College football is into the “blind résumé.” It’s meant for shock value, to stir the pot a little bit.
“Team A has 11 wins, including four against top-50 teams, and a strength of schedule of 13. Team B has 12 wins, including five against top-50 teams, and a strength of schedule of 38.” And then they reveal the two teams. You know the drill. One is typically a blue blood, like an Alabama or USC or Notre Dame. But you’re surprised to find out the other team with a comparable résumé is someone like UCF or Boise State.
Blind résumés are fun. Let’s try one in the NFL.
Team A has four wins, with the worst scoring offense and the No. 17 scoring defense. Team B has nine wins with the No. 4 scoring offense and the No. 10 scoring defense.
Guesses? Team A is the 2016 Los Angeles Rams. Team B is the 2017 Los Angeles Rams. Okay, so that was a bit of a trick question. It gets the point across, though. The Rams have had one of the best two-year turnarounds in some time. Their nine wins are the most the franchise has had in a season since 2003, and they’ve still got four to play.
From quarterback-wide receiver directional relationships to Wade Phillips’ impact on their toxic differential, the Rams’ turnaround this season is not unexplainable. Here’s a list of reasons why the Rams are doing a whole lot of winning in 2017.
NFL teams start and end with their quarterback – Hello, Jared Goff
The Rams got their guy at the top of the 2016 draft, and he was less than impressive in seven starts in his rookie year. Goff completed 112 of 205 passes (54.6 percent) for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Los Angeles went 0-7 in his starts. His 63.6 passer rating, had it qualified, would have been dead last in the league. Yes, Brock Osweiler was better. So was Blake Bortles.
However, he has been better in just about every way in 2017. Goff has completed 244 of 392 passes (62.2 percent) for 3,184 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating – 98.4 – is ninth-best in the NFL.
He’s kept the offense on track, completing over 61 percent of his passes on first and second down (56 in 2016) and tossing 12 touchdowns against only four interceptions on the early downs. Goff has also been one of the best quarterbacks in the league on third down in 2017 after being one of the worst in 2016. In Year 2, he has completed 76 of 118 passes on third down (64.4 percent) for 858 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. His 2016 line – 38 of 65/361 yards/2 TDs/2 INTs.
Of course, a lot of this has to do with the new targets he gets to throw to this year, which leads us to the next item on the list of improvements.
Much of the groundwork was laid before the season started with key additions to the roster
Three of the Rams’ top four receivers are new to the roster. That’s a lot of new toys for Goff.
Robert Woods was acquired in free agency after spending his first four years in Buffalo. Woods has become the Rams’ leading receiver with 703 yards and four touchdowns. Cooper Kupp was selected by Los Angeles in the third round of the 2017 draft and has caught 51 passes for 665 yards and three touchdowns. Sammy Watkins, acquired in an offseason trade with Buffalo, has racked up 31 catches for 528 yards and six touchdowns. Those three receivers have combined with the rest of the Rams’ pass-catching unit to become one of the most dependable in football — Rams receivers have dropped only 3.4 percent of catchable balls this season (fourth in NFL), compared to 6.6 percent last year, which ranked 27th.
Woods, Kupp and Watkins have filled some of the holes in Goff’s passing game, as well. Using STATS X-Info data to look at Goff’s 2016 directional passing, we see he struggled throwing to the right slot (42.4 QB rating, four interceptions on 42 throws) and the left sideline (41 percent completions). His 2017 numbers are much improved to the right slot (115.6 QB rating, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) and the left sideline (59 percent completions). Much of the improvement has to do with Woods in the right slot (18 catches on 22 targets, 2 TDs) and Kupp on the left sideline (15 catches on 22 targets, 1 TD).
It’s not just Goff’s receivers. Consider Andrew Whitworth, a veteran offensive tackle who replaced 2014 No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson this season. Whitworth, one of the best left tackles in football for the better part of his 11-plus years in the league, has been instrumental to the Rams. In 2016, Robinson allowed seven sacks, 14 hurries and was flagged 15 times. Whitworth has allowed four sacks this season, while being flagged only three times.
That’s just on offense. Los Angeles also added defensive end Connor Barwin, who has accumulated 15 hurries and four sacks this season, and Kayvon Webster, who has been a contributor in the secondary.
And that’s just on the field. Rams general manager Les Snead also inked a new head coach this offseason, which leads us to the next item on our list.
Head coach Sean McVay has unlocked the Los Angeles offense
The immediate impact the 31-year-old McVay has had on the revamped Los Angeles offense cannot be understated. McVay’s offense has been part of a new wave of next-generation offenses in the NFL.
After a down year in 2016, McVay has made star running back Todd Gurley into even more of a focal point than what he was in Jeff Fisher’s offense. Gurley will always get a lot of carries (he’s second in the league in that category), but he’s been very involved in McVay’s passing game. Running backs have caught 21.7 percent of Goff’s completed passes this season, most of them to Gurley, which is a complete 180 from last season. In seven games with Goff under center in 2016, Gurley collected 17 catches for 125 yards and zero touchdowns. This season, he has 48 catches for 563 yards and three scores.
McVay has also found a comfortable role in his offense for Tavon Austin, a talented player who has to this point been an awkward fit in the Rams’ schemes. As we wrote earlier this season, Austin has been used as a runner much more this year than as a pass catcher with McVay implementing jet motion into the Rams’ offense.
Perhaps the most impactful move McVay has made for the Rams came before he was even named head coach. It came in the form of a phone call, and it resulted in the next item on our list.
Wade Phillips becomes Los Angeles’ new defensive coordinator
As the Los Angeles Times reported, McVay gave Phillips a call after he had interviewed with the Rams asking if he would come along as his defensive coordinator if he got the job. Phillips’ answer was basically, “Sure, kiddo, if you get a head coaching job, I’ll join.”
Well, here we are, with Phillips leading one of the best and most opportunistic defenses in the NFL. Last season the Rams forced 18 turnovers, and the team flipped those turnovers into 42 points. On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ 29 giveaways led to 126 points allowed. That’s minus-11 in turnovers and minus-84 in scoring.
Under Phillips in 2017, the Rams have already forced 21 turnovers (fourth in the NFL), leading to 97 points off those turnovers (third). The offense has been better, giving the ball away just 15 times. And to Phillips’ credit, the defense has allowed just 18 points off those 15 turnovers. That’s a 163-point swing on turnovers from one year to the next.
The swing in toxic differential is just as drastic between this year and last. Toxic differential combines a team’s turnover differential and explosive play differential, with explosive plays being defined as 25-plus yard gains. The 2016 Rams gave up 53 explosive plays to their 38, for a minus-15 total. Combined with their minus-11 turnover differential, it adds up to a minus-26 toxic differential. That was 29th in the league.
This year has been different. The Rams’ 44 explosive plays are one better than the total they have given up, and combined with their plus-six turnover differential, have a toxic differential of plus-7. That’s good enough for 10th in the NFL.
The Rams have experienced no bigger swing than what they have seen week to week from their special teams units however, the last item on our list.
The Rams dominate in every aspect of special teams play
Pick a category, and the Rams are a top-five unit on special teams.
Pharoh Cooper, a second-year return man out of South Carolina, leads the NFL in kick return average (28.7 yards) with a touchdown and is third in punt return average (12.6).
Kicker Greg Zuerlein has made seven more field goals than any other kicker in the NFL and has been extremely accurate all season. Zuerlein is 36 of 38, with one of those misses being a 63-yard attempt at the end of the first half versus New Orleans in Week 12.
Next is punter Johnny Hekker, who is a three-time All-Pro selection. Hekker’s 44.5-yard net average is second-best in the NFL this season, and the Rams’ punt coverage team has allowed just 5.3 yards per return.
When a team can excel in all three phases of football, success will follow. The Rams were proficient on special teams in 2016 but could hardly say the same on offense or defense.
Toxic differential tends to separate playoff teams and teams that get an early jump on the offseason. Since 2010, only 15 playoff teams have had a negative toxic differential, only three have gone on to a conference championship game, and none have made the Super Bowl. Speaking of the Super Bowl, teams to make it there have averaged a plus-27.5 toxic differential since 2010. No team since 2010 has made the playoffs with a minus-26 differential like the Rams had last year (although Seattle came close with a minus-23 in 2010, when it made the playoffs with a 7-9 record).
The plus-33 jump the Rams have made this season is a testament to each of the items on the list above— Goff, McVay, Phillips, the front office, and everyone in between. All signs point up for Los Angeles, as it moves forward with its first-year head coach and franchise quarterback.