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Goff And The Rams Weren’t Supposed To Be This Good

The Los Angeles Rams had a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs at the start of the season and were projected to win just six games, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions. When they improved to 7-2 with a 33-7 demolition over the Houston Texans in Week 10, the Rams exceeded our projected win totals and now own a 71 percent chance of making the postseason. You can forgive our Elo algorithm for being so low on the Rams in the preseason — they did have the NFL’s worst offense last year1 and did finish on a seven-game losing streak as part of a 4-12 record. This season’s truly incredible transformation has taken place under the league’s youngest-ever head coach — Sean McVay, who was hired when he was 30 years old — and thus far, L.A. ranks among the best teams in the league (the same can’t be said about their fans though).

Led by sophomore quarterback Jared Goff — who is firmly in the MVP conversation — the offense is on pace to make the Rams the first team since the 1965 San Francisco 49ers to lead the league in scoring2 in a season immediately after finishing last in scoring, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The addition of wide receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills and development of third-year running back Todd Gurley have helped L.A.’s offense increase their points scored per game by 18.9 — that would be the largest annual jump since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. As for Goff, the No.1 pick in the 2016 draft was truly awful in his rookie campaign, and his future in the league was questionable. The former Cal Golden Bear went winless in his seven starts and finished with more interceptions than touchdowns. But under the guidance of McVay, Goff has flourished. Indeed, merely saying that he has improved is an understatement: He’s tracking for the second biggest increase in passer rating — a measure of how good a quarterback is — from year one to year two of any QB in history to make at least 200 passing attempts in each year.

Jared Goff’s improvement has been historic

The largest increases in passer rating from a quarterback’s first to second season in the NFL

INCREASES
RANK PLAYER YEARS TEAM TD/INT AY/A PASSER RTG
1 Nick Foles 2012 to 2013 Philadelphia +12.3 +4.5 +40.1
2 Jared Goff 2016 to 2017 L.A. Rams +3.3 +4.7 +37.9
3 Josh Freeman 2009 to 2010 Tampa Bay +3.6 +3.5 +36.1
4 Steve DeBerg 1978 to 1979 San Francisco +0.4 +2.8 +33.1
5 Terry Bradshaw 1970 to 1971 Pittsburgh +0.3 +2.0 +29.3
6 Carson Wentz 2016 to 2017 Philadelphia +3.5 +2.9 +24.8
7 Carson Palmer 2004 to 2005 Cincinnati +1.7 +2.1 +23.8
8 Norm Snead 1961 to 1962 Washington +0.5 +2.5 +23.1
9 Ken O’Brien 1984 to 1985 N.Y. Jets +2.3 +2.3 +22.2
10 Jack Trudeau 1986 to 1987 Indianapolis +0.6 +2.5 +21.9
10 Tobin Rote 1950 to 1951 Green Bay +0.5 +2.4 +21.9
10 John Elway 1983 to 1984 Denver +0.7 +1.5 +21.9

Among quarterbacks who made at least 200 pass attempts in each of their first and second seasons.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Only Nick Foles, who caught lightning in a bottle with Chip Kelly during the coach’s first year in Philadelphia, topped Goff. This isn’t merely a function of Goff being terrible last year and decent this year, either. His 8.5 yards per passing attempt is currently the best in the NFL.

While Goff and the Rams offense have drawn the bulk of the headlines, the defense has shown stellar improvement as well. Although the Rams’ D has gone quietly unnoticed,3 it has jumped from 23rd in the league in opponent’s points per game last year to tied for third-best so far this season.

When both units work in tandem, as they did against the Texans on Sunday, there might not be a better balanced team in the NFL — L.A. is the only team this season that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive expected points added.

The Rams are the most balanced team in football

The difference in offensive and defensive expected points added for teams with positive records

EXPECTED POINTS ADDED
RANK TEAM OFFENSE DEFENSE DIFFERENCE RECORD
1 Rams +54.5 +49.3 5.2 7-2
2 Vikings +28.8 +20.8 8.1 7-2
3 Bills -21.4 -4.7 16.7 5-4
4 Titans -14.6 +6.7 21.3 6-3
5 Seahawks +12.2 +40.6 28.4 6-3
6 Steelers +14.5 +46.9 32.4 7-2
7 Falcons +27.2 -8.3 35.4 5-4
8 Panthers -1.8 +34.6 36.4 7-3
9 Eagles +63.1 +24.4 38.7 8-1
10 Saints +78.3 +26.3 51.9 7-2
11 Lions -20.3 +33.0 53.2 5-4
12 Packers +38.6 -32.5 71.1 5-4
13 Jaguars +22.9 +95.5 72.6 6-3
14 Cowboys +49.2 -30.6 79.9 5-4
15 Chiefs +62.0 -56.1 118.1 6-3
16 Patriots +92.3 -64.5 156.8 7-2

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

McVay may be pleased with his team’s performance so far, but he no doubt knows that the biggest tests have yet to come. As well as the Rams have played, they’ve yet to register a “statement” win4 and have instead been piling up gaudy numbers against the league’s sadsacks such as the Deshaun Watson-less Texans, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants, whom they humiliated to the tune of 51-17 two weeks ago.

By the average winning percentage of its remaining opponents, L.A. has the league’s second-toughest strength of schedule down the season’s final stretch, trailing only the Atlanta Falcons. And its final seven games include matchups against four teams that rank in the top 10 of FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings. While fans in Los Angeles decide whether they want to turn up for the playoffs, McVay and his team are facing a stretch of games that could define their season.

FiveThirtyEight vs. The Readers

Week 10 in our NFL predictions game — in which we invite you to outsmart our Elo algorithm — saw the readers get handed three heavy losses, the worst of which came at the hands of the Brett Hundley-led Packers, who beat the Bears 23-16. Elsewhere, the readers had their hearts broken by the Cowboys, who were taken care of by the Falcons 27-7. With that win, the Falcons overtook the Cowboys in odds of making the playoffs. The biggest win for the readers came via the “Toilet Bowl,” which saw the 49ers beat the Giants for their first win of the season. The cold-hearted calculations of Elo have yet to account for the fact that Big Blue has all but given up on the season.

Make sure you get your Week 11 predictions in early — thanks for playing.

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 10

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 10 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. RESULT READERS’ NET PTS
NYG 62% NYG 55% NYG 21, SF 31 +6.2
SEA 56 SEA 66 SEA 22, ARI 16 +5.4
PIT 69 PIT 79 PIT 20, IND 17 +3.3
LAR 71 LAR 78 HOU 7, LAR 33 +1.9
NO 52 NO 56 NO 47, BUF 10 +1.0
NE 71 NE 77 NE 41, DEN 16 +0.9
WSH 50 MIN 52 MIN 38, WSH 30 -0.6
TEN 63 TEN 65 CIN 20, TEN 24 -0.6
DET 88 DET 89 CLE 24, DET 38 -1.1
CAR 71 CAR 73 MIA 21, CAR 45 -1.4
JAX 67 JAX 66 LAC 17, JAX 20 -2.4
TB 53 NYJ 54 NYJ 10, TB 15 -9.1
ATL 56 DAL 51 DAL 7, ATL 27 -9.4
GB 55 CHI 55 GB 23, CHI 16 -12.7

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. According to points scored per game

  2. Points per game.

  3. Especially for a unit that allowed 20 points or more in 10 games last season, compared with just three occasions through nine games this season.

  4. We don’t count their Week 4 win against the overrated Dallas Cowboys as a statement.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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