We’ve all seen a team lose football’s biggest game, march into the following season, and then tumble into a ravine. In fact, the post-Super Bowl defeat hangover has happened enough times that the word “curse” is frequently bandied about. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 15 of 51 Super Bowl losers have missed the playoffs the next season, and 13 have failed to post a winning record. Six have been downright bad, producing six wins or fewer in their follow-up bids.
But it is much rarer for a Super Bowl winner to nosedive the following season. Coming off a title, defending champions have played at an average pace of 11 wins in a 16-game schedule, finishing .500 or better 45 times in 51 tries. Only three since the merger have failed to win more than six games in a season. And none has ever produced a record as bad as what the Los Angeles Rams are tracking toward this year. The Rams are 3-8, with a .273 winning percentage that paces them to finish comfortably last among champs attempting a sequel. Maybe they can find two wins in their last six games to avoid supplanting the 2003 Oakland Raiders (4-12) as the losingest post-Super Bowl team ever (Lombardi Trophy or not). But in their first 11 games, the Rams have put on a historic meltdown. If the season ended today, their minus-75 point differential for the season would already be the worst ever for a team the year after winning it all. Every point the Rams lose by for the rest of this year will tunnel them deeper into ignominy.
So yes, this Rams season looks like the worst postscript to a Super Bowl championship ever. The big question is why L.A. is so much worse this year — and whichever angle of approach one takes to evaluating Sean McVay’s 2022 team, the conclusions will be similar: The Rams are what happens when a laundry list of things go wildly wrong at the same time. In Los Angeles’s case, just about all of them have broken down on the same side of the ball.
It doesn’t take long to get the Rams’ good news out of the way. The L.A. defense has improved a bit on last year’s performance in terms of expected points added per play (0.01 to 0.05), while sitting nearly steady in yards allowed per play (5.24 to 5.35) and scoring (21.9 to 23.0 points allowed per game). Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey both still exist, and the Rams defense has maintained its standards. (We’ll see if that keeps up now that Donald has a high ankle sprain.) Kicker Matt Gay is banging through field goals at the same 94 percent clip he did in 2021. On the whole, the Rams have boosted their special teams EPA per game from negative-0.88 to 0.25.
If two phases of the game are the same or better than they were en route to a Super Bowl win, and the Rams have nonetheless gone from the greatest show in football to a cautionary tale, then you might surmise that they have had a few problems on offense. (OK, maybe more than a few.)
The 2021 Rams were a passing marvel. The team traded with the Lions before the season for quarterback Matthew Stafford, who promptly helped receiver Cooper Kupp produce the most prolific statistical season ever for an NFL wideout. And Stafford had quite a year himself. His 7.3 yards per dropback were third-best in the NFL, and his 69.2 QBR was fourth. He proved beyond any doubt that he could be a franchise centerpiece for a winner, not just for the Lions. He also may have led the league in style points, as exemplified by his no-look pass to Kupp while the Rams were mounting their Super Bowl-winning drive.
By contrast, 2022 has not been a good year for the Rams in this area. When Stafford has been on the field, his yards per dropback have declined to 5.6 (27th in the league), and his QBR has dipped to 50.7 (21st). Stafford might have lost some of his edge — he’s 34, which is neither young nor ancient by current quarterbacking standards, and he’s battled a wide array of injuries all season — but his environment also got a lot more difficult. Stafford has faced the blitz slightly more often this year than in 2021 (23.1 percent of the time, up from 21.8). That has contributed to a mild increase in pressure rate (27.3 percent, up from 23.4) and, most notably, an enormous jump in sacks taken. Stafford got sacked on 4.7 percent of his dropbacks during his first year in L.A. The rate has jumped to 8.6 percent in 2022, an almost-doubling that has Stafford getting sacked more often than at any other time in his career. Even in Stafford’s Detroit days, he never took a sack on more than 7.5 percent of his dropbacks.
Sacks can be the fault of the quarterback, his receiving targets or his blockers. But in this case, the evidence points to the Rams offensive line as the variable that’s led to the 2022 spike. Stafford’s average time to pass is down about a tenth of a second from 2021, when he got sacked just more than half as often. His average time before getting sacked is almost identical (4.4 seconds). The Rams’ pass block win rate, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, has dipped from 68.4 percent to 55.7. The unit lost left tackle Andrew Whitworth to retirement after the Super Bowl, and offensive linemen now dot the team’s injury report and injured reserve list. Only right tackle Rob Havenstein currently remains in the lineup from the five-man unit that protected Stafford as the Rams reached the mountaintop.
Stafford’s more frequent run-ins with opposing defenders have exacerbated his injury problems, and he has gone into the NFL’s concussion protocol twice this season while missing two games, including Sunday’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Kupp, still the Rams’ most-targeted receiver, went on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain this month and may or may not return. Fellow receiver Allen Robinson, who’s third on the team in targets, definitely will not, as he’s having foot surgery. Odell Beckham Jr., of course, did not return after playing an important role down the stretch in 2021.
None of this has made it any easier for the Rams to get yards on the ground. The Rams are 28th in expected points added per rush (-0.04) and 31st in yards per carry (3.5). Last year, Rams ball carriers found 2.4 yards before contact as their line pushed forward for them. This year, the average yardage before contact is 1.9. Relatedly, running back Darrell Henderson, who gave the team 4.6 yards per carry in 2021, went on waivers last week and is now a Jacksonville Jaguar.
All of the Rams’ offensive problems ripple out in some way from those absences along the offensive line. That unit was supposed to be pretty good this year; Pro Football Focus ranked it 11th in the preseason. But that vision has not materialized. Though the football world lacks a consensus, catch-all metric to evaluate line play, the tools we do have agree that the Rams’ line has been substandard. Los Angeles is 21st in PFF’s run block grade and 30th in its pass blocking grade, while the Rams are 23rd in ESPN’s pass block win rate and 27th in run block win rate. In other words, as big a problem as poor blocking has been for Stafford and the Rams passing game, it has done at least as much to hobble the ground attack.
How quickly the Rams can rev their machine back up depends on a few factors. Is Stafford back at full health in 2023? Will his protection be more like what he had in 2021, or what he’s had this year? If the offensive line is better, will the defense continue to stave off regression? Will Donald, the best defensive player alive, consider retirement again, as he did after 2021? The NFL promises nothing.
Understandably, the Rams gave up a lot to get Stafford before last season. They would do it again, given that they now have Super Bowl rings. One of the riches the Rams gave to the Lions was their first-round pick in the 2023 draft, a pick that looked then (and as recently as a few months ago) like it would fall at the very end of the round. It will not. The Rams’ pick, which is now the Lions’ pick, is slated for the moment to be the third overall selection. Normally, a catastrophic season like the one the Rams are having carries the promise of renewal at the start of the following spring’s draft. Instead of having that hope, the Rams have maybe the worst Super Bowl follow-up ever, a lot of uncertainty going forward — and, yes, the quickly cooling comfort that banners fly forever. For now, that will have to do.
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