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The L.A. Rams Are Running Their Way Back Into Contention

The Los Angeles Rams were the toast of football under second-year coach Sean McVay in 2018, finishing 13-3 and going all the way to the Super Bowl before losing a defensive struggle to Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. Despite the defeat, L.A. remained the team to emulate; an arms race to hire McVay clones became the dominant theme of the following offseason. But the Rams struggled to keep building on their success, missing the playoffs last year with a 9-7 record. By the end of the season, there were concerns that opposing coaches had figured out Los Angeles’s tricks — and that the McVay magic was suddenly gone.

And yet, here the 2020 Rams are, off to a 3-1 start and looking like legitimate Super Bowl contenders again. Our forecast model gives Los Angeles a 71 percent chance of returning to the playoffs, with a 4 percent chance of winning it all — tied for eighth-best in the league. And although some of the principals involved have changed, McVay has managed to reclaim key elements of the formula that made the Rams so tough to stop during that charmed 2018 season.

Last year’s Rams were undone in large part by a noticeable decline on offense, dipping from third overall in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game to 14th. The biggest culprit? Surprisingly — given how important the passing game is in determining a team’s offensive fate — it was actually the Rams’ rushing that fell off a cliff, falling from No. 1 in EPA per game to No. 28. Running back Todd Gurley, who had been so dangerous (4.9 yards per carry) for most of 2018, struggled with only 3.8 yards per carry, and his backups were just as ineffective. (It wasn’t all their fault: L.A. also dropped from sixth in yards before first contact per rush, a measure of run-blocking, to 30th last year.)

Either way, for a hyper-modern offense that everyone was scrambling to copy, it’s amazing how quickly Los Angeles was made mortal by simply neutralizing its efficiency running the ball.

L.A. is back to its successful formula

Leaguewide ranks in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) for the Los Angeles Rams by season and category, 2018-20

Offense Defense
Season Total Passing Rushing Total Passing Rushing Sp. Teams Overall
2018 3 6 1 14 10 21 15 3
2019 14 9 28 7 12 12 21 10
2020* 6 9 3 9 5 23 31 6

*2020 schedule adjustment uses a combination of 2019 and 2020 stats to measure opponent strength.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group

That lack of rushing success had ripple effects. The Rams feature a heavy play-action-based passing scheme, and while there’s no evidence the effectiveness of a team’s rushing boosts the effectiveness of its play-fakes, it is true that play-action does at least work much better in down-and-distance situations in which the threat of running is more credible.1 So when L.A.’s early down rushing fell from sixth in yards per carry in 2018 to 27th in 2019 — and when it couldn’t force opponents to stack more defenders in the box to help contain the run — the Rams often found themselves in situations in which play-action was less effective. As a result, Jared Goff’s QBR on play-passes dropped from 77.2 (11th-best) in 2018 to 59.2 (25th) in 2019.

But this season, the Rams’ rushing attack has returned in a big way. Second-year running back Darrell Henderson is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, 11th-best among qualified rushers, and as a team, Los Angeles ranks third in schedule-adjusted rushing EPA per game. Rushing makes up 36 percent of the Rams’ total yardage this season, which ranks seventh in the league; compare that with last year’s 25 percent mark (28th), and you get a sense of how much McVay has gone back to the basics to rediscover what worked so well during L.A.’s Super Bowl run.

And because the Rams have been so much more successful running early in offensive series — they’re averaging 5.3 yards per carry on first down, for instance — they’ve put themselves in more favorable play-action situations again. Goff’s QBR after play-fakes is back up to 85.7, which ranks 15th among qualified passers this season, and Los Angeles ranks second in the league (behind the Tennessee Titans) with 51.8 percent of its passing yards coming off of play-action attempts.

It’s all coming together to propel the Rams back near the top of the league in offensive EPA, with the team ranking sixth this season after last year’s drop-off. Together with the ninth-best EPA defense in the NFL so far, Los Angeles is one of only two teams — along with the Kansas City Chiefs — sitting among the top 10 on both offense and defense at the moment. Although the Rams play in a very tough division, featuring both the surging Seattle Seahawks and the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers2 — and their schedule gets tougher from here on — Los Angeles does seem to have fixed some of the major problems behind its Super Bowl hangover last season.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 4 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1737 14-2 >99% 95% 25%
2 Packers Rodgers 6 1655 12-4 95 77 13
3 Ravens Jackson 4 1648 11-5 87 47 8
4 Seahawks Wilson 3 1639 12-4 92 60 10
5 Bills Allen 7 1619 11-5 88 71 6
6 Steelers Roethlisberger 9 1603 11-5 80 36 5
7 Rams Goff 13 1585 10-6 71 24 4
8 Saints Brees 5 1584 9-7 63 38 4
9 Buccaneers Brady 16 1581 10-6 73 50 5
10 Titans Tannehill 11 1580 11-5 79 57 4
11 49ers Garoppolo✚ 24 1575 9-7 47 11 3
12 Colts Rivers 20 1572 10-6 68 40 3
13 Bears Foles 21 1544 9-7 63 19 2
14 Browns Mayfield 26 1539 10-6 64 17 2
15 Cowboys Prescott 2 1530 8-8 58 54 1
16 Vikings Cousins 27 1497 7-9 21 2 <1
17 Eagles Wentz 22 1496 7-8-1 37 33 <1
18 Raiders Carr 8 1495 8-8 28 4 <1
19 Cardinals Murray 10 1481 7-9 24 4 <1
20 Patriots Newton✚ 19 1464 9-7 61 28 2
21 Panthers Bridgewater 17 1458 7-9 23 8 <1
22 Falcons Ryan 14 1447 5-11 6 3 <1
23 Chargers Taylor✚ 31 1444 6-10 8 <1 <1
24 Dolphins Fitzpatrick 12 1438 6-10 7 1 <1
25 Texans Watson 15 1434 5-11 5 2 <1
26 Broncos Lock✚ 29 1433 6-10 15 2 <1
27 Lions Stafford 18 1421 6-10 10 <1 <1
28 Bengals Burrow 25 1402 5-10-1 7 <1 <1
29 Jaguars Minshew 23 1364 5-11 3 <1 <1
30 Washington Allen 32 1364 5-11 11 9 <1
31 Giants Jones 28 1354 4-12 4 4 <1
32 Jets Flacco 30 1351 3-13 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 5 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 7, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: The best game of Week 5 was shaping up to be Bills vs. Titans, but it’s not clear what the status of that contest will be after more Tennessee players tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. (Welcome to sports in 2020!) Instead, we turn our attention to Cleveland, where the Browns will host the Indianapolis Colts in a battle between two serious playoff contenders. Both teams have postseason odds north of 60 percent; the Colts have won three straight games, while the Browns are coming off an extremely impressive 49-38 victory at Dallas. Indy has the edge at QB according to our ratings, and its defense (No. 2 in EPA) will probably put up more resistance than the Cowboys’ D did last week. But the Browns do have home-field advantage on their side, in theory (home and road teams have actually split games 50-50 this season), and we’re considering Cleveland-Indianapolis a true pick-’em. Elo’s spread: Cleveland PK

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. On second or third down and short (3 or fewer yards to go), teams had a total QBR of 87.2 on play-action passes last year; on second or third and long (8 or more to go), that number dipped to 59.1. The gap is smaller if we account for the sample bias that sees better offenses get into short-yardage situations more often, but it remains at 9.9 points of QBR even after that adjustment.

  2. To say nothing of the Arizona Cardinals, who are 2-2 and 17th in EPA but have flashed greater potential at times.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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