Occam’s Razor and the Los Angeles Rams

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Los Angeles Rams showed the most dramatic offensive turnaround in the history of the NFL in 2017, more than doubling their point total (224 to 478) as they jumped from the 32nd-ranked offense to number one. They show no signs of slowing down in 2018, rising to 4-0 with a 38-31 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. Pundits have been quick to credit rookie head coach Sean McVay, who brought innovative offensive schemes from Washington, and writers elected him Coach of the Year. If we employ Occam’s Razor – the philosophy that the simplest solution is usually best – it makes sense to assign McVay the bulk of the credit.

McVay does deserve a lot of credit, certainly, for bringing elements that maximized the ability of quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley, but his addition was far from the only change in LA. The team’s top three wide receivers were all new additions, and the offensive line featured three new starters. With Goff and tight end Tyler Higbee establishing starting roles in their second seasons, the 2017 Rams featured a whopping eight new starters out of 11 spots on offense:

A position-by-position look shows that not only was the offense completely overhauled, the new pieces were major improvements. Of the eight 2016 starters who were replaced, only Case Keenum is still starting in the NFL. There is no comparison between the quality of talent the team employed in their first season in Los Angeles and their second.

Offensive Lines

When looking at a team’s changes, it’s important to look at both who is entering and who is leaving to assess how dramatic the changes are. In the case of LA’s offensive line, the changes are stark:

Left Tackle: Departing Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in 2014, fetched only a sixth-round pick in trade; he struggled in six starts with the Lions before going on injured reserve and is currently a backup with the Cleveland Browns. New arrival Andrew Whitworth, while 36, was coming off two Pro Bowl seasons including a First-Team All-Pro campaign in 2015.

Center: Tim Barnes was picked up and cut by the San Francisco 49ers and is currently out of the league. John Sullivan was a key piece up front blocking for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota before injury-plagued campaigns in 2015 and 2016. The Rams bet on a bounce-back from a healthy Sullivan and were rewarded with the ninth-best C performance according to NFL 1000.

Right Guard: Cody Wichmann was benched down the stretch for 2015 third-round pick Jamon Brown; he has spent the last two seasons on practice squads.

Pro Football Focus called LA’s 2016 OL the NFL’s 27th-ranked unit, but praised left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Rob Havenstein as “solid.” The Rams switched out the other three players, including dramatic upgrades with Whitworth and Sullivan, and the 2017 group ranked sixth. The OL was a problem in 2016, but general manager Les Snead had a pretty simple solution: replace the struggling players.

There was some risk in adding 36-year-old Whitworth and 32-year Sullivan, especially with the latter coming off two-injury plagued campaigns, but the team stayed remarkably healthy in 2017. The same quintet started 15/16 games, with the only exception a meaningless week 17 contest where the Rams rested many of their starters. Football Outsiders ranked the Rams the healthiest team in the NFL according to their Adjusted Games Lost metric – an underrated factor in their extraordinary season.

A Skill Assessment

At first glance, the improvement in the skill positions isn’t as dramatic as in the offensive line – Kenny Britt posted a 1,000-yard campaign in 2016 while no Rams receiver hit that mark in 2017 – but a closer inspection shows a group of complementary receivers that made LA very difficult to defend.

X Receiver: Britt had never cracked the 800-yard barrier prior to the 2016 season, but he eclipsed his previous career-high in targets by a whopping 21. He subsequently disappointed in Cleveland and was cut after only 18 receptions and 233 yards in nine games; since then he washed out in New England and is currently without a team. The Rams traded a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines for Sammy Watkins, who stayed healthy and scored eight touchdowns but wasn’t a consistent difference maker. Watkins signed a big deal with the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2018 offseason, while the Rams went in a different direction by trading for speedster Brandin Cooks, who already has 452 yards in just four games.

Z Receiver: Brian Quick set career-highs in catchses and yards in 2016, but that appears to be more a product of volume than anything else – he caught only 53% of his targets. He’s currently a backup in Washington and has only six catches since leaving LA. Robert Woods’ numbers don’t jump off the page, but his 65% catch rate and 781 yards in only 12 games made him a far more efficient option than Quick.

Slot Receiver: Like Quick, Tavon Austin had a career-best 2016 in an inefficient fashion, catching 55% of his 106 targets for 8.8 yards per reception – a shockingly low total for the speedster. He was demoted to situational duty in 2017 and caught only 13 passes, though he did chip in with 59 rushes for 217 yards, and is currently a gadget player for a struggling Dallas Cowboys offense. Rookie second-rounder Cooper Kupp provided an immediate upgrade, catching 66% of his 94 targets for 869 yards. So far he’s avoided the sophomore slump, tallying 348 yards in four games and nearly matching his 2017 TD total already (four so far versus five last year).

Tight End: Lance Kendricks has been a useful player but was stretched as a starter and currently plays a complementary role with the Green Bay Packers. This is probably the weak link in the high-powered O, with neither Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett emerging as of yet.

Running Back: One element McVay brought to the party is using Gurley much more in the passing game. Gurley had 64 catches for 515 yards and 0 touchdowns total in his first two years, but in 2017 led the Rams with 64 catches, adding 788 yards and six touchdowns.

Two elements become clear in this analysis: One, the departed players (Britt, Quick, Austin, Kendricks), despite superficially competent numbers in 2016, were not ideal starters and no longer have NFL starting jobs. And two, the offense is much more balanced now, integrating the running back more and getting far more production out of the Z and slot positions. This gives McVay tremendous flexibility to attack any weakness a defense may have. Cooks’ addition this past offseason adds yet another dimension. 

The Quarterback

Goff started the final seven games in 2016 and turned in one of the most dismal statistical performances by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. It is clear from the above analysis that the offense lacked in overall talent. Journeyman Keenum, who started the first nine games, also played poorly, and looked like a very different quarterback in Minnesota last year, completing almost 68% of his passes for 22 touchdowns against only seven picks. Goff’s struggles were not entirely of his own doing, but he also played worse than Keenum, averaging only 5.3 yards per pass attempt (vs 6.8 for Keenum) and taking sacks on a whopping 11% of his dropbacks (vs less than 7% for Keenum). It was a bad rookie campaign, magnified by an almost total dearth of supporting talent.

It is not uncommon for rookie quarterbacks to struggle, however, before showing major improvement in year two. Five-time MVP Peyton Manning completed less than 57% of his passes as a rookie while throwing 28 interceptions; he made the Pro Bowl in his second season. Alex Smith threw one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions as a rookie; his ratio improved to (a still poor) 16:16 in his sophomore campaign. Andrew Luck halved his interception total from 18 to nine while improving his completion percentage from 54% to over 60%.

McVay put Goff in better positions to succeed than Jeff Fisher did, and the surrounding talent was night and day. But part of the credit goes to Goff, too, who was talented enough to go #1 overall in 2016 and showed the kind of improvement that many players do from their rookie season to their second year.

A Great Coach, Not a Miracle Worker

I don’t want to minimize McVay’s contributions to the Rams. He clearly put his stamp on the team and his forward-looking schemes breathed fresh life into an offense stifled at times by Fisher’s conservative nature. His role in Goff’s development and his expanded use of Gurley in the passing game made burgeoning stars out of his two most important players. He made smart hires throughout his staff, retaining special teams coordinator John Fassel and adding veterans Wade Phillips (defensive coordinator), Aaron Kromer (offensive line coach), and Greg Olson (quarterbacks coach in 2017; now offensive coordinator). And McVay likely had input in many of the personnel decisions that helped with the team’s turnaround. Since he’s only 32, the Rams are in good hands for years to come.

But assigning him total credit for the turnaround in LA is a bridge too far. McVay was offensive coordinator in Washington from 2014 to 2016, and while it’s difficult to parse out his contributions versus offensive-minded head coach Jay Gruden, the team finished 26th, 10th, and 12th in points per game in McVay’s three seasons in the nation’s capital. That’s a respectable performance, but a far cry from 2017’s excellence. McVay is a terrific coach and deserved the Coach of the Year award in 2017, but that doesn’t make him a miracle worker. There were lots of reasons Los Angeles improved beyond McVay.

Another factor in LA’s offensive turnaround was the improved defense. The 2017 Rams generated turnovers on 14% of opponents’ drives, compared to a little over 9% in 2016. As a result, they jumped from 23rd in average starting field position to first – a difference of more than five yards. They also had six non-offensive touchdowns in 2017 after only one in 2016. McVay likely deserves some credit for this, but Wade Phillips, one of the most effective defensive coordinators of the last 25 years, deserves a lot, too.

A Repeat Story

The truth is that the Rams saw this same story about a decade ago, only in reverse. The “Greatest Show on Turf” offense led the league in points and yards in 1999, 2000, and 2001, winning a Super Bowl and another NFC Championship along the way. They skidded a bit in 2002, but re-emerged in 2003 with quarterback Marc Bulger, going 12-4. Head coach Mike Martz praised Bulger as a “championship-caliber QB” with a “great release, exceptional accuracy, and top notch read and react.” Bulger made his second Pro Bowl in 2006, throwing for 4,301 yards, 24 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. Then things fell apart: the team went 6-42 over the next three years with bottom-five scoring offenses each year. Bulger went from completing 64% of his passes for 95 TD and 59 INT in his first five years to fewer than 58% and a 27:34 TD:INT ratio.

What happened? Did Bulger just lose it overnight at the age of 30? There are many potential explanations, so it is hard to nail things down to one cause. Bulger was one of the top-five most-sacked quarterbacks every season from 2003 through 2008, and suffered injuries to his thumb, shoulder, back, and leg that contributed to an early decline. Martz, one of the most respected offensive architects of his era, was fired after the Rams started slowly in 2005, and Bulger dealt with four different offensive coordinators in his last five seasons. Star left tackle Orlando Pace spent 2007 on injured reserve and left after 2008. Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, one of the best duos ever, started to decline about this time, and neither was on the team when 2009 rolled around. Bulger went from one of the best supporting casts in the league to one of the worst, and while those changes were gradual, the performance ultimately fell off a cliff.

Simple … Or Lazy?

In our quest for the simplest solution, we ignore that most dramatic changes have more than one explanation. Football is a complex game with 11 players on each side and many coaches and other players involved during the week and on game day. We want to ascribe changes to one factor, and we can use Occam’s Razor to justify it intellectually, but rarely are things that simple. When teams are terrible, as the 2016 Rams were, there are usually a lot of bad things going on, and when teams are good, as the 2017 Rams were, there are usually a lot of good things.

And it’s pretty clear – a lot changed between 2016 and 2017. McVay brought a new scheme, new assistants, and a new energy and attitude to a flailing franchise. The Rams replaced eight underperformers on offense with new upgrades, in some cases considerable upgrades. The team had terrific injury luck despite some age and injury concerns among their new additions. And Goff took a step forward in his second NFL seasons, realizing the talent that made him the first overall pick the year before.

Some people are going to read this and think I’m overcomplicating something that’s rather simple: McVay was the reason. To me, the reasoning I outlined here is pretty simple, too: it was a completely different offense in 2017 than in 2016. McVay was a part of that, but so were wholesale changes all across the offense. They got rid of their weakest players and replaced them with better ones. It may not fit as neatly into a quick soundbite, but to me, it’s a pretty simple explanation.

Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, like his analysis of where fumbles come from, his analysis of value plays at left tackle and a look at the new offense in Indianapolis under coach Frank Reich.

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