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Rams glitz & glamour meets Saints’ elegant efficiency

Sunday's game could become a litmus test on modern NFL team building

Seth Dunlap
January 16, 2019 - 8:02 pm
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The Los Angeles Rams are the nearly perfect embodiment of the city they represent.  High priced stars, a Hollywood-handsome quarterback, and a California-cool head coach.  They’re a franchise that believes how they do football is more progressive, and appealing, than everyone else.

The Rams have carried an aura of inevitability with them this season.  They were prohibitive Super Bowl favorites for most of the year, and equaled the Saints with an NFL-best 13 wins in the regular season.   Their impact, however, stretches far beyond anything that happens this season.  Most other NFL franchises are actively trying to emulate how the Rams have constructed this team, from the young, uber-genius and offensive-minded head coach to top-heavy salary allocation, where their high-priced stars help mask any concerns about depth.  

It wasn’t a matter of if other teams would begin to copy the ‘Rams Way’, it was only a matter of when.   That process is already being played out in places like Arizona, where they’ve hired McVay look-alike Kliff Kingsbury in some Hail Mary attempt at instant relevance.

In reality, it’s unsurprising that the Rams have spent the vast majority of the past two years dominating NFL headlines.  Football returned to the Los Angeles market, and the Rams have made every effort to generate excitement, and as many wins as possible, for their team as they try to capture the attention of a notoriously disinterested fan base. 

The Rams traded for high-priced stars including cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, along with wide receiver Brandin Cooks.  They signed free agent defensive tackle N’Domukong Suh to a one-year, $14 million contract, then locked up big extensions for Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, and reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald. 

Those moves have had varying degrees of success.   Suh has looked like a shell of his former dominant self, and Talib spend most of the season on the sidelines with an ankle injury.   Cooks caught a more-than-respectable 80 passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns, but that production probably doesn’t live up to his $15 million salary this season.  Conversely, Gurley, when healthy, has played like the NFL’s best running back and Donald is again front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors.  

Then there’s the disconnect between Peters’ performance – he is the 100th rated cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus – and his all-world mouth.  Peters’ ongoing feud with Saints’ head coach Sean Payton is emblematic of his career that hasn’t nearly lived up to the hype.In fact, the Rams’ defensive experiment has been an objective failure.  They unloaded a dump trunk of money at the feet of stars on that side of the football while neglecting depth.   The Rams five highest-paid defenders made a combined $54.6 million the season, the most of any team remaining.   Meanwhile, they finished 19th in the league in both yards allowed and DVOA.   By comparison, the Saints five highest-paid defenders earned $35.5 million.

Then there’s Jared Goff, the charismatically goofy 24 year-old Rams’

illion this season, and their defense finished 11th in DVOA and 14th in yards allowed. quarterback who had the most productive season of his career.  Goff’s 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns were career highs, as was his 64.9% completion rate.   By midseason, many national analysts were slobbering all over themselves to anoint Goff the next Tom Brady to McVay’s Bill Belichick.   Goff has a fairly serious MVP candidacy going as well.   Yet much like an encounter with L.A.’s socialite class at one of their many elite nightclubs, the Goff-experience is a little hollower than the tabloids would lead you to believe.

Goff spend his last six games, including the Rams playoff win against Dallas, regressing into the quarterback he was under Jeff Fisher – highly talented, but highly inconsistent and turnover prone.   He threw six touchdowns to six interceptions during that span, had seven fumbles, and only threw for over 220 yards once. 

Goff’s home/road splits this season are equally concerning for the Rams, as they head into their NFC Championship matchup with the Saints in New Orleans.  Goff threw for 22 touchdowns to just three interceptions at home this season, with a 116.7 quarterback rating and a 68.3% completion rate.  In eight road games, he threw just ten touchdowns to nine interceptions, had an 82.7 quarterback rating and a 60.6% completion percentage.

The third-year quarterback’s road struggles point to his problem with crowd noise in hostile environments where it’s much harder for McVay to feed him information through his headset down to 15 seconds on the play clock.  Film study shows that McVay has been masterful at designing easy first-read throws and completions for Goff in the Rams play-action based offense, but that Goff still struggles when he has to made adjustments on the fly sans-McVay, or when he progressing beyond his first read during drop-backs. 

The Rams’ defensive struggles, despite the high price tag, and the proverbial makeup that McVay has applied to Goff’s game, seem perfectly placed in Los Angeles, a city notoriously obsessed with glitz and glamour while being less obsessed with nuance and depth of character.  L.A. is an incredible city, but even the most diehard Los Angelian would probably admit to being a little too vain and star-obsessed.

It’s fitting, then, that their opponent in the NFC Championship game represents a diametrically opposite city and fan base.   The Saints have rebuilt themselves into a championship contender by ditching risky, high-priced offseason signings and trades, instead relying on smart drafting and savvy, value-bin bargains in free agency.   If the Rams are L.A. glitz and glamour, then the Saints are New Orleans’ elegant efficiency. 

Quarterback Drew Brees and the offense symbolizes this well.  Brees set an NFL record by completing 74.4% of his passes, eclipsing the record he set last season.  He also had a career-high 115.7 quarterback efficiency rating, and his 8.2 yards per attempt was his highest total in seven seasons. 

The Saints didn’t rely on one Gurley-esque workhorse in the backfield, instead incorporating Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Taysom Hill in what was the NFL’s most diverse rushing attack in 2018.   While Michael Thomas elevated himself into the conversation among the league’s best wide receivers with 125 receptions and 1,405 yards, Brees spread his passes out this season to a plethora of receivers, including rookies Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr. 

Nobody is going to mistake the Saints receiving corps for the Rams’ highly touted trio Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp but they’ve been productive enough to keep the Saints near the top of nearly every offensive statistical category, on a per-play basis. 

Defensively, the Saints have used a group under-appreciated stars to become one of the better units in the league over the past three months of the season.  DeMario Davis, the veteran middle linebacker signed this offseason after years playing for the Jets in New York, had solidified the middle of the defense and has proven valuable as a run stopper, pass rusher, and in coverage.  While cornerback Marshon Lattimore (rightfully) gets a lot of attention in the Saints’ secondary, it’s a discarded former first-round pick in Eli Apple that has glued that unit together and allowed P.J. Williams, a frequent punching bag for fans in New Orleans, to shore up the nickel cornerback position that’s been a bit of an abyss during the Sean Payton era.   On the defensive line, there’s probably no more perennially underappreciated player than end Cam Jordan, but his comrades in Alex Okafor, Sheldon Rankins (out for the rest of the season with an Achilles’ tear), David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison and Taylor Stallworth have formed one of the deepest front-four units in the NFL.  That grouping helped the Saints become the third-best run-stopping unit in the league this season.

Sunday we’ll see these two forces collide in the Superdome.  It’s the Rams star-studded cast against the Saints, who’ve resurrected their once-dormant championship hopes with smarter, more frugal, team building.   Perhaps the NFC Championship game will become a litmus test on which philosophy works better in the modern NFL.

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