So much has happened in the NFL over the last season and a half, both on and off the field, that it’s been easy to lose track of things. So many new stars have stepped to the forefront that we’ve forgotten the players who emerged just a couple of years ago.
One thing that’s been easy to look past is that the Los Angeles Rams are just two years removed from being the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Between the 49ers dominating with their defense, Aaron Rodgers leading a resurgence with the Packers and Russell Wilson playing like an MVP candidate, the Rams have been easy to overlook after a disappointing 2019 season where they missed the playoffs. However, less than two years after playing in the Super Bowl, the Rams are proving that they shouldn’t be overlooked and have put themselves back on the list of Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
It’s no secret that Todd Gurley was a huge key to the Rams’ success in 2018. He was arguably the most impactful non-quarterback in the NFL throughout most of 2017 and 2018. However, it became clear during that 2018 playoffs that the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year wasn’t completely healthy. While Gurley continued to play, he was a non-factor in the passing game and C.J. Anderson got more carries. It was more of the same in 2019 when it was clear that Gurley wasn’t quite himself. He finished the season with a career-low in rushing yards and his fewest receptions since his rookie season. Without Gurley at full strength, the Rams' offense took a huge step backward.
However, with Gurley gone, second-year running back Darrell Henderson has gotten his chance to become the team’s lead rusher. Henderson has taken the opportunity and literally run with it. After Gurley averaged 3.8 yards per carry for the Rams last season, Henderson is gaining 4.7 yards per carry for Los Angeles in 2020. The sophomore back is PFF's highest-graded running back through Week 7.
Highest-graded RBs:— PFF (@PFF) October 28, 2020
1. Darrell Henderson - 89.1
2. Alvin Kamara - 84.6
3. Austin Ekeler - 84.5
4. Dalvin Cook - 82.2
5. Derrick Henry - 81.6 pic.twitter.com/OGZovMn4WO
With a little help from Malcolm Brown and rookie Cam Akers — if coach Sean McVay ever uses him — the Rams once again have a top-10 rushing attack. Henderson and Co. have brought balance back to Los Angeles' offense, which is exactly what the Rams need if they want to get the most out of McVay’s scheme.
Goff Is Back
Not only has the Los Angeles rushing attack bounced back in 2020 but so has quarterback Jared Goff. After taking the Rams to the Super Bowl two years ago, the team rewarded him with a massive extension, believing that he could lead them back to the promised land. However, with the pressure of a big contract weighing on him and a rushing attack incapable of taking the pressure off, Goff regressed in 2019. He threw a career-high 16 interceptions, saw his completion percentage drop and posted his worst quarterback rating since his rookie season. Goff’s performance created questions about whether he had already peaked and whether the Rams made a mistake by giving him such a big extension.
However, there’s little doubt that Goff has successfully bounced back from a poor 2019 season and is on his way to returning to the form he had in 2018 when he was selected to the Pro Bowl. Goff is on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards and has the highest completion percentage and quarterback rating of his career. Goff appears to have learned from last year’s mistakes and come back with a better mental understanding of the game. He’s making fewer mistakes and has been less turnover-prone than in the past.
Goff has had only one bad game during the first half of the season, showing more consistency from week to week. Even in 2018, he would be erratic at times but ultimately do enough to win games. But the 2020 version of Goff has been more steady and reliable. He’s slowly transforming into the kind of consistent, veteran quarterback who positions his team to win every week. This maturation has helped put the Rams in a position to reach the same level as the other top teams in the NFC.
On the Receiving End
In fairness, Goff wouldn’t have been as good as he was in 2018 without an outstanding trio of wide receivers. Fortunately for the Rams, they are getting similar play from their pass catchers this season. A year ago, the Rams didn’t get consistent production out of Brandin Cooks the way they did in 2018. He was such a dangerous deep threat in 2018 that it created opportunities for other receivers. The Rams offense dearly missed an element of speed in their passing game last year.
However, with Josh Reynolds taking over for Cooks on a permanent basis, the Rams have that speed back in their lineup. Despite being the third option in the passing game, Reynolds has received enough attention to free up Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, who have formed one of the most consistent wide receiver duos in the NFL this season. Meanwhile, the tight end tandem of Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are on pace to replicate their production from last season. The Rams didn’t even have that element in their offense in 2018, and the fact that they now have two reliable tight ends makes the L.A. offense even more versatile than it was two years ago.
Of course, the biggest surprise of the Rams’ success during the first half of the season is that they’re winning more with their defense. While the offense is slowly returning to its 2018 form, the Rams' defense is the best its been under McVay. Despite so much turnover on that side of the ball, the Rams have given up the second-fewest points in the NFL this season, allowing fewer than 20 points in five of their first season games. With an offense that’s coming back around, giving up 20 points or less is a winning formula.
Everybody knows about Aaron Donald, who remains arguably the best defensive player in the NFL with five First-Team All-Pro selections in a row and counting. But while he’s the key disruptor on the Los Angeles defense, the players around him are excelling as well. Leonard Floyd has taken advantage of teams focusing on Donald by providing a consistent pass rush on the outside. Darious Williams and Troy Hill have both made big plays this season, forming an incredible trio at cornerback. The Rams have difference-makers at all three levels, which is allowing them to stay aggressive and force offenses to adjust to them rather than the other way around.
How Far Can They Go?
In a way, the 2020 Rams are reminiscent of the 2015 Denver Broncos, who won Super Bowl 50. The Broncos went to the Super Bowl two years earlier on the back of a prolific offense, only to lose and fall short of expectations the following season. However, the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl two years after their defeat on the back of a historically great defense that more than made up for a middling offense.
This year's Rams have followed a similar path. Playing defense was frequently an afterthought for Los Angeles two years ago, as the Rams gave up at least 20 points in over half of their games. But fast forward and the Rams have built what looks like a championship-caliber defense. The key difference between the Broncos of 2015 and the Rams of today is that the Rams have an offense that can be explosive. McVay, Goff, and Co. are showing signs of achieving a similar prowess to two seasons ago. Combined with a top-five defense, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that the Rams are back among the elite teams in the NFC and ready to be a Super Bowl contender once again.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration