Rams will need a new formula to get back to playoffs
There is little or no upside for NFL teams with high expectations that miss the playoffs.
If nothing else, the Rams’ disappointing 9-7 finish affords general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay plenty of time to assess staff and personnel. To plot possible trades, ponder free agency and prepare for the draft as they look toward the 2020 season.
It’s an unfamiliar time element in the three-year McVay era.
The Rams lost to Atlanta in the wild-card round in 2017. Last season, they advanced to the Super Bowl, a notable achievement but one that left them with an abbreviated period to prepare for a season that found them floundering in the malaise that has afflicted so many teams the year after losing the championship game.
The Rams seemingly don’t have much room to maneuver.
From Andrew Whitworth to Dante Fowler and Greg Zuerlein, the Rams have to figure how to reconfigure their roster so they can get back into the playoffs next season.
With quarterback Jared Goff playing under a rookie contract the last four seasons, Snead used bold moves and salary-cap expert Tony Pastoors utilized creativity to build a star-studded roster that made a Super Bowl run. But now, with Goff, running back Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive lineman Aaron Donald playing on massive extensions — and cornerback Jalen Ramsey in line for a record-breaking deal — it’s a different challenge.
“I would rather be where we’re at now than trying to get here,” Snead said Monday during an hourlong interview with reporters. “Because trying to get here, you don’t know if you can get here … But it’s a different formula.”
One that, once again, does not include a first-round draft pick.
The Rams have not picked in the first round since trading up to choose Goff No. 1 overall in 2016. In October, they dealt their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire Ramsey.
So, the Rams must figure out ways to reshape a roster that can attract fans to new SoFi Stadium and return the team to the playoffs.
“What we’ll do over the next week or two, is take a step back, definitely let the emotions, the disappointing emotions, the negative emotions of it all, dissipate so you can at that point try to make sound decisions and continue the effort to contend,” Snead said.
McVay, 33, has lamented that his team did not play up to the standard that was established during his first two seasons. Asked Monday if major changes were necessary, he said he would never use the word major.
“This is something that is not as simple as just one thing here, one thing there,” he said.
Donald signed a then-record $135-million extension before the 2018 season. Goff signed a $134-million extension, with a record $110 million guaranteed, before this season. Snead described Goff and Donald as “anchor pieces.” Asked if any other player was off the table in regard to possible trades, Snead sidestepped.
“I don’t want to get into that and who is on the table or not because it can be misconstrued in many ways,” he said. “At this point, I’d rather go, ‘Hey, let me and our staff sit together and try to come up with the best plan on that.’”
Gurley, sidelined and slowed late last season because of a left-knee issue, rushed for a career-low 857 yards this season as McVay initially attempted to rotate Malcolm Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson into the mix. Asked if Gurley was the same running back, Snead said, “This year he wasn’t. Again, in terms of stats.”
Gurley also struggled to break off long runs after getting through the line of scrimmage.
“That’s a fact,” Snead said, later adding, “It’s a combination of what we have going on, what we need to fix and also give the enemy credit in trying to take Gurley away.”
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McVay’s first order of business will be to assess his staff.
The Rams ranked seventh in total offense and 11th in scoring. They were 13th in total defense and 17th in scoring defense.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has acknowledged that he was aware of rumors he might not be retained. McVay and Snead said evaluations and decisions about next season would begin to be made after the staff returns from a New Year’s break.
The Rams have six starters who are pending unrestricted free agents — left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center/guard Austin Blythe, edge rusher Dante Fowler, linebacker Cory Littleton, defensive lineman Michael Brockers and kicker Greg Zuerlein. Backup quarterback Blake Bortles also is a free agent, and he is expected to sign with a team that will give him an opportunity to win a starting job.
Whitworth, 38, has said he would like to return, but for the Rams it almost certainly would have to be at a price less than the $16.7 million salary-cap number Whitworth carried this season.
“We’ve got to sit down and discuss, is that the best thing for the Rams. Is it not?” Snead said of Whitworth’s potential return.
Joe Noteboom, coming back from season-ending knee surgery, initially was projected as Whitworth’s successor. But rookie Bobby Evans played well at right tackle in place of injured Rob Havenstein and could be in the mix on the left side if the Rams do not sign a veteran or work a deal that nets them a high draft pick to play left tackle.
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“I would say that’s probably one of the hardest pieces to acquire in this equation,” Snead said.
Littleton, the team’s leading tackler, and Fowler, who had a career-best 11 1/2 sacks, have said they would like to stay with the Rams. Both are expected to test the market.
Littleton earned nearly $3.1 million this season. He no doubt will seek a contract on par with the four-year, $54-million deal — with nearly $28 million in guarantees — that Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson signed in December. Fowler earned $12 million this season on a one-year contract.
Snead said Littleton and Fowler both deserved raises, but echoing McVay, he said, “Unfortunately we can’t pay everybody.”
Zuerlein made 24 of 33 field-goal attempts this season. He missed a potential game-winning 44-yard attempt with less than 30 seconds left against the Seattle Seahawks. Zuerlein, punter/holder Johnny Hekker and long-snapper Jake McQuaide have been together since 2012.
“We want to get more consistent in the kicking game than we were this year,” Snead said.
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