Rams butting heads (against a brick wall)

The arrival of the 2015 season heralded something of a potential tipping point for the St Louis Rams. They hadn’t made the Play-Offs in the last ten years and it had been even longer since they finished a season with a winning record.

Jeff Fisher was entering his fourth year in charge and his record to that point had done little other than tread water just under the .500 mark. With three years of re-working the roster, and some bold moves in the off-season, things had to change in 2015.

Fisher, and GM Les Snead decided, quite rightly in my humble opinion, that most of that change needed to come on the offensive side of the ball. Their defensive front was one of the most effective in the League in 2014, with Rookie superstar Aaron Donald having a lights out first year and going on to collect the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Robert Quinn and (before injury) Chris Long were also a constant threat off the edges as all three consistently wreaked havoc for opposing lines.

Sadly the offense was as much lacklustre as that defensive line was dominating. The Rams had managed to score 30 points or more just 8 times in the previous three seasons combined and the heavy imbalance in roster talent meant now was the time to try and address that.

The oft injured Sam Bradford had failed to deliver on the hopes of becoming the franchise Quarterback that saw him drafted 1st overall back in 2010 and his consistent underperformance meant the Rams decided it was time to move on under Center. They elected to trade him to the Philadelphia Eagles in return for Nick Foles, as well as the Eagles’ 4th Round pick in the 2015 Draft and 2nd Round pick in 2016.

It was an interesting move to say the least given Foles’ apparent downward trajectory. After an impressive 2013 that saw ProBowl selection after a season where he recorded 29 TDs and only 2 interceptions, and posted a QB rating in excess of 100 in 11 of the 14 games he started, 2014 was a much tougher year as opposing coaches had opportunity to study his film and present coverage schemes that preyed on his weaknesses, particularly under pressure. He posted just one game with a 100+ QB rating in 2014 before his season was ended in Week 9 with a broken collarbone.

Behind an offensive line which had it’s own myriad of issues, it was hardly an inspiring move.

Not content with looking for an upgrade at Quarterback, the Rams also elected to make a big move in the run game, using their 1st pick in the Draft on Georgia running back Todd Gurley. Coming off the back of a torn ACL, it was unlikely the Rams were expecting him to make an immediate impact, but as a powerful back with all the attributes to make it in the NFL it was a solid long-term selection that would at the very least require opposing defenses to respect the run game. Something you hadn’t had to do for a while as a defensive unit when you played the Rams.

With the Rams also using their next 6 picks on offensive positions including a trio of Tackles to try and add some talent to the beleaguered O-line, it was a clear statement that they wanted to make waves offensively.

Yet more half and half

It is fair to say that, in part at least, the Rams did achieve a little of what they wanted to in terms of redressing the balance – but only a little.

Todd Gurley was eased in to his first NFL campaign as he continued to rehab from the ACL surgery that had limited his off-season program, making his debut in the Week 3 matchup against the Steelers. He finished the game with just 6 rushes for 9 yards as the Rams kept a close eye on how he would hold up.

With no apparent adverse effect, they set about unleashing their new run weapon over the next four weeks as Gurley carried 88 times for 566 yards and 2 touchdowns. In doing so, Gurley set the record for most yards in the first four starts of any Rookie since the NFL merged with the AFL.

He would go on to record over 1,100 yards on the year at an average of 4.8 yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns. He was voted the Offensive Rookie of the Year and, along with a surprise weapon in the run game in the shape of wideout Tavon Austin (who was proving to be a pacey threat on an end around), the Rams finally had a legitimate run game.

In true “half and half” Rams fashion however, the passing game died a slow, painful, ulgy, horrible death.

Nick Foles got off to a solid if unspectacular start before imploding in Week 5 against the Packers where he threw for just 131 yards and four interceptions. Beat writers could have written the obituary for the Rams passing game there and then.

Foles continued to struggle from that point on as his issues from 2014 manifested once again as he caved under pressure and repeatedly tried to force deep balls in to double and sometimes triple coverage with the expected results. Only the newly found run game helped to paper over the cracks in the first half of the season before finding itself caught up in the mire of the passing game as teams keyed on the run, stifling what could have been an even more impressive Rookie year from Gurley as a result.

After limping their way to 4-5, Jeff Fisher decided enough was enough and let the team, or rather the offense, know they needed to play better. He laid blame at the door of the receivers, the tight ends and, rather specifically, Rookie Tackle Greg Robinson who was having nothing short of a nightmare debut in the NFL. Fisher said it all contributed to Foles’ problems and that they all needed to shoulder the blame – and then benched Foles.

The starting job was handed to Case Keenum (who still sounds like he should host the 80’s Hour on Sounds of St Louis KCAL 98.2!) ahead of the Week 11 trip to Baltimore and, with the same lacklustre offensive weapons, and defenses still keying on the run game, Keenum fared little better when all was said and done. Fisher’s words did resonate a little it seemed as the offensive line play did improve toward the latter part of the season which perhaps offers some hope for Rams fans moving forwards, but receivers kept dropping balls and Keenum wasn’t adverse to making the odd bad decision either.

It all added up to, as one Rams fan I know described it, an offense that was all a bit “Ugh” and a passing game that ranked 32nd in far too many categories to be proud of.

Ironically, the defense possibly got even better.

Aaron Donald yet again showed he is a real talent in this League and was disruptive on virtually every play he took the field for after many had predicted a drop off in effectiveness after his Rookie year. He posted 11 sacks, 22 tackles for a loss and a colossal 37 QB hits, all from the interior of the line. Anyone who has listened to the pod will know already, but I’ll say it again here for the record – I love Aaron Donald!

Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree both spent most of the season dealing with injuries, but others stepped up to fill the voids. Michael Brockers, Nick Fairley and Mark Barron, who was moved from safety to outside linebacker and led the team in tackles, all played their part in making a defensive unit that ranked Top 10 in the League based on the DVOA metric used by Football Outsiders.

As it was, even their dominance couldn’t save the season for the Rams and they limped to yet another 7-9 season.

California baby!

After 21 seasons in St Louis, with all but 5 of those with losing records, Rams owner Stan Kroenke decided it was time for yet more change. Not just with the roster this time though, oh no. It was time to hit the road. After leaving Los Angeles in 1994, the Rams would once again return after League owners granted permission with an almost landslide 30-2 vote in favour.

The new stadium complex in Inglewood won’t be ready until 2019 at the earliest and, having reportedly been entirely privately funded, is something of a slap in the face for St Louis who is allegedly still waiting for the loan to be repaid on the Edward Jones Dome. Until it is ready, the Rams will play their games at the rather tired LA Memorial Coliseum.

Having spent big to get the new stadium they wanted the Rams then set about spending big in a different way, and traded their way up to the 1st overall pick in this year’s draft. They offered up no fewer than 6 draft picks (four this year, two next) to Tennessee to secure the top slot, and it was blatantly obvious to everyone as to why they did. You don’t give up that much to pick up an offensive tackle!

Sure enough, when the Commissioner took to the podium for the first time, he announced that the Rams had selected University of California Quarterback Jared Goff. In him, Jeff Fisher and the Rams will surely be hoping, as they did when they made the same decision in 2010 and selected Sam Bradford, that they now have their franchise Quarterback to start the new era in LA.

He’s got his work cut out.

The offensive line will need to maintain the improved play they showed toward the end of last year rather than the start if Goff is to be afforded much time to settle in to life in the NFL. On paper he’s probably the most “ready” of this year’s draft class in terms of ability, but there are question marks over his maturity and his ability to deal with the pressure, not only the literal pressure on the field, but also that of being the face of the “new” franchise off it.

Goff isn’t exactly blessed with weapons at his disposal either. Tavon Austin will want to build on his strong year last year, but you can bet coaches will be wise to those screens and end-arounds this year, so he’ll need to deliver on more conventional receiving duties. Kenny Britt did little to excite in 2015 and will be unlikely to set the world alight this in my opinion. He’ll probably be charged with taking Rookie Pharoh Cooper under his wing to try and develop the youngster, whose tape suggests consistent rather than exceptional output.

The Rams will, of course, have a fully fit Gurley in the backfield and with a potentially more dynamic QB under Center in Goff, I don’t think teams will necessarily be able to key on the run game quite as much in 2016. Gurley should see decent returns as a result.

The defense? Well that will be what we’ve come to know. The losses of Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod will be felt in the secondary but, as has been the case in recent years, that defensive front will continue to cause no end of problems and will no doubt give Goff short fields to work with on a regular basis. Whether he can do anything with them remains to be seen.

The Rams’ record in their first season in St Louis?: 7-9.

The Rams’ record in 2010 when they last selected their last “franchise Quarterback”?: 7-9.

Don’t discount the vanilla Jeff Fisher guiding them to exactly that record yet again in their first year back in Los Angeles! If he does, after all that has been done to try and change the fortunes of this storied franchise, the biggest change for the Rams at the end of 2016 could well be the Head Coach.