The Lions greet the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6, which is still a little weird to type out instead of St. Louis. It’s weird, right? But it’s not like the team itself has drastically changed. Jeff Fisher still rules from his eternal throne and Lions fans still wail at the sight of Aaron Donald in the horned helmet. But the Rams also, early on, held the top spot in the NFC West and still have a shot to remain strong. We spoke with Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times to get the lowdown on Los Angeles’ newest team.
1. I want to start with talking about a goal set by Jeff Fisher for his team, and I quote from Hard Knocks, "I'm not fucking going 7-9, or 8-8, or 9-7, okay, or 10-6 for that matter." And while that was certainly a chuckle in the offseason, the Rams are 3-2 and hold victories over division rivals Arizona and Seattle. It's not a totally unrealistic goal if the Rams keep taking these division games, but what have you seen so far in the season to give you reason to believe in or doubt Jeff Fisher's?
Not sure I can answer this in less than 50,000 words. Let me try.
Jeff Fisher has been a head coach in the NFL for 331 games. That is the second most of any active coach behind only Bill Belichick. Fisher is seven losses away from having the most losses of any NFL head coach in league history. He currently holds a .442 winning percentage in his four-plus years with the Rams.
Allow me to be blunt. Jeff Fisher's career IS 7-9 bullshit. That's why he said that on Hard Knocks. He knows that's his reputation because it's been earned over the course of a very, very long career. So it's not necessarily what we've seen this season to validate this team. It's what we know about him as a head coach over one of the largest sample sizes available for any head coach in the NFL.
And what we know is it's possible that the Rams can finish above .500. Possible. But entirely unlikely. Getting out to a 3-1 start? That was unlikely as well. So perhaps this is the year of the unlikely for the Rams.
This is Jeff Fisher's 22nd full season as an NFL head coach. In his first 21, he had just six years in which he oversaw a team to a winning record...
Here's to the Year of the Unlikely™.
2. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson was ruled out for Sunday pretty early in the week. How do you see his absence impacting the Rams defense, particularly against the passing game? Who else in the backfield can we expect to see step up to try to fill his absence?
Yeah, this one could be huge. Johnson is stepping up into the CB1 role unchallenged for the first time in his career, now into his fifth professional season. The previous four years, Johnson played across from Janoris Jenkins, a fellow 2012 NFL Draft selection for the Rams who missed very little time in his first four years. Jenkins bolted for the New York Giants in free agency leaving the top spot on the depth chart for Tru.
The Rams have hoped that third-year E.J. Gaines, who missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, would step up into the other outside starting gig. After missing the first three games of the year due to a leg injury he picked up in the preseason, Gaines finally returned to the field in Week 4...and looked good. Like, unusually good for someone that hadn't played regular season NFL football for 23 months.
The Rams' slot is held down by Lamarcus Joyner who has done a fine job. There's some question as to applicability. He played nearly every snap early on in the season but barely topped 50% of the defensive snaps in Week 5 against Buffalo. Whether that was a specific game plan or mid-game adjustment versus an indication of a shift in overall defensive personnel philosophy moving forward, we don't know.
As for depth, the Rams added 2015 UDFA Troy Hill at the end of last season. He outplayed 2016 FA addition Coty Sensabaugh earlier this year while Gaines was on the mend. Sensabaugh was recently released, and the Rams added former Jacksonville Jaguar Dwayne Gratz off waivers to fill out the CB depth chart this week.
The big risk here is simple reliability. Tru's reliable. Hill and Gratz, obviously, are largely unknown components. I'm certainly worried that Hill's talent level and Gratz's unfamiliarity among the Rams' secondary would make an obvious soft target for you guys to exploit if Tru can't go on Sunday.
3. So the Rams drafted Jared Goff and seem to be saving him for next year, let him learn the offense; at least that's the least panicked version of events, even if other rookie QBs like Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz have started off hot this season. But is there perhaps a point where the Rams might grow weary of Case Keenum, or feel they might get pressured to start Jared Goff this year? Would it be on a winning streak or a push for the playoffs, or perhaps for reps in a lost season?
Who knows. Fisher has a penchant for sitting rookies. DT Aaron Donald, the best individual player Fisher has drafted since being hired in 2012, didn't start Week 1 of his rookie season. So I'm sure Fisher has no problem sitting Goff well beyond this week.
As for what changes, I'd buy into the latter of your suggestions as the only one that could get Goff on the field. Growing weary of Case Keenum would have likely already happened. Fisher clearly isn’t "pressured" into anything having avoided a winning record after four years at the helm and keeping his job. And the three-game winning streak the Rams hit from Weeks 2-4 are as good as it's going to get, and Keenum's still the starter.
Either Goff comes in late this season after a mid-schedule collapse or he's held out into 2017 while the Rams pursue the general 7-9ish course.
4. Todd Gurley is not looking pretty right now, per some advanced numbers. Among 31 running backs with more than 40 carries, he ranks dead last in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (-69) and 29th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (-24.1%). His receiving stats aren't much better (-11 DYAR/-26.1% DVOA). What's behind his slow start to the season right now, and what would it take to see the God Turley again?
This is what Fisherball can do, even to "a once-in-a-generation" running back.
No defense is going to worry about Keenum and the Rams' passing attack. That leaves them free to assign the run as the primary concern on most first and second downs. It's just tough to succeed against that philosophically. Teams are attacking the run with extra defenders which forces Gurley to overthink things. Because he doesn't trust his offensive line, now he's starting to try to do too much. It's a bit of an avalanche effect where issues are piling up and it's just hard to break out of.
The one thing I'd note here is that Gurley is a very talented back. Almost like a shooting guard in a slump or a .300+ hitter, sometimes you just need to work your way out of the funk. Perhaps this is the game where he busts off two or three solid runs to kickstart a multi-game jump in form that helps put his year back on course.
The problem is that the surrounding factors are all working against him.
5. It pains me to do this but I must ask you for a yearly update on Aaron Donald.
Update: Aaron Donald is still Aaron Donald.
BONUS: This is more of a personal question and it may not apply to you in particular, but it’s worth fielding. The Rams obviously moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles over the offseason with some public fallout. What has it been like with the fanbase as the season enters rolls on? Are there still a lot of St. Louis fans or have many moved on and abandoned the Rams? Is there a lot of new blood? Are the LA-based fans you see mostly those who remember the old Los Angeles Rams or are they new folks who may have had a former team but now are just happy to have a local team?
As for the St. Louis base, it's mixed just as it was in Los Angeles when the team moved in 1994. Some fans have stuck with the team, some have moved on. And just like the LA fans who stopped supporting the Rams due to the animus they held for then-owner Georgia Frontiere, I can certainly understand why so many St. Louis fans stopped being so because of Stan Kroenke. I've been a fan since the late 1980s. I saw both moves. It's never pretty. The big difference? Social media.
Watching the process play out was incredibly uncomfortable. The NFL, and the Rams, certainly did themselves no favors by trying to act as if they were unwitting actors early on. They committed to a public line that they weren't moving. That they weren't interested in moving. That nothing was going on related to a move. And then, a switch flipped. That switch flipped years after the gears had been in motion behind the scenes, so it's just terribly hard to support any sports franchise lying to fans in general. I'd have respected it much more if the Rams had been genuine publicly from the start. And that's from someone born in LA who has no real tie to the city of St. Louis.
That being said, they do have a huge opportunity now that they've returned to LA, an opportunity on their own behalf but certainly as well for the league as a whole. And that opportunity is made evident by the new fans who have cropped up to support this second era while still in its infancy. There's clearly a large population who, like myself, were Rams fans prior to the move to St. Louis. Some, like myself, remained fans throughout. Some dropped their affinity and just recently picked up back up. But yes, there is quite clearly another demographic who either grew up after the move to St. Louis or new LA residents who moved to SoCal after the Rams left and are just now adopting the Rams as their team.
What's going to be interesting to me is what standard gets applied and how fluid it is.
If the Rams remain stuck in the Jeff Fisher Tar Pits of Mediocrity (something that could have shelf life beyond 2016 if he is offered and signs a contract extension that has been rumored since last season), how will the media react? How quickly will fans lose interest as the novelty wears off? I'd ask Lions fans just to peek in on the Rams in December. The Rams will hit the road for three of four games heading into Week 14 at which point three of the final three games are at home. If the Rams are in familiar territory record-wise, I'm going to be very interested to see how many fans make the trip to the Coliseum in December given all the factors working against high attendance. That has nothing to do with the quality of Los Angeles fans or the viability of the LA market for NFL football. It's simply that there are so many factors at play that can hamper late-season attendance. Between the Rams and USC, there's a good chance that late-season football at the Coliseum just isn't a big enough draw given all the reason to stay home and watch on TV.
If that's the case for Year 1 of the Rams' return... You have to wonder how that look is going to be received in the league office and among the 31 other owners who approved the Rams' move to LA.