2023 Los Angeles Rams Tank Their Way Into The Playoffs

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This time last year was truly rock bottom for Los Angeles Rams‘ fans. The Baker Mayfield party peaked on Christmas against the Denver Broncos and then they got throttled by the Los Angeles Chargers a week later.

The idea of beating Seattle to knock them out of the playoffs in favor of Jared Goff‘s Detroit Lions was a blown call away from happening and the “Sean McVay to Amazon Prime Broadcast”, “Aaron Donald to retire”, and “Matthew Stafford trade/retirement rumors” were all bubbling up.

The roster was left with a ton of questions and few resources to answer them. McVay announced he was coming back but he seemed like a broken man whose reputation as an offensive genius was on trial. Les Snead’s “F— them Picks” strategy was receiving the “I told you so” articles and commentary that many have had in their inbox since 2018. It was a cacophony of laughter and dunks.

Sure, it worked because the Rams won a title but perhaps sold their soul to do it. McVay began to clear out his coaching staff and Les Snead began purging the roster of his “RUN IT BACK” mistakes, chief among them Allen Robinson (traded to Pittsburgh for a 7th rounder and the Rams would eat his salary).

A ton of players he drafted such as Taylor Rapp, Greg Gaines, Nick Scott, David Edwards, and Troy Hill, left for greener pastures and his big free agents such as A’Shawn Robinson and Baker Mayfield were too expensive to bring back. The biggest move was when they unceremoniously traded Jalen Ramsey to the Dolphins for a 3rd rounder, a washing machine, and something called a Hunter Long. The Rams were $70 mil in dead cap space and as everyone would point out had no first-round pick. Things looked DARK.

There were positive signs. (Although not enough to indicate good things were imminent.) For one thing, there was no “OH NOW THEY TELL US” Jourdan Rodrigue story about the disconnect in the Los Angeles Rams’ locker room. Yes, there was a piece on how hard the season was for McVay and how defensive coordinator and “fan-punching bag” Raheem Morris had to step in to pull McVay out of his spiral.

McVay’s professional and personal lives were both in a bad place with the team either injured or ineffective and his Ukrainian in-laws in peril due to the war. The piece ended in an encouraging place with McVay discovering his love of coaching during the Baker stretch because it forced him to get creative again.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams-OTA
Los Angeles Rams: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A New Day In LA

McVay replenished his coaching staff with guys who signaled a new philosophy. Mike LaFleur was the new offensive coordinator and there felt like a back-to-basics approach to this team with more motion and an emphasis on running. The biggest hire though was offensive line coach Ryan Wendell who was brought in to move away from the zone blocking the Rams relied on and pivot towards more gap blocking. A team that would be more run-focused with a line that is about being maulers was a MASSIVE step in the right direction.

Defensively, they brought back defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant who didn’t work out in Detroit but gelled more with Raheem Morris’ system and would bring a toughness that the non-Ramsey members of the secondary lacked.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Christian
Los Angeles Rams Draft: Ben Queen-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Rams 2023 Draft

With an improved coaching staff, the next step would be for the Los Angeles Rams to replenish the roster through the draft, which was not a lock considering Les Snead whiffed in 2019, largely in 2020, and 2021. His inability to hit on the late-round picks the last few years was one of the authors of their dreadful 2022 season.

At first glance, the Rams’ draft was seen as OK. On one hand, their commitment to the offensive line seemed serious this time as they took Steve Avila in the second round. He was looked at as an IMMEDIATE starter and would give them the size and toughness they haven’t had at guard since Roger Saffold.

Kobie Turner and Bryce Young were looked at as nice defensive prospects but not guys who could contribute right away. They were projects. Beyond Avila, there wasn’t anyone looked at as a day-one starter.

They received mild praise for getting corner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and safety Jason Taylor II. Other picks such as Davis Allen and Puka Nacua were met with shrugs, and the selection of Stetson Bennett was seen as a REACH.

Post-draft, the needle wasn’t moved very much and the prospects of the team seemed grim. Sure, Stafford and Donald were back, Cooper Kupp is back, but the rest of the roster is either too young to date Leonardo Dicaprio or they were on the team last year which as previously stated was a train wreck.

And yet, the tenor of the team from Snead and McVay on down wasn’t one of a team that’s just trying to get by. There was an actual air of positivity at OTA’s and training camp. Sure, it’s their job to project an air of optimism, no fan base wants to be told that their team was tanking especially in a draft where it was tempting to tank, but McVay didn’t seem like the broken husk he was in 2022.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Run Up to 2023

Training camp featured a McVay who seemed to get his groove back Angela Bassett style. He looked like he was reinvigorated and spoke about how having a young team allowed him to actually teach football again. They brought in a few castoffs to shore up their incredibly inexperienced roster. Ahkello Witherspoon was to lead the corners, Demarcus Robinson to add depth at receiver, and John Johnson came home to provide depth at safety and potentially rebuild his career.

Heading into the season, every member of the media from Michael Lombardi, the entire staff of PFF, and the Ringer, all the way to the gambling community had the Los Angeles Rams competing with Arizona for the number one pick.

McVay was shocked that this was the perception of his team but it was hard to argue. And yet, with these rock-bottom expectations, this season wound up creating an oddly intense schism among fans. There were two camps

1.) The “burn it down” for the insurance money camp that wanted the Rams to be players in the “Faleb for Caleb/Dismay for Maye” sweepstakes and the Rams should consider selling off everything to acquire more picks.

2.) The Rams were eaten alive by the injury bug and McVay’s new philosophy would pay off like a slot machine.

Both camps treated each other with the level of contempt that the residents of Springfield and Shelbyville have for each other. Camp 2 feels that Camp 1 was a bunch of fatalists who only care about the draft and their desire to burn it all down stems from not being emotionally strong enough to open themselves up to happiness. Camp 1 feels that Camp 2 is a pack of losers who are destined to be employees and not employers. Who cling to McVay and Snead because they don’t know how to end a toxic relationship, and who mainline Hopeium underneath a 405 overpass.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Battle Behind The Game: Rams Fans Take Sides As 2023 Gets Underway

If that sounds like hyperbole, rest assured this schism was ongoing. Even when the Rams, without Cooper Kupp, went into Seattle and stomped a mudhole in the Seahawks and walked it dry, Camp 1 laughed it off as a mirage. An unprepared Seattle team that overlooked an inexperienced Rams team. Tutu Atwell, Kyren Williams, and that Puka Nacua dude, put up NUMBERS. The line looked good, Stafford looked revitalized, and the defense while young didn’t fall apart. In fact, they shut out Seattle in the second half. In Week 2, they made a way more talented Niners team earn their victory.

So the Los Angeles Rams weren’t TANKING but perhaps they were artfully tanking. Hang around against teams but the mission was always clear, play hard but burn it all down and restart later. Hell, maybe even fire McVay and Snead because their failures outweighed their success. Camp 1 was clearly winning out.

They blew a Monday Night game in Cincinnati and whether the blown Tutu call can be blamed, McVay’s pass-happy tendencies submarined the game. They barely beat a Colts team and if not for Puka’s heroics they’d have blown that game too. The offense sputtered until Week 6 when it appeared McVay had to be dragged kicking and screaming into running Kyren Williams. Kyren broke out BIG TIME.

It took sending Cam Akers out on a rail (Van Jefferson got traded as well, both for gift cards) to get there but worth it. Williams got hurt and then the Rams seemed to hit the ceiling of their limitations and proceeded to bleed out.

They blew a winnable game against Pittsburgh and the Cowboys ripped off their faces and wore them on Halloween. Their nadir came when one of their pre-season sins came back to bite them. Stetson Bennett was moved away from the team for undisclosed reasons, and Stafford had the injury everyone knew was coming so they had to ride with a living Madden creation named Brett Rypien (they have since brought in Carson Wentz).

McVay was called out by Samuel L. “MOTHER*******” Jackson. Now was the time to trade Kupp, trade Stafford, and, yes trade Donald. Kroenke needed to just start over from scratch and if possible go on Twitter and hire people from Camp 1 because they were the real ones who knew all along. They knew that the team was cooked and only they knew how to save it.

Then a funny thing happened, the Rams had their bye week and were ready to host Seattle. The Seahawks were contending for the NFC West and were 6-3. In an ugly and some would say stolen win, the Rams fought back and won. Impressive but it couldn’t last. Kyren came back and put on a SHOW but it was against the Cards so who cares?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore Ravens
Los Angeles Rams: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

The Amazing 2023 Turnaround

The Los Angeles Rams were still under .500. They beat an injury-decimated Browns team and put up points against their vaunted defense, so now they had everyone’s curiosity. The game against the Ravens showed that maybe JUST MAYBE the Rams didn’t suck? Sure, the offense was fun and the defense has quietly been solid despite being coordinated by Raheem Morris, but they’re not for real right? Well, a few brain farts and a missed call in OT were what kept the Rams from upsetting the heavy favorite in the AFC.

Now the Rams had a real shot at the playoffs. So what caused this turnaround? For one thing, Puka Nacua stopped being a fantasy curio and morphed into Robert Woods 2.0 and someone capable of imitating Cooper Kupp. The offensive line retained their health and got better as the year went along. In Kyren’s absence, Royce Freeman proved to be a solid backup and wound up taking the returning Darrell Henderson‘s job down the stretch.

Stafford with time, protection, and health was zipping it around the field like it was 2021 again and Cooper Kupp came back from injury more or less his dynamic self. Demarcus Robinson became the third receiver they’ve been looking for since they pre-maturely traded Brandin Cooks away.

Defensively, Witherspoon, while imperfect was a pretty decent coverage corner, the young safeties in Quentin Lake and Russ Yeast emerged as solid slot guys, up front, Kobie Turner and Byron Young leaped from projects to young cornerstones. Ernest Jones‘ grad school with Bobby Wagner last year caused him to make a huge leap as he is one of the best linebackers in the league (if under-sung).

Aaron Donald was getting triple-teamed like he was Batman taking on a plethora of hired goons but still won his pressures, and despite their ever-calamitous special teams, rookie Ethan Evans is a real deal punter.

Their last two draft classes were bearing fruit and the vets were revitalized.

The root of this resurgence was Sean McVay who while flawed, reclaimed his status as one of the best coaches in the league. He took a bunch of lemons and made lemonade and not Country Time stuff but the kind of lemonade that actually has lemons in it. Raheem Morris while still a punching bag managed to show that he knows what he’s doing. Through 17 games they have not allowed a 100-yard rusher and Turner and Young leading rookies in sacks and are in the top three in pressures. That doesn’t happen if the defensive coordinator is an inept failure.

To be fair, the one area they still haven’t solved is the Defense Against the Dark Arts revolving door which is special teams. They were derelict in finding a reliable kicker and again, beyond Ethan Evans, the special teams has been a calamity. Nevertheless, McVay served a Jay-Z-style reminder that he’s not some haircut nepo baby that fell off the Metrolink into a winning situation.

His “WE NOT ME” culture was reimplemented and he discovered what type of players he wanted and needed on his team. It was totally fair for the Camp 1 crowd to buy into the doom and gloom because on paper there was a lot of potential Stephen King-level horror.

Camp 2 was also right for trusting the process even if at times they felt like Christian Bale in “The Big Short”. Neither side was wrong and it’s funny how intense this (yes online) friction happened because by Week 17 even in a game where the Rams looked hungover and at times looked like their October selves, they made the playoffs and everyone was happy.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants
Los Angeles Rams: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 Los Angeles Rams Are A Playoff Team

Sure, it seemed like a playoff push wouldn’t be worth it because long term it would prevent them from being better in the future but now? They have a clear foundation in place and yes, the sun is setting on Stafford, Kupp, and Donald, but they have enough draft and cap ammo to begin to restock the cupboard before that sun ultimately sets. This turnaround is nothing short of extraordinary and as stated many times on this site, as deeply unpleasant as last season was, it was ultimately necessary.

Whether the Rams have to go to Dallas (SHUDDER) or Detroit (FUN) the Rams could make a lot of noise in the playoffs whether that lasts a week or more, it’s worth it. The 2023 Los Angeles Rams might not be a Super Bowl team but the experience and winning habits that their young pieces are being given is going to pay out like a slot machine.

Last year gave way to the Project 2025 idea where the team would take on a ton of debt and then rebuild on top of whatever the hell 2023-2024 looks like with the goal being one last Super Bowl push with the three pillars.

Well, this wound up being the best-case scenario and the hope is Les Snead learned a lot of mistakes from his past and is smart about how and where the cap money is spent, as well as what to do with his sudden bounty of picks.

That’s a problem that will be sorted out a few months in the future. For now, fans can enjoy the ride whether it ends in Detroit, Santa Clara, or if a kajillion things go right, Las Vegas. Wherever it ends, it’s been a helluva ride that has had a plethora of peaks and valleys. The camps can come together because while it didn’t seem that way, they both wanted to arrive at the same place, it was just a matter of what path the team took to get there.

The Los Angeles Rams are a playoff team. @BigChaunc64 recaps the wild ride and skewers the fan debate that accompanied them along the way.