- Two years ago the Rams were a four-win team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in 12 seasons. But in a new city and with a new coach, they turned to ... the same-old GM? Here’s how Les Snead learned from his mistakes and finally got the right guys.
This story appears in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke stood in a white-concrete-walled auxiliary room inside the Superdome with his young coach, Sean McVay, and beamed. McVay’s mother, Cindy, flexed her knees and swayed and crooned, “We’re going to the Suuuuper Booowl!” Next door, in a private dressing room, Los Angeles’s offensive line and defensive backs coaches clinked cans of Michelob Ultra, embraced and laughed at their good fortune. Next next door, players took turns climbing onto a temporary stage and posing for photos with the football-shaped George Halas Trophy, their ticket to Super Bowl LIII having been punched with a 26–23 overtime victory against the Saints.
Off to the side of the stage, standing with his teenage son, Logan, in tow, was general manager Les Snead, the man who two years ago was so prepared to be called into Kroenke’s office and dismissed that he had prepared a goodbye speech.
“I’ve heard that story,” Kroenke said with a smirk. “We thought Sean was special, and we thought Les and Sean made a really nice team, and we’d see how that worked out. . . . After today, it appears we’re going in the right direction.”
Snead, 48, a sunny blond with a relentless grin, has been trying to set the Rams on the right path since 2012, back when they were in St. Louis and finished 7-8-1. His next four teams also had losing records, and during that stretch, Logan began evaluating the team’s draft picks on Wikipedia and reminding Snead about his flubs.
Dad, you picked Greg Robinson No. 2 overall, but you could’ve had Khalil Mack, or Mike Evans, or Odell Beckham Jr. . . .
Logan, now an iron-jawed 18-year-old, has a life-altering choice of his own looming on the horizon. A hard-hitting linebacker at Eufaula (Ala.) High, he must decide between one of the FCS schools recruiting him, or taking the route of a preferred walk-on at somewhere like Michigan, Virginia or Rice. He could very easily make the wrong choice, and then his dad will tell him the same thing he tells his son whenever Logan brings up those old draft misses: Every now and then you’ve got to get up off the mat.
The Rams have been a different team the past two seasons, going 11–5 last year and 13–3 this season. Quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley have blossomed under McVay, turning the offense into a fine-tuned, high-scoring machine. And the defense, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s NFL-leading 20.5 sacks this year, has put unrelenting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Rams sacked Drew Brees twice on Sunday and hit him seven other times, including a pivotal hurry that forced an errant throw—and an interception—in overtime. Five plays and 15 yards later, Greg Zuerlein delivered a field goal from 57 yards out, the longest game-winner in NFL postseason history.
But none of it would have been possible without Greg Robinson, who has inspired headlines such as “Anatomy of an NFL Draft Bust.” Back in 2014, the Rams were still enjoying the spoils of a deal Snead had made two years earlier, when Washington gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder to get the No. 2 selection in the ’12 draft and take Robert Griffin III.
One of those picks translated into the No. 2 choice in ’14. The previous season, Snead’s high-priced left tackle, Jake Long, had torn his ACL in December. The Ram’s priority was protecting quarter-back Sam Bradford, so they zeroed in on Robinson, a 6' 5", 330-pound tackle out of Auburn. They had another first-round selection, their own pick, at No. 13, so after Snead and then coach Jeff Fisher took Robinson, they went defense, choosing the winner of the Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik, Lombardi and Outland awards: undersized Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
What would the Rams have done with that selection had they not also had the No. 2 pick to take Robinson, who was traded to the Lions last season? “It’s an interesting question,” Snead says. “I have to think about that.”
It’s a Thursday in mid-January, five days after the Rams dispatched the Cowboys in the divisional round 30–22, and three days before the NFC title game. Snead leans back in a chair behind a small meeting table in his Thousand Oaks office. There’s a short, wooden platform near his feet, its top slanted at a 30-degree angle. There used to be an exercise bike in this spot, but now Snead stands on the box when he watches game film, his body straight as a board and his toes pointed at the television to improve his alignment and posture.
There are a handful of books stacked on his desk, including Fear: Trump in the White House (Bob Woodward’s treatise on the current administration) and Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, a book that Bill Gates has described as “an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.”
After taking a moment, Snead finally says, “[Notre Dame offensive tackle] Zack Martin would’ve been the best offensive lineman on our board once we got to 13. I think it would’ve been him if we went offensive line. It would have been interesting if we only had the one pick in the first round.”
If you’re inclined to judge the Griffin deal based solely on the haul it produced, you might note that only one player acquired as a direct result—defensive end Michael Brockers—is still on the Rams’ roster six years later. But having the extra pick to spend on Robinson meant having the freedom to take Donald and improve an already solid defense. And all Donald has done is make the All-Pro first team as a rookie and every year since. “That’s what I always say about the RG3 trade,” Snead says. “People say these are the picks you got and this is what you got for them. But that trade allowed us, over the course of those years, to draft a lot of good football players instead of just a few.”
Snead is a man who embraces his failures head-on. When Robinson flopped, he reevaluated the way he scouts tackles (he won’t divulge how), and that made him an asset when Kroenke replaced Fisher with McVay but kept Snead in the front office. Everyone agreed they needed an established left tackle to support Goff, who was entering his second season in 2017. Snead targeted free agent Andrew Whitworth, who had been with the Bengals for 11 seasons and was being seriously courted by three teams that March.
One was the Vikings, whose coach, Mike Zimmer, was Cincinnati’s former defensive coordinator. Another was the Broncos, led by former Cincy defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. Snead’s Rams were the third, even though no one on the team had any personal connection to the 6' 7", 330-pound Big Whit, a four-time Pro Bowler. But Snead is renowned in NFL circles for having a robust network of coaches, scouts and administrators. And some of those friends had been around Whitworth, who, they reported back, was a leader who never took a snap off, who took care of his body and who, despite being 35, had a few good years left. “There’s a lot of mutual friends within six degrees of separation that would really, honestly tell you what kind of guy Big Whit was,” Snead says.
It gave Snead the confidence to put forth a competitive offer. When Whitworth signed with the Rams for three years, $36 million—choosing L.A. over Minnesota because he wanted to raise his two boys and two girls in sunny Southern California—he delivered on his reputation. He led a voluntary, early-morning group film session for starting offensive linemen. On his veteran day off from practice every Thursday, he stood directly behind third-round rookie tackle Joseph Noteboom and gave him in-practice notes, then met with him after practice to go over the film one-on-one, despite the fact that Noteboom didn’t start a game in 2018. Above all, Whitworth blocked his ass off and helped deliver a dramatic improvement in Goff’s game. He even made headlines—a difficult thing for a tackle to do—when he was the first man downfield on a long field goal attempt in the divisional playoff win over Dallas, outrunning men a dozen years younger (and dozens of pounds lighter) to ensure the kick wouldn’t be returned for a big gain if it fell short and into the hands of the waiting Cowboys defender.
Described by Snead as a “pillar” in the locker room, Whitworth was the first roster move in a string of them that turned the Rams from team-on-the-cusp to Super Bowl contender. This past offseason, Snead traded second- and fourth-round picks to the Chiefs for two-time Pro Bowl corner-back Marcus Peters. He dealt a fifth-rounder to Denver for five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib. He signed five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for one year and $14 million. He swapped a first- and a sixth-round pick to New England for wideout Brandin Cooks and signed him to a five-year, $81 million extension with $20.5 million guaranteed.
Logan Snead was happy now. Dad was making waves and dealing for the big names he’d missed out on in the draft.
Of all the moves Snead has made over the last two years, the most surprising, says veteran guard Rodger Saffold, was the one for Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. in mid-October, when L.A. was the league’s only undefeated team at 8–0. “When we got Dante, I was like, Whoa, where did this come from?” Saffold says.
Taken third out of Florida in the 2015 draft, Fowler missed his rookie season with a torn left ACL and failed to live up to his promise when he returned to the field; he started only once in 39 games and was used mostly as a situational pass rusher, with just 12 sacks. Fowler found trouble off the field—he was arrested in July 2017 and later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery, criminal mischief and petit theft—and on it, earning a one-week team suspension this August for fighting teammates in training camp. Jacksonville sent him to L.A. for a third- and a fifth-rounder.
“We have a culture that can be hard to mesh with,” Saffold says. “There’s so much accountability. You have to be able to say, ‘I made a mistake.’ But he came in and bought in. All these guys have bought in to McVay and what we have here.”
But Snead doesn’t acquire players on potential alone. He learned that lesson when he was just starting out as a gopher (official title: pro scout). In 1996 the Jags were in their second year of existence and just beginning to show signs of life. After a 4–12 debut, they had identified a franchise quarterback in Mark Brunell and were eager to build depth at wide receiver. Tom Coughlin, then in his first NFL head coaching job, eyed free-agent receiver Andre Rison, who had recently had his house burned down by Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes of TLC. The general manager, Michael Huyghue, was a Cornell- and Michigan-educated lawyer who’d been vice president of the Lions and valued culture fits more than the scouts who had been hired under Coughlin’s direction.
Rison, 29, was a four-time Pro Bowler looking for a new home after stops in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Cleveland. And he wanted a two-year guarantee from the Jaguars. Coughlin was prepared to give it to him. But, Huyghue says, “I told the agent we would only do one year and hung up the phone on him. Tom mother-f’d me and ran out of the office. Rison came, took the one-year guarantee and . . . we cut him on the flight home from a game. He hadn’t made a Friday practice on time, was drunk every weekend.” (Rison did not respond to requests for comment.)
Fresh off a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Auburn, the 25-year-old Snead was paying close attention to the importance of a team’s culture. He’d been hired in ’95 and asked to help the Jaguars put together the back end of the roster. That meant ferrying prospective free agents to and from physicals, tryouts and airports. Snead found that players revealed their true selves when they believed they were in the presence of a mere errand boy. “You drive players around from physicals and all that, and they let their guard down,” he says, “and you can report back, ‘Hey, not sure this one’s gonna last a long time around here.’ ”
Snead’s mentor was pro personnel director Ron Hill, who gave him his start, but he was also fascinated with Huyghue. At the risk of seeming like a careerist to his scouting peers, Snead hung around the GM and picked his brain. “Les rejected the traditional style of looking at the measurables, looking at the safe choices and getting the guy so coach doesn’t get mad at you,” Huyghue says. “He paid really close attention to the backgrounds and observed—and was a really good sponge, asking questions to understand what the chemistry fit was.”
In McVay, who became the youngest head coach to reach the Super Bowl four days before his 33rd birthday, the Rams have a relentlessly positive motivator. And the locker room had already successfully acclimated Peters, a brash young cornerback whose performative taunting of vanquished opponents is becoming routine. So Snead felt the Rams had the right pillars in place, and he had heard enough good things about Fowler, despite his struggles, to make the deal.
His most surprising roster move, it turned out, made one of the most pivotal plays against the Saints.
After a controversial noncall on pass interference in the final minutes of regulation, and after Zuerlein booted a 48-yarder to tie the game at 23 with 15 ticks remaining, the Rams found themselves on defense after losing the overtime coin toss. On second-and-16 from his own 34‑yard line, Brees dropped back as Fowler engaged with right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, charged inside, spun outside, threw out his arms and collided with the quarterback as he made the throw. The ball hung in the air, wobbling, until it fell into the arms of safety John Johnson III, who stumbled backward as he made the pick. Five plays later, Zuerlein sent the Rams to their first Super Bowl since the end of the 2001 season—when Tom Brady won his first ring.
In the winning locker room, Logan Snead’s eyes danced across the lockers and the players celebrating in front of them, soaking it all in. He was reminded of his Wikipedia-aided ribbing of his father, the architect of the roster he was now surveying.
“He could’ve done better with those drafts,” Logan said, grinning, “but I think he learned from his mistakes.”
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