Los Angeles Rams: Sean McVay an early favorite for coach of the year

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images) /

One quarter of the way through the Los Angeles Rams’ 2017 season, head coach Sean McVay is a emerging as a strong candidate for NFL Coach of the Year honors.

Having watched or covered the Los Angeles Rams as they flailed in futility for a dozen consecutive campaigns — 11 straight non-winning seasons in St. Louis and a 4-12 inaugural season in the team’s return to L.A. — it only came natural to doubt the club’s ability to rapidly rebound during head coach Sean McVay’s rookie year. After all, what could possibly have gone awry after an organization 13 years removed from the playoffs chose to name a man void of any head coaching experience at any level as its head coach in the nation’s second largest market?

This is the same franchise who posted the worst five-year win-loss record in NFL history from 2007-11 and has managed just four winning slates since 1989 and zero winning seasons since 2003.

To frame it further, the last time the Rams made the playoffs (2004), Donald Trump was just another eccentric billionaire, flat screen TVs were yet to come to market and Johnny Carson, James Brown, Richard Pryor, Rosa Parks, Steve Irwin, Don Knotts and Saddam Hussein were still with us.


But if the 3-1 Rams keep winning and eventually make a playoff push — and if McVay’s offense continues to lead the league in scoring at over 35 points per game, they will — then you can expect to see McVay in the hunt for Coach of the Year. It still feels impossible that this is reality, but it is.

The Rams offense — which has looked more like the Greatest Show on Turf than the inept one featured in recent years — is built around a revamped offensive line anchored by left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who Los Angeles wisely targeted when he hit the open market during the offseason.

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On the ground, Whitworth and company have consistently cleared lanes for running back Todd Gurley, who has looked every bit like the player who earned the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2015.

For the passing attack, they have provided second year quarterback Jared Goff with a consistent pocket and ample time to throw, allowing just four sacks through four games — good for second best in the NFL.

Speaking of Gurley, he has shown noticeably more burst and strength than he did a year ago. His 4.2 yards per carry is a full yard better than that of 2016 and his increased workload in the passing game has him on pace for an 80 reception campaign.

And Goff has looked like a seasoned, franchise caliber quarterback to date, upping his completion rate from 54.6 a year ago to 66.7 percent while generating a 7-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Make no mistake, Goff has benefited from a noticeably upgraded receiving corps led by former No. 2 overall pick Sammy Watkins, free agent acquisition Robert Woods and rookie third round selection Cooper Kupp, who has reminded some of former Ram receiver Ricky Proehl.

In short, the Rams offensive turnaround has been one of the most radical and unexpected the league has seen in quite some time. But as much as the offense has stunned folks in a positive way, the defense has surprised onlookers in a negative manner.

Who would have thought — one-quarter of the way through the season — that the offense would be the Rams strong suit and the defense would remain something of a question mark? Who would have guessed that the unit ready for Hollywood attention was one not led by perennial All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald or former Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn, but one spearheaded by a second-year quarterback who often looked lost in leading a pedestrian attack last season?

But through four games, the defense has yet to gel while giving up 26.3 points (27th) and 151.5 rushing yards per contest (30th). You need look no further than the aforementioned Donald and Quinn to peg why that may be the case.

While neither have played poorly by any means, neither has played to his potential just yet, either, following role adaptations in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense.

Donald, who played defensive tackle in the 4-3 scheme of former Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher, has moved into more of a hybrid role in Phillips’ 3-4 base scheme. Last season, he tied for the lead league with 17 tackles for loss, but is on pace for just 12 this year. After averaging over nine sacks per season his first three years, Donald is on pace for just four in this one.

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Quinn, who recorded 19 sacks in 2013 and double-digit sack totals two other times under Fisher, is on pace for just six this Fall.

Considering the significant adjustments both players have been asked to make, though, the early returns should not be entirely surprising or alarming. What will be interesting — and vastly important to the defense’s future success or lack thereof — is how well Donald and Quinn ultimately adjust to their new roles.

If they ultimately produce numbers similar to past ones, they will help elevate this defense. If not, it will likely remain a mediocre unit statistically and the Rams will head into the offseason with as many questions as answers on D.

So, with all that noted on each side of the ball, what should we expect from the Rams up-and-coming offense and underperforming defense in October, November and December?

Well, I’m probably not going out on much of a limb in expecting the offense’s production to dip a bit from its prolific 35 points per game pace, especially as opponents get more tape on the Rams and as the schedule beefs up. But even if they slow down some, it certainly appears realistic to believe that this unit can continue to be a top-10 or 12 type offense throughout the season. If so, that marks a dramatic improvement from anything we have seen from a Rams offense in a decade and a remarkable improvement from just last year.

On defense, the Rams have too much talent and experience to not expect to see at least some modest improvements as they grow more comfortable in their new scheme.

Ultimately, the Rams’ 2017 fate is likely to be largely determined by how much improvement Phillips’ group can show and how much McVay’s unit can minimize any drop-off on his side of the pigskin. If the offense and defense settle in to a reasonable place in the middle, this Rams club that has stunned prognosticators nationwide will have a legitimate shot at a winning season and yes, a run at a postseason birth.

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And while one will be foolish to ignore or forget the Rams came out of the gate 3-1 last year, too, it would also be disingenuous to suggest that this 3-1 is the same as that 3-1. The 2017 version is clearly a better team, at least so far.

In Week 5 versus the Seattle Seahawks, the Rams have a great opportunity to show they are for real and take charge of the NFC West. And with a win, look for McVay’s stock to continue to rise and the early Coach of the Year buzz to begin to intensify.