Michael Lombardi: Can Sean McVay rebuild the Rams again?

August 30, 2023 01:01 AM

Can Sean McVay rebuild the Rams again?

In 1966, the January weather in Chicago was bitterly cold (even by Chicago standards) and even colder inside the circuit court of Cook County, as the relationship between Bears owner George Halas and his defensive coordinator George Allen was at a standoff.  Allen wanted to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and Halas believed he had a binding contract to keep Allen as his defensive coordinator.  

Back then, assistant coaches under contract needed permission to seek other jobs, even for a promotion from their owner, before interviewing and accepting. On this frigid day, Judge Cornelius Harrington made his ruling after hearing all the evidence.  Once Harrington ruled in favor of Halas, Halas walked toward the Judge’s bench, telling his lawyer Charles F. Short Jr, “Charley, I got this.” He then told Harrington he would drop the case, allowing Allen to become the head coach of the Rams.  Halas wanted to prove a point, which he did.  Allen left for the Rams and began his “Future is Now” revolution, which he then took to Washington in 1971 until it sputtered out badly in 1977. 

Forty years later, when Sean McVay left Washington to join the Rams in 2017, he took over a team that had traded a bunch of draft picks to acquire Jared Goff. Then McVay and his general manager Les Snead did their best George AIlen impersonation and re-started the “The Future is Now” movement.   

Unlike Allen’s plan, the Rams' plan worked, winning a Super Bowl in 2022, causing Snead to wear a T-shirt at the parade announcing his contempt for the NFL Draft.  Snead only took one year to walk back his comments, as he recently told the LA Times, "I will admit that any time you probably say something like that … you're going to eat those words at some point.  If we truly believed in effing them picks in that sense of the word, we'd just give them to our division opponents."

He then explained that he slipped up and did not say what he actually meant to say.

"I truly intended to say, 'We effed these picks to win Los Angeles a Super Bowl championship.' So, I always knew I was going to eat those words at some point."

Now, as Snead and McVay head off to vacation, not having those picks has resulted in a roster with over 35 players who have never played in the NFL, meaning they are either rookies or first-year players who haven’t earned a credited season.  Their highest draft pick since McVay arrived was this year, drafting center Steve Avila at 36.  Before the Avila pick, the highest draft position the Rams held was in 2017, when they drafted tight end Gerald Everett at 42.  Hard to find elite talent without high picks.  It killed Allen, and now it’s in the process of killing the Rams’ future. 

The Rams are the NFL version of the Phoenix Suns.  They have three or four outstanding players and will fill the rest of their roster with young, unproven talent.  Unproven talent isn’t bad, as some young players can rise to the challenge.  However, no team, no matter how well coached, can carry an abundance of unproven talent and expect to win consistently.   Because of “going all in, the future is now,” the Rams must count on these unproven players to prove their merit, while their star players remain elite stars if they expect to compete for a playoff berth.  Besides the unproven talent, are the Rams stars still elite?  Are we sure they are still what we once thought? 

Aaron Donald has proven that age isn’t affecting his play, so count on him to carry the elite status through the 2023 season, or until the Rams decide to totally rebuild and use Donald as their only viable asset to escape their salary cap hardship.  Can we say the same for Cooper Kupp as he comes off a second major knee injury?  Kupp will be 30 years old, and although he has elite quickness and hands, can he duplicate his 2021 season when he scored 16 touchdowns and averaged 13.4 per catch?  Last season, before the injury, Kupp was still catching passes, only at a 10.8 average.  Partly due to the quarterbacking play and the injury-riddled offensive line, Kupp’s down-the-field numbers shrunk.  And with no other receiver who worries the opponent, Kupp will draw all the attention from defensive coaches, making it harder and harder for him to duplicate those lofty 2021 numbers.

The third elite player, quarterback Matthew Stafford, holds the most doubt about remaining elite. Even the Rams aren’t sure he is elite, as they attempted to trade him during the off-season to avoid paying his guaranteed $59 million option bonus.  When they couldn’t find any interested team being overly desperate, they pulled back, claiming Stafford never was available.  Yeah right.  The Rams would have been negligent had they NOT attempted to trade Stafford, as investing $59 million into a player with injury questions is a horrible idea from a football and salary cap aspect.  Stafford is as tough as any player who has played the game, and at age 35, he has endured his share of hard hits and injuries.  Those injuries have taken their toll on his body—particularly his back and arm. 

Examine Stafford’s nine games before he was set to the sidelines.  They weren’t better than Baker Mayfield if you’re being honest and taking away prior perceptions. Stafford started games 1-8, then missed the ninth game 9 against the Cardinals, before starting and not finishing his last game against the Saints in week 10.  The Rams were 3-6 over those games, and scored 20 or fewer points in seven of those games.  

When they played a great defensive front, such as Dallas and San Francisco, the Rams offense scored 33 points combined in those three games—Stafford was a combined 82-123 and 749 yards for a 6.08 YPA with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Elite players have elite games against great teams—and yes, Stafford was hurt most of the year, but turning 35 isn’t going to return his elite play.  Stafford has been hit too often—his eye level is way down, and he’s worried about the hits, which happens to most quarterbacks.  Stafford plunged from 8.1 yards per attempt to 6.9, not a good sign for an aging quarterback battling back and arm injuries.  For the Rams to be half decent, they need Stafford to play well—and with his supporting cast, his best still might only result in 6-7 wins. 

When Sean McVay returned to coach for the 2023 season, I was surprised—shocked actually.  Not because he kept coaching but because he decided to take on such a challenging rebuilding effort.  This isn’t going to be a remodel. This is going to be a teardown, and when they couldn’t find a trade partner for Stafford, it made the potential rebuild longer—particularly if Stafford continues to deal with injuries and rookie fourth-round draft pick Stetson Bennett isn’t as good as they hope.  Snead loved Bennett in the draft and convinced those around him, including McVay, that Bennett could become the heir apparent.  I am not sure Snead will be proven right, but only time will tell if Bennett can handle the job.  

What would help the Rams is for them to develop the unproven talent, allow Bennett to show his skills (maybe he is the next Brock Purdy), and secure a top-five pick.  As much respect and admiration I have for McVay, his team is not talented, nor can he rely on his once elite players to cover up for their lack of depth and overall talent.  Having a down year for him may be the best recipe for McVay and the Rams to contend in time.  If they don’t make the move now, they will end up in the same place Allen left Washington, down and out. 

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