh straight year.

Going Hollywood

After another losing season, playing in front of the league’s lowest fan attendance, Rams owner, Stan Kroenke formally filed a request to the NFL for relocation to Los Angeles. The move was approved by the league owners, which set the stage for the Rams to play in the storied and distinguished Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (also the home of USC) for three seasons until the construction of their castle in Inglewood was completed. For the first time since 1995, football was back in LA.

In the spotlight of Hollywood, the Rams wasted no time making blockbuster moves. Two weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft, Les Snead traded a king’s ransom of draft picks to the Tennessee Titans, including two first rounders, two seconds, and two third rounders from the next two drafts, in exchange for the number one pick overall. The Rams had their eyes on a signal caller, a position which had eluded the Rams since the days of Kurt Warner. They had the choice between two top draft prospects, Jared Goff from California, and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State. The Rams picked Goff, and the Eagles traded behind LA to select Wentz. 

Former St. Louis Rams head coach, Jeff Fisher
Photo by Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

The expectation was that the Rams would start Goff in Week 1 against the 49ers, but Fisher opted to start the fifth year pro Case Keenum instead, while Goff developed and adapted to the pros. In the lens of Amazon Video’s documentary series, All or Nothing, Jeff Fisher explained his mindset to Jarrett Bell of USA Today:

“The worst thing I could do, that we could do as an organization, is to say, ‘He’s our starting quarterback, Week 1, to start the season.’ You just can’t do that. And I’ve had experience with it before, you know, [you have to] play them when they’re ready, and you take all the pressure off.”

Before being drafted into the NFL, Goff never took a snap from under center, and he struggled adjusting to the next level speed of the pros. Case Keenum would bridge the time until Goff was ready.

As Goff observed from the sidelines, the 2016 Los Angeles Rams came out swinging out of the gate, with a 3-1 record, including wins against division rivals Seattle and Arizona. Their record was fluky to say the least, considering the Rams didn’t score a touchdown until their third game, and averaged fifteen points per game.

That was where the honeymoon ended. The Rams lost their next four, including a 17-10 loss in London to the Giants in which Case Keenum threw a career high four interceptions. At that point, Jeff Fisher heard the noise, and he knew it was time for a quarterback switch.

Jared Goff was announced as the starting quarterback in Week 11 against the playoff bound Miami Dolphins. The Rams dominated the game for three quarters and ten minutes, until the Dolphins roared back to win a defensive slugfest in the Hollywood rain, 14-10. Goff completed 17 of 31 passes for 134 yards in his debut. At 4-6, the Rams season was on life support.

Goff’s rookie season was short, and uninspiring. He finished the season with just over a 50% completion percentage, five touchdown passes, seven interceptions, 100.5 passer rating, and a record of 0-7 as a starter. The expectations were much higher for a first overall pick, and many were starting to call Goff a bust right away, while his counterpart in Philadelphia, Carson Wentz, was taking the league by storm, leaving league insiders to wonder if the Rams made the wrong selection.

To make matters worse, Todd Gurley didn’t look like his 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year self. Gurley never rushed for more than 85 yards in a game all season, averaged 55.3 per game, and totalled just 885 on the season, which ranked seventeenth in the NFL. Gurley later called out the coaching staff for running a “middle school offense” under Jeff Fisher in his first two years in the league. The Rams finished 32nd in offensive yards and points per game in 2016.

Three blowout losses later, including a 42-14 embarrassment at the hands of the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, Jeff Fisher’s tenure as coach of the Rams came to an end. Fisher was let go less than 24 hours after the loss to Atlanta, and LA closed out the season with special teams coordinator, John Fassel, as interim head coach. In his final game as Rams head coach, Fisher tied an NFL record for most career losses for a head coach with 165. The Rams finished the season with seven straight losses and a final record of 4-12, out of the playoffs for the twelfth straight season.

The Sean McVay Era Begins

For over a decade, the Rams were perennial losers, a laughing stock. After a chaotic and dysfunctional first year back in LA, the Rams needed a new head coach to right the ship. Candidates for the job included Kyle Shanahan, Josh McDaniels, Harold Goodwin, Anthony Lynn, and a 30 year old offensive coordinator from Washington, Sean McVay.

McVay was a darkhorse candidate for multiple head coaching vacancies across the league, mainly for his work in Washington, where he transformed Kirk Cousins from scout team QB to the NFL’s third leading passer. Adam Schefter explained on ESPN what drew the Rams to a 30 year old to bring the Rams back to their glory days:

“What drew the Rams to this young coaching prodigy is that he knows and understands offense. He can install a West Coast system that will make Jared Goff, the former number one overall pick in the draft, very comfortable. He will pile up points and yards and that is the expectation with the Rams in LA right now.”
The hire became official on January 13, 2017, scribing McVay’s name in the history books as the youngest head coach since the NFL merger, hired just eleven days from his 31st birthday.

McVay knew when he was hired that his legacy as Rams head coach would be defined by the development of the young quarterback which the front office gave up so much to draft. So the Rams organization invested in the offensive side of the ball, their ailing weakness for years.

 Sean McVay being introduced for the first time as Rams head coach as the youngest hired head coach in NFL history at 30 years old. Photo from Sporting News

Priority number one was to find Goff some pass protection. The Rams did so right away by signing one of the premier left tackles in the game in Andrew Whitworth to a three year deal, in addition to veteran center John Sullivan. Secondly, give Goff some weapons in the passing game. LA signed receiver Robert Woods, a former second round pick of the Buffalo Bills and former USC Trojan during his college days, to a five year deal. In the draft, the Rams selected one of the most productive receivers in the history of the FCS out of Eastern Washington, Cooper Kupp, in the third round. During the preseason, the Rams bolstered their receiving corps even more when they acquired star receiver Sammy Watkins in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. The Rams committed the offseason to surrounding Goff with the pieces he needed to be productive and for LA to taste winning football again, and it didn’t take long for their fortunes to turn.

For the second straight season, the Rams started the year 3-1. But in 2017, the Rams were winning in a completely different way. They scored 142 points in their first four games, which led the league. The Rams scored just 224 points in the whole 2016 season and they scored more than half that total by the quarter season mark.

By season’s end, Jared Goff threw for 3,809 yards, 28 touchdown passes, and just seven interceptions, with a passer rating of 100.5. Todd Gurley himself had a career season, finishing with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns. Gurley’s stellar production even propelled him into the MVP conversation.

The Rams finished the regular season at 11-5, and champions of the NFC West. From worst to first in their division, in offensive yards, and in scoring. In just one year, Sean McVay took the Rams from laughing stock to powerhouse. For the first time since 2004, the Rams were in the playoffs.

However, a splendid regular season wouldn’t translate into the postseason. The Rams exited in the first round at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, losing 26-13, unable to replicate the production or swagger which propelled them to a division title. But by no stretch were the Rams a one season wonder. They weren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Back for More

LA arguably boasted a squad good enough to make a Super Bowl run with the 2017 roster still in place. But that didn’t stop Les Snead from being aggressive and finding more talent to add to the roster. In letting Trumaine Johnson go, the Rams traded for two former All Pro cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, and franchise tagging Lamarcus Joyner for another season to solidify the secondary. The defensive line already have Aaron Donald keeping offensive coordinators up at night, but then Snead signed former All Pro defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh. And to compensate for Sammy Watkins’ departure in free agency, the Rams pulled the trigger and made another blockbuster trade and acquired star receiver Brandin Cooks from the Patriots and immediately signed him to a five year, $81 million extension.

However, going all in didn’t come without hefty prices. In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Rams didn’t pick until the third round, and settled for an abundance of draft capital in the late rounds. And as for the 2019 draft, the Rams have already traded away their second and third round picks from previous trades. Les Snead and the Rams put all their chips on the table for the 2018 season, settling for nothing less than a Super Bowl championship.

Rams starting quarterback, Jared Goff (16), and starting left tackle, Andrew Whitworth (77)
Photo from Rams Wire

Their busy offseason paid off right from the start, as the Rams began the 2018 season undefeated after eight games, scoring 33 points per game. They were the best team in football for the first half of the season. Then they ran into the second best team in football in a pivotal Week 9 showdown in New Orleans.

The 6-1 Saints hosted the Rams in what appeared to be a preview for the NFC Championship Game, and the Saints came out on top, winning a shootout, 45-35. The Rams tasted defeat for the first time in 2018, but many players, pundits, and fans alike all believed we would see Los Angeles and New Orleans square off again.

En route to clinching the two seed in the NFC, the Rams enjoyed some special moments during the regular season, and perhaps none bigger than their duel with the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football. In a heavyweight showdown between the two highest scoring teams in football, the Rams came out on top, 54-51, combining for the third greatest score in NFL history. Jared Goff played one of the best games in his professional career, throwing for 413 yards and 4 scores, leading his team to victory in the dying minutes.

However, there are inevitable stretches in a Super Bowl run where teams have to face adversity. The Rams got punched in the mouth in Chicago when they faced off against the Bears top ranked defense, losing 15-6, in a game where Goff turned the ball over a career high four times, racking just 180 yards through the air. Todd Gurley couldn’t run the ball either, totalling just 28 yards on the ground. The Rams’ struggles would roll into the next week as well, losing at home to the 6-7, dead and buried, Eagles led by Nick Foles.

After a bumpy late season stretch, the Rams looked soft, predictable, vulnerable. Beatable. The Super Bowl seemed a hump too tall for the Rams to reach. But they ended the season strong, blowing out the Cardinals and 49ers, and pummeled the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs. The Rams rushed for a franchise record 273 yards on the ground in their divisional playoff win. That set the stage for the heavily anticipated rematch with the Saints.

Same teams, same venue, but much higher stakes. The Rams started slow, and they faced a 20-10 deficit in the second half. They managed to climb back into the game, tied 20-20 late in the fourth. The game went to overtime in controversial fashion, but the Rams forced Drew Brees into throwing an interception on the first possession, and Greg Zuerlein drilled a 57 yard field goal to win the NFC Championship, sending the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

It has been a remarkable run from a team which spent the postseason on the couch for twelve straight seasons, and won just four games two years ago. From 7-9 purgatory in the confinements of St. Louis to claiming division titles in Hollywood, the Rams’ meteoric rise has been an incredible feat. But they’re not done yet. The Super Bowl in Atlanta awaits.

Stay tuned for more Super Bowl content coming on Franchise Quarterback, as the anticipation builds for the Patriots versus the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.


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