Right around kickoff in their Battle for Los Angeles against the Chargers, the Rams unofficially clinched the NFC West. It happened the moment when, 1,600 miles east in Kansas City, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo planted his left foot and lowered his shoulder along the sideline at the end of a scramble, his left knee buckling; the fear is a torn ACL. The Niners, regarded as the Rams’ greatest challenger entering this season, had also lost their second most important offensive player, tailback Jerick McKinnon, to a similar injury in a late summer practice. Now they’re a team with few skill position weapons, an improving but work-in-progress defense and no quarterback. See you in 2019.
Don’t say this to Sean McVay, though. Prior to the season, he and I were discussing the NFC West teams. He lauded the Niners and Cardinals, and when I absentmindedly dismissed the Seahawks as a rebuilding team trending in the wrong direction, I got admonished. “Any team that has Russell Wilson you have to consider dangerous,” he said.
O.K., fair enough. But Seattle’s offense has always been a week-to-week proposition and, now, so is the defense. It hammered a downtrodden Cowboys offense on Sunday, but for this season’s long-term, there remain major concerns about the pass rush and secondary. And even greater concerns pock a now 0-3 Cardinals team that is averaging 6.7 points per game and just coughed up a two-touchdown lead to the Bears at home.
During McVay’s first offseason as the Rams head coach, people would ask him how he was liking his new job. His answer was always: “Couldn’t be better—we’re still undefeated.” Then he’d smile. But this past offseason, his stock answer reversed. At any mention of his team—and especially its litany of headline-generating moves—he quickly said, with no smile, “We haven’t won a game.”
With the 35-23 handling of the Chargers on Sunday, they’ve now won their first three. Their offense, which has gained a year of experience in McVay’s scheme plus an elite playmaker in wideout Brandin Cooks, looks even more dangerous than the one that led the league in scoring last year. It’s certainly more innovative. McVay and his staff have discovered the power of jet-action. More than any team now, the Rams put a receiver in fast motion before and/or during the snap. One defensive coach told me this offseason that dealing with jet-action is “an absolute bitch.” At least half a dozen other defensive coaches echoed this. Jet-action messes with a defense’s gap assignments. McVay builds run and pass plays that exploit this. And to ensure the defense keeps reacting with its gap assignments, he regularly hands the ball to the jet motion man. Wideouts Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods all have multiple carries this year.
Right now, defenses don’t have an answer for it—just like they didn’t have an answer last year for L.A.’s play-action game, which remains strong. Constantly facing defenders who are put in assignment conflicts, Jared Goff, somewhat quietly, is becoming one of the NFL’s most proficient QBs. He’s completing 70.3% of his passes and averaging 9.32 yards per attempt, with a passer rating 111.0. Maybe he is a system QB. But sharply orchestrating the smartest system in football makes you a bona fide star.
On film, Goff appears to be dripping with confidence. He’s become more patient working into his progressions, waiting the extra half-beat to let second-window throws unfold. Against zone coverage, he’s throwing to spots, trusting that a receiver (and, also, not a defender) will be there. Against man, he’s throwing with pinpoint accuracy to defeat even the tightest coverage. (As John Madden used to say in one of his video game’s automated voiceovers, “There’s no defense for a perfect throw.”) Playing with this mix of aggression and patience requires a quarterback to make throws with defenders in his face—something Goff did willingly, but too often ineffectively, his first two seasons. Now, he’s become adroit here, using his 6' 4" frame and high release point to make contested throws look easy.
McVay is aware that his young team has not yet faced much adversity. It stayed healthy last year, performed well on the road (even on cross-country and international trips), handily won a bunch of Sunday afternoon games and played in a distracted city that’s still rediscovering its passion for pro football. The Rams shrunk a bit in the bright lights of the playoffs, losing at home to the Falcons, but by then outsiders had already declared their season a roaring success.
Things will get harder. They have to. Maybe even as soon as this week. Star corners Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib left Sunday’s win with injuries. Either or both could be unavailable Thursday night against a Vikings team that boasts two of football’s best wideouts, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Those Vikings, despite their embarrassing no-show against an untalented but impressively tenacious Bills team on Sunday, have the defense best equipped to contest with this high-flying Rams offense. The showdown, being FOX’s first Thursday Night game, will be hyped. The Vikings have played regular season contests on such stages before. The Rams have not.
Adversity could be on the immediate horizon. Still, it’s nothing compared to the type of adversity that comes from having a rebuilding offense, or a retooling defense. Or, certainly, from having an injured quarterback. In 2012, the Broncos won the AFC West by a whopping six games. In 2015, the Panthers won the NFC South by seven games. In 2007, the undefeated Patriots won their division essentially two times over, finishing nine games ahead of the second-place Bills. The Rams, with some help from the NFC West, are positioned to join this group of dominators.
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