Marcus Peters. Ndamukong Suh. Aqib Talib. Brandin Cooks.
What do they have in common?
Recently, they’ve all become Los Angeles Rams. Historically, they’re just as good at irking their opponents as they are at frustrating their own franchise.
After acquiring those four players, who are among the best at their position, the Rams look like one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. They’re fresh off an 11-5 season and a playoff berth. They scored an NFL-best 478 points in 2017 after scoring a league-worst 224 in 2016. Sean McVay turned around Jared Goff’s career — and, frankly, Todd Gurley’s (whose yards per attempt jumped from 3.2 in 2016 to 4.7 in 2017).
Their potential is off the charts. So is their potential for failure, mostly because they are expected to win 12 games and make a more-successful playoff run. (They got knocked out in their first game last postseason.) The NFC West may make things complicated for the Rams. The division has four legit teams. The Seahawks are finding their footing in transition, but still have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and coach. The 49ers are suddenly hot and dangerous with Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo. And the Cardinals have their quarterback position figured out (Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen) with David Johnson coming back from injury.
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Wins won’t come easy in the division.
We took a look at NFL teams which scored 400 or more points in a coach’s first season. We then picked the teams with the most sizable increases in points to see how their fared in that coach’s second year. On average, the teams won the same number of games while scoring fewer points.
If this proves true for the Rams in 2018, they will need to rely more heavily upon their defense to hold their opponents in check. Goff and Gurley may struggle to improve on last year’s extreme numbers and improve the win total for the Rams. Four of the Rams’ wins came within a six-point margin of victory. Three were within a four-point margin.
So the Rams’ offense can regress slightly — which would be understandable — as long as the defense steps up. Their defense is stacked with stars like Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Suh, Peters, Talib. Their also stacked with new players who have complicated legacies on and off the field, as has been noted by The Ringer’s Danny Kelly.
- Suh is considered one of the dirtiest players in the league. That reputation has led to close supervision from referees and the league. He has served multiple suspensions for dirty plays.
- Peters has a long history of irking coaches, going back to when he got kicked off the Washington Huskies. With the Chiefs, he received a one-game suspension for throwing a flag into the stands in the final moments of a game. That was one of his many issues with the Chiefs’ coaching staff.
- Talib accidentally shot himself in the leg in 2016 in Denver. He also has chippy relationships with a number of players around the league, which wouldn’t be a problem except that he recently got into a fight with Michael Crabtree that resulted in an ejection and one-game suspension.
- Cooks was awfully quiet on the Patriots — most are. However, he wanted out of New Orleans, where he didn’t feel like he was enough of an offensive focal point. In an offense devoid of veteran leadership, could Cooks’ ego present a problem? He has also only caught passes from Drew Brees and Tom Brady — Goff may be good, but he’s not that good.
Summed up: the Rams are taking risks on players — particularly on defense — who have varying degrees of volatility and pissing off their organization. Then you look at who they lost to trades and free agency.
The departures of Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree and Trumaine Johnson create a leadership vacuum on the Rams defense. They’re also key defensive contributors heading into the prime of their careers. The Rams clearly understand the magnitude of these losses from a talent standpoint, which is why they got creative in replacing them. However, the Rams left the linebacker group devoid of proven talent. The defense will also be left with just Donald and Brockers to shoulder the team’s leadership.
If you’re a skeptic about how leadership vacuums and risky free agents can damage a team, then look at what happened to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. Yes, the “Dream Team.” The Rams have that vibe. They experienced success, but want more and played a risky game by acquiring huge talent in free agency and though trades. The biggest difference, however, is that the Eagles brought in talent during the lockout, which meant teams spent less time practicing together before the season. The Rams won’t have to worry about that. They will have plenty of time to get to know one another — players will also have plenty of time to get versed in Los Angeles’ system.
The cautionary tale remains: Winners of the offseason aren’t always winner of the regular season and postseason.
It’s always tempting to crown the most talented team as future champions. But talent can get complicated and messy. The Rams, who were truly horrendous in 2016 yet overpowering in 2017, seem like a team destined to disappoint.
They likely won’t implode like the “Dream Team,” who started the season 4-8 and missed the playoffs. Early adversity, however, seems like a given for this squad.