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Good Luck Copying The Rams’ Championship Blueprint

On the surface, the Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Rams fit the mold of any contemporary NFL champion. They reached the league’s zenith with a coaching mastermind (Sean McVay), a star quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and a pair of MVP candidates — one on offense (wide receiver Cooper Kupp) and one on defense (defensive tackle Aaron Donald). As in so many other recent Super Bowls, the Rams won by orchestrating a go-ahead drive in the game’s final minutes, marching 78 yards downfield on 14 plays before Stafford found Kupp in the end zone for a clutch touchdown. And when it was all over, Donald, Kupp, Stafford and their families gathered for that most traditional of all post-Super Bowl celebrations:

But underneath those trappings, the 2021 Rams were quite a different kind of Super Bowl winner. In fact, they broke many of the rules we thought a champion needed to follow to succeed in the modern game. Whether that path can — or even should — be replicated by the league’s 31 copycats is unclear. But what’s undeniable is that the Rams won very much on their own terms this season.

In contrast with the Cincinnati Bengals, their Super Bowl opponents, the Rams were not formed under the usual philosophy of stockpiling premium draft picks and methodically creating a young core that grows into a winner together. Instead, L.A.’s team-building strategy often involved trading away those draft picks, chasing established big-ticket talent from other teams and supporting it with more modest prospects from the middle rounds of the draft — cheaper players with less upside but whose strengths theoretically  complemented the stars.

Even if they had dreamed of such a strategy, most other teams in the NFL’s salary-cap era would be afraid to chase it because of the risks and collateral damage involved. And yet, the Rams have remained committed to it — even doubling down on it when given the chance — during the five seasons of the McVay era. But the tightrope act required to pull it off remains impressive.

The first potential casualty of trading away so many picks is depth, and one of the truest adages of the modern NFL is that your contingency plans generally matter a lot. Because injuries are inevitable in football, teams with impressive top-line talent can easily be undone when the backups are forced into action. “You cannot concentrate your salaries on a handful of star players because there is no such thing as avoiding injuries in the NFL,” Football Outsiders notes among its core tenets of NFL analysis. “Every team will suffer injuries; the only question is how many.”

The Rams defied that truism, however, by building the most top-heavy Super Bowl team in recent memory. According to salary data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, seven Los Angeles players carry a contract with an average annual value of at least $15 million.1 That’s not only the most of any team in the league this season: It’s easily the most of any Super Bowl team since 2010, even if we adjust other years for salary “inflation” by using the changing cap as a reference — and more than double that of the next-highest ranked champion on the list (the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs had three after adjusting). Meanwhile, ESPN lists the Rams with only eight players making at least $2 million but less than $15 million annually, which was by far the fewest in the league this season and the fewest of any Super Bowl team since 2010 after adjusting for the changing cap.

L.A. built the NFL’s most top-heavy contender

2021 NFL playoff teams by number of players with average annual contract values (AAV) of at least $15 million or between $2 million and $15 million

Players on Roster w/ AAV of …
Team $15M+ $2m-$15m
Los Angeles Rams 🏆 7 8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6 18
Kansas City Chiefs 5 13
San Francisco 49ers 5 21
Dallas Cowboys 4 16
Green Bay Packers 4 20
Philadelphia Eagles 4 21
Tennessee Titans 4 17
Pittsburgh Steelers 3 22
Arizona Cardinals 2 21
Buffalo Bills 2 22
Cincinnati Bengals 2 18
Las Vegas Raiders 2 29
New England Patriots 0 32
NFL average* 4.9 16.8

Player counts include those who may not have been on the active playoff roster.

*League average for all 32 teams, not just playoff clubs.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Despite playing an expanded schedule in 2021, the Rams mostly avoided the potentially nasty consequences of this gamble for their depth. According to data from Spotrac, Los Angeles was one of the least-injured teams in the league this year — though the cracks were beginning to show by season’s end. The team found itself with 37-year-old former All-Pro safety Eric Weddle (who had not played a meaningful down since December 2019) starting the Super Bowl,2 and its receiving corps was seriously depleted after Odell Beckham Jr. was hurt right before halftime. In many ways, L.A. survived with its top-heavy roster just long enough to win the championship — and perhaps not a moment longer.

Another oft-avoided downside of the Rams’ bold team-building philosophy has been the accumulation of a remarkable amount of “dead” cap charges. Dead money involves salary-cap space devoted to players who are cut or otherwise no longer with the team (or had voided contract years as part of a team’s cap gymnastics).3 Los Angeles’s nearly $44 million in dead money ranks fifth-most in the league this season, trailing only the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans, and it aggregates to nearly a quarter of the league’s $182.5 million total salary cap this season.

In the past, carrying that much dead cap weight would have indicated that a team was in “salary cap hell” and needed to cool down for a while. Making the playoffs, much less contending for a Super Bowl, would take a backseat to simply getting the roster’s financial situation under control. Teams have gotten a lot better at managing the cap over the past several decades, but a dead-cap tally of $44 million (taking up 24 percent of the cap) is still pretty unprecedented for a championship-level team. Since 2015, the first season of dead-cap tracking in ESPN’s data, L.A.’s dead-cap charge is nearly double that of the next-highest Super Bowl team (the 2016 Atlanta Falcons), whether we judge them by total dead money or the share of the cap devoted to it.

The Rams won while carrying a lot of ‘dead’ weight

Super Bowl teams with the most “dead money” charges (as a share of the NFL salary cap) in a season, 2015-21

Dead Money
Year Team Total As Share of Cap Won SB?
2021 Los Angeles Rams $43,933,885 24.1%
2016 Atlanta Falcons $24,014,829 15.5
2019 San Francisco 49ers $23,531,186 12.5
2017 Philadelphia Eagles $19,512,250 11.7
2016 New England Patriots $16,884,347 10.9
2019 Kansas City Chiefs $18,556,397 9.9
2015 Carolina Panthers $13,797,148 9.6
2018 Los Angeles Rams $14,585,613 8.2
2020 Kansas City Chiefs $13,673,896 6.9
2021 Cincinnati Bengals $12,477,861 6.8
2018 New England Patriots $7,259,163 4.1
2017 New England Patriots $6,223,838 3.7
2015 Denver Broncos $3,860,017 2.7
2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers $4,388,067 2.2

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Rams even bucked the conventional wisdom that quarterbacks with large salary-cap hits usually hamstring their teams’ championship hopes. Stafford’s $20 million cap value took up 11 percent of Los Angeles’s cap space this season, which made him the fourth QB since 2000 to win a Super Bowl while using at least 11 percent of the cap — joining Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning — and marked just the third time a QB with a $20 million-plus cap hit won the Super Bowl.4

Should any of this have worked? With another organization, in another season, it might not have. For all the big names on the Rams’ roster, they were probably not the best team in the league this year. They ranked sixth in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System during the regular season, ended up with the same ranking in schedule-adjusted expected points added through the postseason, and finished only third — still behind the Chiefs and Bills — in our end-of-playoffs Elo ratings. If we use our longtime method of ranking great teams by Elo, blending together a team’s final, peak and average seasonlong ratings,5 the 2021 Rams are the sixth-least impressive Super Bowl champion in history:

🏆 Elo’s greatest Super Bowl champions 🏆

Super Bowl-winning teams by blend of peak, average and final Elo ratings, 1966-2021

Elo Ratings
Rk Team Season Peak Average Final Blended
1 New England 2004 1817 1743 1817 1792.0
2 Denver 1998 1784 1747 1781 1770.5
3 San Francisco 1989 1795 1720 1795 1769.7
4 Miami 1973 1783 1736 1783 1767.1
5 Chicago 1985 1796 1707 1796 1766.5
6 Dallas 1993 1788 1718 1788 1764.7
7 Pittsburgh 1975 1777 1724 1777 1759.6
8 San Francisco 1984 1788 1702 1788 1759.4
9 Washington 1991 1776 1715 1776 1755.7
10 Miami 1972 1776 1711 1776 1754.2
11 Green Bay 1996 1780 1700 1780 1753.0
12 Green Bay 1966 1777 1704 1777 1752.5
13 N.Y. Giants 1986 1787 1683 1787 1752.0
14 Kansas City 1969 1775 1699 1775 1750.0
15 Dallas 1992 1784 1677 1784 1748.6
16 New England 2016 1779 1687 1779 1748.1
17 Seattle 2013 1766 1696 1766 1742.5
18 Pittsburgh 2005 1771 1668 1771 1736.5
19 Pittsburgh 1978 1762 1682 1762 1735.6
20 Oakland 1976 1767 1672 1767 1735.4
21 San Francisco 1994 1761 1682 1761 1734.9
22 Dallas 1977 1753 1678 1753 1728.0
23 Pittsburgh 1979 1740 1702 1740 1727.4
24 New England 2014 1743 1689 1743 1725.1
25 Green Bay 1967 1735 1697 1735 1722.5
26 New England 2003 1748 1662 1748 1719.2
27 Dallas 1995 1732 1696 1729 1718.9
28 Indianapolis 2006 1731 1689 1728 1716.1
29 Kansas City 2019 1745 1647 1745 1712.3
30 Washington 1987 1729 1675 1729 1711.1
31 Dallas 1971 1744 1641 1744 1710.0
32 Denver 1997 1729 1671 1729 1709.5
33 New Orleans 2009 1739 1687 1700 1708.6
34 Green Bay 2010 1740 1634 1740 1704.5
35 L.A. Raiders 1983 1729 1651 1729 1702.9
36 Tampa Bay 2002 1729 1641 1729 1699.7
37 Philadelphia 2017 1718 1643 1718 1692.7
38 Tampa Bay 2020 1732 1609 1732 1690.9
39 Pittsburgh 2008 1714 1643 1714 1690.7
40 N.Y. Giants 1990 1705 1668 1700 1690.7
41 Pittsburgh 1974 1718 1629 1718 1688.6
42 Denver 2015 1703 1659 1703 1688.5
43 New England 2018 1709 1647 1709 1688.3
44 Oakland 1980 1717 1613 1717 1682.4
45 Baltimore 2000 1726 1581 1726 1677.5
46 San Francisco 1988 1691 1631 1691 1671.2
47 Baltimore 2012 1690 1628 1690 1669.2
48 Washington 1982 1689 1610 1689 1662.7
49 St. Louis 1999 1680 1608 1680 1655.9
50 Baltimore 1970 1670 1625 1670 1655.0
51 L.A. Rams 2021 1670 1617 1670 1652.2
52 N.Y. Jets 1968 1680 1576 1680 1645.0
53 San Francisco 1981 1673 1573 1673 1639.9
54 New England 2001 1661 1548 1661 1623.7
55 N.Y. Giants 2011 1661 1545 1661 1622.3
56 N.Y. Giants 2007 1627 1544 1627 1599.4

Ratings use FiveThirtyEight’s classic Elo system. The first four games of the regular season are excluded to prevent the previous season from having too great an effect on the rankings.

But in a year notable for its chaos, the Rams were the last team standing, earning the ultimate measure of validation for their unorthodox path to the top. And while much is still up in the air for Los Angeles when looking ahead to 2022 and beyond — it felt like nearly every Rams fixture was contemplating his future Sunday night — the Rams were nevertheless near the top of the odds to win Super Bowl LVII when they were released after L.A. ran out the clock on Cincinnati. That sure sounds like business as usual for a defending champion, even if this year’s champ did its business very differently from Super Bowl winners in years past.

Footnotes

  1. Stafford ($27 million), Donald ($23 million), Kupp ($16 million), Jalen Ramsey ($20 million), Von Miller ($19 million), Robert Woods ($16 million) and Leonard Floyd ($16 million).

  2. Weddle was injured during the game and played through a torn pectoral muscle in the second half.

  3. The latter is how Leonard Floyd, who played in the Super Bowl for the Rams, can also count toward their dead money.

  4. The other two instances were Brady in 2018 and again in 2020.

  5. Excluding the first four games of the regular season because those ratings are strongly influenced by the regressed rating of the previous season.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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