In retrospect, it turns out that moment when the Los Angeles Rams ran onto the field at the Super Bowl earlier this year wasn’t just a rung on the ladder — it was the top, that tiny platform where you’re not supposed to stand. And now the Rams have pitched off the other side of that very tall, very rickety ladder, and it’s a long way down.
This time last year, we were hailing the Rams as the heralds of a new era of offensive shock and awe in the NFL. Sean McVay was getting sized up for a bust in Canton, and everybody who’d ever even served him a cup of coffee was getting head-coach interviews. Jared Goff was capping off a season that would clinch him a $134 million/$110 million guaranteed contract. Todd Gurley was just a year removed from being the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Aaron Donald was devouring opposing offenses like Skittles, not even chewing.
Life comes at you fast. The San Francisco 49ers snuffed out the last of the Rams’ flickering playoff hopes on Saturday night, the holiday season equivalent of a bad-news dump. After a full Sunday of chaotic playoff-positioning action, it would be easy enough to forget that this was a team that had thundered through 2018 with a 13-3 record, two of those losses coming after the Rams had already clinched the NFC West. Sure, they looked awfully mortal and overmatched in the Super Bowl, but that was just big-game jitters, right? Surely that didn’t portend bad news for the NFC’s newest dynasty, right?
Uh … wrong. Now, the Rams are out of the playoffs, the latest in a long line of teams that lost the Super Bowl and flamed out the next year. But there’s more to it than a simple hangover; this is a team whose wins were paid for by credit card, and the bill’s come due a lot sooner than expected.
This isn’t a case where you can rip out the walls down to the studs and start over. No, the Rams are shackled to their current personnel for years to come, and the dividends on those investments are already dwindling.
The numbers don’t add up
Let’s start with the top-line view. Last year, the Rams started 8-0 and 11-1, including a marquee 54-51 win over the Chiefs, and clinched a first-round bye. This year, they’re 8-7, already out of the playoffs and looking up at two divisional usurpers, San Francisco and Seattle, that are younger and more balanced for the future than Los Angeles.
Last year, the Rams’ offense ranked second only to Kansas City. This year, behind a weakened offensive line, they’re ninth. Team defense ranks roughly the same this year (22.7 points per game allowed) as it did last year (24.0 ppg). The difference comes when you look at total offensive efficiency. Last year, Los Angeles averaged 32.9 points a game. This year? More than a touchdown less: 24.2 points per game. That math is how you go from winning divisions to missing the postseason entirely.
The Rams are stuck with the dates that brought them to the 2018 dance. McVay and general manager Les Snead signed extensions at the start of training camp that will keep them in the Rams organization through the 2023 season, or cashing big checks to leave.
Goff, meanwhile, signed the richest guaranteed-contract deal in NFL history — a deal that doesn’t even kick in until next year — and yet he’s got more than a few observers wondering if last year was a fluke rather than a harbinger. He’s down in all major statistical categories, including completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating. It’s like Goff and McVay caught the NFL napping in 2018 and punched the league in the face, but the league woke up and punched back hard.
And then there’s Gurley, who seemed to be the kind of unicorn running back you’d buck conventional wisdom to draft early … but has ended up a case study in why conventional wisdom might just be wise after all. For a couple years, he was as good as you could be in the NFL, leading the league in (non-kicker) scoring, touchdowns and all-purpose yards in 2017. He signed a deal making him — see if this sounds familiar — the highest-paid running back in NFL history back in 2018. But now he’s apparently either in the early stages of arthritis or, best case, just dealing with a steady age-related decline in production — at age 25.
That’s two players, in Goff and Gurley, who will account for $53.2 million of the roughly $200 million 2020 salary cap. Oh, but the fun doesn’t end there. Donald’s taking a $25 million chunk out of the cap in 2020, while cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s salary is set to balloon to $13.7 million next year. Throw in Brandin Cooks’ $16.8 million, and you’ve got half the Rams’ 2020 salary cap tied up in five players. Five.
No coupons for NFL salaries
All of this might — might — be workable if the Rams could backfill with cheaper talent. Cheap, they can get, but talent? That remains to be seen. Los Angeles traded away its first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 for Ramsey, meaning the team’s pot-committed to the roster it has.
And all of this comes as the price of the Rams’ stadium continues to escalate, months before even opening. SoFi Stadium in Inglewood was projected upon design to cost $2.66 billion; it’s since hit almost double that figure. At $5 billion, SoFi will be one of the most expensive sports arenas ever built … and next year, it will welcome in a team that, in its current form, seems like it’s already past its expiration date. Oh, and that doesn’t even take into account the lurking lawsuit filed by the city of St. Louis against Rams owner Stan Kroenke ... a lawsuit seeking billions in damages, and a lawsuit that has so far cleared all the hurdles that usually trip up such actions.
Los Angeles reached the Super Bowl last year when every player and coach performed at the absolute pinnacle of their ability. It’s clearly going to need a repeat of that unlikely-in-retrospect 2018 if the team’s going to get its head above water anytime soon.
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