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.
|Players on Roster w/ AAV of …|
|Los Angeles Rams 🏆||7||8|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||6||18|
|Kansas City Chiefs||5||13|
|San Francisco 49ers||5||21|
|Green Bay Packers||4||20|
|Las Vegas Raiders||2||29|
|New England Patriots||0||32|
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.
|Year||Team||Total||As Share of Cap||Won SB?|
|2021||Los Angeles Rams||$43,933,885||24.1%||✓|
|2019||San Francisco 49ers||$23,531,186||12.5|
|2016||New England Patriots||$16,884,347||10.9||✓|
|2019||Kansas City Chiefs||$18,556,397||9.9||✓|
|2018||Los Angeles Rams||$14,585,613||8.2|
|2020||Kansas City Chiefs||$13,673,896||6.9|
|2018||New England Patriots||$7,259,163||4.1||✓|
|2017||New England Patriots||$6,223,838||3.7|
|2020||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||$4,388,067||2.2||✓|
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:
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.