Lombardi: How the Rams avoided the 'Disease of Me'

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In his book “The Winner Within”, Miami Heat President Pat Riley discussed dealing with a team after winning a title. He labeled the problem “the Disease of Me”, as championship teams would have inexperience dealing with sudden success.  Many players would feel underappreciated, creating a leadership vacuum with players more worried about themselves then the team. 

The Los Angeles Rams won’t have this specific problem, though. The Rams front office has reworked their stars’ contracts, adding significant cash to their already well compensated deals.  Los Angeles was proactive, understanding and appreciating the reasons that the team won the Super Bowl.  With the recent extensions for wide receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- two vital players in their team’s success -- the Rams removed any potential of the “Disease of Me” invading their locker room. 

I have spent the last year writing a book about the great coaches from the game, their coaching trees, players missing from the Hall of Fame, the impact of television growing the NFL, the history of the draft and on the Top 100 players of all time in the NFL.  The book was sent to my editor, and still awaiting the perfect title and fine-tooth editing.  The section covering the Top 100 players includes many from different eras and isn’t restricted to players already voted into the Hall. Donald made my list -- and it wasn’t a hard decision. 

Donald is a throwback player -- not in style, rather in importance.  NFL football in the 1960’s through the early 1980’s was loaded with great defensive tackles.  The defensive tackles were the dominating force of the defense along with the middle linebacker.  Of the Top 100, nine are defensive tackles, making the position tied for third behind the quarterbacks and halfbacks.  Tackles ruled the landscape, in part because the league then was dominated by the run game of the offense caused by the inability of the offensive lineman to adequately protect the passer.  Remember, Packers quarterback Bart Starr was sacked eight times in the Ice Bowl in 1968 when offensive lineman could not extend their arms or use their open hands to ward off the defensive lineman.  Offensive linemen were often called for holding because they extended their arms, not because they grabbed the D-linemen. It was a hard game for offensive linemen, which made the defensive tackle position so important.  When you compare Donald to some of the game’s past greats that have played the position, he already ranks extremely high, even though he has started 123 games. His numbers jump off the screen and show he could dominate anyone in any era. His game, like many great players past and present is suited for any era.  Great players play great, regardless of the era. 

The Rams making Donald the NFL’s highest-paid non-QB player was an easy decision because he takes over the game.  He forces the opposing team to ask one fundamental question the entire game:  Where is Donald?  And when a player is that talented, capable of taking over the game in an instance, then normal blocking schemes won’t work.  Donald must be accounted for on every snap, and if the offense loses its focus, he will create a negative play or turnover.  Three of the last five years, he has won Defensive Player of the Year, and already in his young career, he has 150 tackles for loss and has forced 23 fumbles -- a remarkable statistic. 

At 31 years old and in incredible shape, Donald should be able to play at least four more years at a very high level.  Bob Lilly of the Cowboys started 176 games as a 14-year starter, and nearly every top-10 tackle played at least 12 seasons or 170 games. The Rams giving Donald an unprecedented raise as a thank you for his contributions of the past comes with an expectation of the more in the future.  One important element to consider is that every deal reported is never what is actually in the contract.  Media leaks of contracts comes from the agents to enhance their value, recruit future talent and make their player stand out.  I’m confident the Rams paid Donald well but will hold commenting on the dollar amount until the contract is filed and properly reviewed. 

Once Donald was re-done, the Rams then addressed the Cooper Kupp contract, in large part because he has outplayed his prior deal and because the receiver market went bonkers this offseason, starting with the Jacksonville Jaguars signing Christian Kirk to a hugely overvalued deal.  Kupp has been a very good player for the Rams in prior years, but with Matthew Stafford at quarterback, Kupp had a career year.

One of the most important statistics when evaluating a wide receiver is examining his targets-to-catch ratio.  This ratio tells us a great deal about the talents of the receiver.  Does he catch the ball?  Does he get open and catch the ball when covered?  Can the offense still get him the ball, even though the defense knows he is the main receiver?  Now in fairness to the receiver, the quarterback can also contribute to having a poor catch ratio, which happened in Indy last year.  The Colts had no wide receiver above a 70% threshold of catch ratio the last two seasons, in large part due to their poor quarterbacking play. 

Running backs and tight ends are always high in catch ratio because they are normally catching shorter, high-percentage completions. For example, Bengals running back Joe Mixon was targeted 48 times for 42 catches (an 87.5% catch ratio), one of the best in the league.  Kupp was targeted 191 times, and had 145 catches for a 75.9% ratio, third-best among receivers (Hunter Renfrow, Kendrick Bourne).  Kupp’s ratio is beyond amazing when you compare his numbers to other receivers with a high-volume target list.   Kupp was 3 percentage points better than Devante Adams, and 13 points better than Bills Stefon Diggs.  Kupp was also amazing at converting first downs.  In his four prior seasons, Kupp averaged 40.7 first downs per season; last season, he had 89.  He earned his new deal and the Rams can expect more of the same in the future.

The Rams taking care of their two main stars doesn’t ensure them another title, but it helps keep the “Disease of Me” away from their locker room. Los Angeles on paper appears to be set for another great year, going over their win total of 10.5, if they can stay healthy as they have in the past.  The Rams don’t have great depth, and by avoiding injury that lack of depth hasn’t been exposed.  What compensates for the Rams’ lack of depth is their star players always play like stars each week and that is often a rare commodity in the NFL.  As long as their stars continue to set playing records, winning 11 games should not be a problem.   

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