View Original Notice ? Rams’ Sean McVay must reverse another late-season decline
THOUSAND OAKS — It’s a bad thing that can only happen to a good coach.
He starts the season with a playbook bursting with innovation. He gets his players to follow the X’s and O’s to a T. His team roars to a fast start and becomes the talk of the league.
But then he pays the price for all that attention as opponents rise to the challenge of figuring out how to stop him.
That might be part of what’s going wrong for Sean McVay, whose Rams started this season 7-1 but are 0-3 since then heading into Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at SoFi Stadium.
If so, it fits a pattern that has seen McVay’s teams experience drop-offs in production in the second half of the season in four of his five years as the Rams’ coach and offensive play-caller.
A good coach can’t be a great coach until he corrects that problem.
“Those are things that we certainly look at,” McVay said this week when asked about the pattern. “Give credit to the (opposing) defenses. They do a nice job.
“I’ve got to do a better job, especially in (these) particular parts of the season, of helping us be more efficient offensively.”
Analytics point to declines in the Rams’ offense from the first half to the second half of the season almost every year in the McVay era. But you don’t have to look farther than the scoreboard to see the results.
Since 2017, the Rams have gone 31-9 in the first eight games of the season and only 19-16 in the rest of those regular seasons. (Against the point spread, they’ve fallen from 23-16-1 early in seasons to 17-17-1 late.)
The offense’s share of the blame gets the most attention, given the high expectations created by McVay’s reputation for offensive innovation, and especially this year with quarterback Matthew Stafford brought in to expand the passing game.
The Rams’ winless November only hardened the perception that opponents have adjusted to their offense faster than they’ve adjusted to the adjustments.
That perception was born in 2018. The 11-1 Rams ran into the Chicago Bears’ Vic Fangio-run defense and lost, 15-6, then lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 30-23, the next week. They got to the Super Bowl but lost, 13-3, against a New England Patriots scheme that borrowed from the one the Bears used.
The Eagles had beaten the Rams the previous December too. Two weeks ago, former Eagles assistant coach and analytics specialist Ryan Paganetti tweeted that “we had a really good idea of exactly what they were going to do.”
they don’t run many plays on O and don’t seem to self scout tendencies as the season goes on. We beat them twice later in season when we had a really good idea of exactly what they were going to do #Rams https://t.co/cK9FbNLfsP
— Ryan Paganetti (@PaganettiRyan) November 19, 2021
There might have been other factors in 2018. The losses to the Bears and Eagles came shortly after the Rams lost wide receiver Cooper Kupp to a knee injury. Now the NFL’s leading receiver, Kupp said the problem isn’t coaching adjustments.
“I think that’s a fair assumption to make from an analytics view. I don’t know that it’s incredibly accurate,” Kupp said Thursday. “I don’t look at the analytics of things. I look at the film. We’ve just got to do a better job of executing.”
Urban Meyer, in his first year as coach of the Jaguars (2-9) after winning two national championships with Florida and one with Ohio State, faced the same problems in his college heyday.
“If we’re leading the league in college football or the Big Ten in offense, it’s not going to last long unless we keep adapting,” Meyer said Tuesday in a conference call with Rams beat writers.
“That’s part of the job” for any coach, Meyer said.
The trend shows up in Stafford’s numbers, which have fallen off from games 1-3 (129.8 passer rating, 10.0 yards per pass, 3 touchdowns, 0.3 interceptions, 1 sack per game) to games 4-8 (111.8, 8.6, 2.6, 0.6, 0.8) to games 9-11 (77.5, 6.6, 1.7, 1.7, 3).
Opponents are playing more “two-deep shell” coverage to take away deep passes. Stafford isn’t afraid to take deep shots when available, as he did on 79- and 54-yard touchdown strikes to Van Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr. in the 36-28 loss to the Packers last weekend. But, he said, “when defenses (are) forcing you to take the underneath stuff, I want to make sure I do that as well.”
With the Rams’ ground game staggering to 24th in the league, McVay indicated this week he’s looking at using “higher-percentage plays in the pass game” to respond to different defensive schemes and the three-game run of costly turnovers.
The Rams coaches’ challenge in ending the three-game slide is complicated by having to instantly replace injured wide receiver Robert Woods with Beckham.
But it’s the challenge of the second half of this season, as it was in McVay’s first four.
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons head coach, has faced it from both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“(If) anybody’s hot, people catch up,” Morris said. “Somebody gets a game plan and it works. When you can emulate some of those game plans, if you can execute the plan, you have a better chance of getting (so) you can dictate terms.
“Obviously, in our game, injuries happen. Changes have to be made. You’ve got to constantly evolve.
“You either get better, or you get worse.”
Beckham (hip) sat out practice Thursday after being listed as limited on Wednesday. Running back Darrell Henderson (thigh) and cornerback David Long (ill) remained out. Receiver Ben Skowronek (back) returned to full participation.