It is said that every season there are approximately four different teams in the postseason field from the previous year. And some of those new teams are considered a surprise. One of the top candidates to fit those descriptions in 2017 is the Los Angeles Rams. At 7-2 and leading the NFC West, the Rams keep scoring and winning. And, they’re looking like they’re headed to the postseason.
So, how did they get here?
Thus far, the Rams have to be the surprise team of the NFL. They finished 4-12 in 2016, their first season in La La Land after a contentious move from St. Louis. They fired their head coach Jeff Fischer. Then, would turn to 31-year-old Sean McVay. A man who is getting consideration for coach of the year. Now the Rams are 7-2. That is, tied for the second-best record in the league.
The Rams’ quarterback is Jared Goff, coming off a bad rookie season as the first overall draft pick. It would even cloud the future for this franchise trying to grab a football foothold in Los Angeles. A city suddenly crowded with NFL teams. If this is somehow a prescription for success in the NFL, I am not sure many other teams would welcome it.
But the Rams have righted the ship and are steaming through the 2017 season at, well, (forgive me) ramming speed. Their one-game lead in the west is slightly precarious with the Seattle Seahawks clawing at their heels. (After all, the Seahawks have delivered one of the Rams’ two losses on the season). But, the Rams appear built for the long haul with solid play in every phase of the game.
Let’s start with Goff. Last season in seven games as a starter he threw for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven picks. In nine games this season, he has more than doubled the passing yards (2,385). He has more than tripled the touchdown passes (16). And, he also has three fewer interceptions. He is currently the seventh-best passer in the league in terms of touchdown passes and eighth in yards per game. Goff is leading the offense to some gaudy statistics that include tops in the league in points per game at 32.9.
In a 33-7 victory over Houston, Goff again lit up the scoreboard. This is something nobody would have expected out of him after his dismal 2016 campaign. Rookies get time to figure things out in the NFL, of course. And while you can see Goff make some questionable decisions from time to time, it appears that he continues to figure it out every week.
“The first half was a little shaky,” Goff told ABC News of the Texans game. “There’s some throws I would like back. We just couldn’t really get into a rhythm. In the second half, we figured it out.”
Goff’s ascension from a year ago has certainly been aided by the players that the Rams have put around him. He has plenty of weapons to throw to, namely wideout Sammy Watkins, who was acquired through free agency in the offseason. And this past weekend we saw the emergence of Robert Woods, who caught eight passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns—including a 94-yarder when he ran away from the Texans secondary.
Of course, you must include running back Todd Gurley in the mix, who, after a difficult season in 2016 while the franchise was rebuilding with its rookie signal-caller, has already matched his exciting rookie season of 2015 with 10 touchdowns (and three of them receptions). Gurley is currently the league’s seventh best rusher with 83.8 yards per game, but his seven rushing TDs have him tied at the top of that category.
But no offseason acquisition on offense was greater than the signing of free agent left tackle Andy Whitworth. The Rams had to pay a pretty penny (three years at more than $33 million) for a 35-year old, but thus far he has been (Whit)worth every penny. In game nine, Whitworth finally picked up his first holding penalty of the season. And, he has been keeping Goff’s blind side clean all season. Whitworth has been credited with being the leader of a group that is really making a difference in the Rams’ season.
“Can’t stress enough how important they’ve been to our success so far,” Goff told the Los Angeles times in October. “And how important they will be to any future success we’ll have.”
Before the Rams offense kicked in gear, they were already in possession of a decent defense. The defense is currently tied for third in the league in points allowed (at 18.0 per game). But after toiling without a good offense on the other side of the ball for a few seasons, the Rams defense is enjoying it.
“Hey, I’ve never been 7-2 before, so I feel good,” fourth-year Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald told ABC News.
While the Rams are lighting up the league like a pinball machine, their first half schedule has been helpful thus far. Of their seven wins, only two have come over teams with a winning record (the Cowboys and Jaguars), while wins over the Colts, Niners, Cards, Giants and Texans amasses beating teams with a combined record of only 12-35.
The real work begins in the final seven games—with contests against four division-leading teams (the Vikings, Titans, Eagles and Saints). Plus, a rematch in Seattle. The first test comes on Sunday when the Rams travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in a highly-anticipated battle between two 7-2 teams. The Vikings, too, have benefited from an easier schedule in the first half. Therefore, we should learn a bit more about both teams come Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium—where each team is now fueling hopes to be playing there in February.
Goff and the L.A. offense will likely run into some resistance when they face the Vikings’ fifth-ranked defense (18.3 points per game), and Minnesota could even surprise the Rams defense with a new quarterback (head coach Mike Zimmer said on Monday he knows who is starting, but won’t reveal it until later in the week). No matter if it is Case Keenum (it will be Keenum), who played for the Rams the past two seasons, or Teddy Bridgewater, who hasn’t throw a pass in the league since 2015, the Rams defense will be ready.
As should we all for a mid-season tilt of NFC titans and title hopeful teams.