The 2023 Rams Aren’t Contending But Aren’t Tanking Either

The weather in Los Angeles is more unusual than ever this summer. June Gloom stretched into July and a hurricane caused there to be an unseasonable storm that flooded Palm Springs and the areas of Inland Empire.

2023 Is Going To Be Unique For The Rams

For Los Angeles Rams fans, the sky was falling too. The talking head industrial complexes from the gambling, fantasy, and punditry communities are all shorting the Rams like they were in the 2007 real estate bubble. Within the Ramily, there is a schism between those that feel the team is fully in “Faleb for Caleb”, and “Dismay for Maye” mode and that this year is a full-blown Sherman Tank.

The other side feels that Sean McVay, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Matthew Stafford are absolutely not signing up for a tank job, especially Donald who twice chose not to retire. This might seem like a Cousin Sal-style hedge but it’s not. Sean McVay and Co. might not have written “Caleb William$” but with the way the roster is constructed, it’ll be a long year where the tanking/not taking sides will be constantly at war with each other right up until free agency starts in a flush with resources in 2024.

The negativity isn’t without merit. The Rams are after all coming off the worst season of the Sean McVay era where the injury bug infested the team as though they were an Econolodge. With Stafford, Kupp, and even Donald being shut down. The offensive line took the brunt of it and was a real crapshoot every week.

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Los Angeles Rams at Cincinnati Bengals
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The Truth About The Rams Offseason

The offense sputtered, going three and out on about 40 percent of the time and the play-calling was inert. If the vibe had gotten any brighter a funeral would’ve broken out. It wasn’t until a late-season acquisition of Baker Mayfield that anyone looked like they were having any fun.

The off-season was chaotic. McVay and Donald were once again swatting off rumors that they were retiring with both essentially going Jordan Belfort “I’m not leavin’ I’m not f*****’ leaving”. They purged the roster of expensive but aging vets in Leonard Floyd and Jalen Ramsey, free agency mistakes such as Allen Robinson were traded away at a loss, and let young but now expensive talent like Greg Gaines and Matt Gay go. They are carrying a ton of dead cap space so free agency was tough.

Keep It Positive

On the plus side, McVay retooled the coaching staff bringing back secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant, hiring Aaron Kromer disciple, and former Patriots center Ryan Wendell to coach the offensive line, and Mike LaFleur to be the new offensive coordinator. McVay announced his goal was to bring more physicality on offense. Protecting Stafford is priority 1A and reestablishing the running game is 1B. Based on the draft picking Guard Steve Avila and trading for Steelers lineman Kevin Dotson they are serious about that.

Despite the perception that Stafford is breaking down, he’s slimmer and more agile this season. Given the uncertainty about the work-in-progress offensive line, that might be a survival tactic more than anything. Cam Akers put on muscle and looks like he’s finally over the Achilles injury he suffered in 2021’s training camp and can hopefully get back on track.

The vibe of camp has been McVay hasn’t experienced since 2017 as the team is no longer full of vets who have seen it all. The coaches have to do some real teaching this time around and based on reports it seems as if McVay is reinvigorated by that.

Stafford and Donald also expressed a sense of rejuvenation given that they missed a lot of games last year and saw their respective stocks drop. In the eyes of many (including a sect of fans), Stafford is a washed QB who got lucky one year and Donald is no longer the most feared defender in the league. They come into the year with a massive chip on their shoulders which is always a good thing.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Minicamp
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Defense Other Than Donald

The downside to that is that the team is, in actuality, very inexperienced, especially on defense. Sure, they have Aaron Donald but beyond that not much else fans feel GREAT about for this season. Barring some Madden cheat cards, running backs are going to slice through the front seven like a Hatori Hanzo sword. Ernest Jones might show off what he learned from his year of Bobby Wagner grad school but it won’t be enough. Michael Hoecht is being asked to generate the vast majority of their pass rush and while the secondary has a ton of potential, the front seven might put even more undo pressure on a secondary trying to fill the massive Jalen Ramsey-sized hole.

Cobie Durant is being thrust into the STAR role occupied by Ramsey and Ahkello Witherspoon was brought in to be one of the few grown-ups at corner but he hasn’t proven he can stay healthy an entire season. John Johnson returns to the Raheem Morris system he flourished in so that helps but if he and Jordan Fuller are to make a solid tandem Fuller needs to prove he’s overcome the hamstring injuries that torpedoed his progress last season.

Beyond them, Raheem Morris is asking Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake to play dime linebacker which is riskier than studios betting their futures on streaming. As always, special teams will remain a beautiful disaster even with the last-minute addition of Brett Maher.

So with all the red flags and Kupp most likely starting the year on a four-game IR due to a chronic hamstring issue, why is it absurd to think the Rams are waving the white flag? Well, there’s a lot to be excited about too.

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Rams at Denver Broncos
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Wide Receivering Corps.

Aside from the aforementioned Avila, the Rams drafted some promising rookies, chief among them is wide receiver Puka Nacua. He’s turned heads in camp and has drawn comparisons to Robert Woods (that’s high praise). With Kupp being down McVay has no choice but to play him and if the camp hype is even remotely real he can be a viable asset as a blocker (good news for Akers) and he’ll also split time in the slot with Tutu Atwell. At 6’2 Nacua could wind up being a favorite Stafford target by the time Kupp comes back.

Atwell looks to build on his progress last season (yes, really), and Van Jefferson is finally healthy. They also have DeMarcus Robinson who is looking to prove Kansas City was foolish for letting him go (and based on the Lions game he might already be right), and Tyler Higbee also looks healthy.

The offense won’t be the sputtering hot mess it was last year. The LaFleur influence on the offense should be able to move the ball a lot more and with way more versatility than they had at any point last year. They’ll have to outscore opponents because, with their defense, stops will be harder to come by than Eras Tour tickets.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals
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Heading Into The Season

For the first time in a while, the Rams have the chance to be FUN and that alone is something to be excited about. It won’t likely won’t yield a playoff spot but if things break just right a seventh seed or at least contention for a seventh seed isn’t inconceivable, especially in the NFC.

The playoffs would be a bonus because the real goal of this year is for the Rams to see what they have in their young talent. Next year gives them all of their draft picks and actual cap space, so if they actually struck gold with some of the young guys, it’s a lot easier to restock the cupboards for next year and beyond.

2025 is likely the last dance for the core of Stafford, Kupp, and especially Donald. The Rams know this, and thus this season is about laying the foundation for that both on the field and off. Last year was the bill coming due and this year is about paying it off without having to fire-sell their blue-chip assets. That’s right Coop isn’t being traded to the Chiefs at the deadline nor is Donald “going home” to Pittsburgh.

There will be a lot of moments that induce joy, a lot of moments that induce vomit, and a lot of moments in between. It’s easy to be cynical and completely detach from this team but don’t be. Even if things break right this team could still be picking in the top ten, but it won’t be for lack of trying. Everything they’re doing is for the greater good and the good might arrive sooner than later.