Looking at the NFC West standings right now makes you test the amount of time eyes can be rubbed before there’s a reaction of some kind.
You look, and nothing seems real. So you rub those eyes or squint a bit more. Then once that fails you take a walk. On that walk you stare for a long time at a large body of water. But nothing you do changes a fact that doesn’t compute.
The same team that was pummeled 28-0 in Week 1 sits atop a division as the 2016 NFL season rounds the quarter pole.
The same team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown until Week 3 is among the league’s one-loss squads., which means somehow we can put the Rams in the same sentence with the New England Patriots without scoffing or choking on something (you didn’t choke just now, right?).
Oh, and the same team that calls Case Keenum its starting quarterback would be playoff bound if the season ended today.
But of course the season doesn’t end today because a four-game NFL year wouldn’t make much sense. Stay with that thought, because early October is often a time for nonsensical football oddness.
Right around when stores start to sell jumbo-sized bags of your favorite Halloween tooth-decaying candy is also the time pretenders rise around the NFL. In the near future we’ll be looking back at the Rams, viewing them as the most laughably obvious pretender in recent memory.
Why? Well, let’s start with the absence of run blocking. As Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole quite rightly observed, even in a win on Sunday, running back Todd Gurley had little to work with.
Gurley is a unique talent, and he’s the rare running back worthy of a top-10 draft pick. He promptly proved his value as a rookie when the now-22-year-old ran for 566 yards over just his first four starts. Even more impressively, he did that right after after completing his recovery from a torn ACL.
Fast forward to current times and we see a team that’s letting Gurley’s skill become an afterthought.
After four games in 2016, Gurley has logged a meager 216 rushing yards. Yes, he made a contribution as a pass-catcher during Sunday’s win with his 33-yard reception, which was quickly erased when Keenum fumbled.
But Gurley has to be chugging if we are to entertain even the slightest faith in this Rams team and its ability to turn an early season mirage into drinkable desert water. He needs to be the offensive engine for a unit that scored all of nine points over the first two weeks. During that same period, Gurley traveled an average of 0.89 yards before facing first contact, according to Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Gurley told Hammond at the time. “I’m like, ‘Man, there’s 12 people on the field.’”
He’s averaged 2.3 yards per carry since making those comments, and overall, four games into 2016, his per-carry average sits at a still sewer-level 2.6 yards. Strangely, it seems that even incredibly talented runners will struggle when they’re consistently getting whacked behind the line scrimmage.
We could cast the run-blocking problems aside if the Rams had a reliable passing attack to compensate for Gurley's sputtering. But despite a handful of lengthy completions Sunday—including a 65-yarder to wide receiver Brian Quick that was gifted by poor tackling—no one is mistaking Keenum as a reliable passer who can anchor an offense.
Sure, his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Quick eventually sealed a 17-13 win over the Cardinals. But that was also one of the few crunch-time TD passes ever to come from Keenum’s arm.
Some context is needed for Keenum’s 266 passing yards on Sunday, too.
A typically solid Cardinals secondary committed several uncharacteristic gaffes while blowing coverages and after-the-catch tackle opportunities. Most notably, safety Tony Jefferson overpursued Quick on that 65-yard touchdown reception and took a poor angle.
And here’s the vast, pristine green space given to wide receiver Kenny Britt on his 34-yard reception in the second quarter which led to a field goal.
At best, Keenum is a temporary seat-filler who was somehow able to beat out No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff for the starting job. He’s nothing more, and his completion percentage of 55.4 in 2016 tells us as much.
But even if you convince yourself that the Rams can survive without a truly thundering Gurley, and with a quarterback who’s adequate if we’re being polite and generous, there’s still a troubling matter on the other side of the ball.
Specifically, the defensive backfield, a unit that spends plenty of time flailing and guessing.
During Sunday’s win, Cardinals wide receiver John Brown finished with 144 yards on 10 receptions. Prior to Week 4, Brown had totaled all of 92 yards over three games.
The Rams have allowed three 100-plus-yard receivers already, and the Seahawks' Tyler Lockett finished just shy of that mark with his 99 yards in Week 2. Los Angeles currently ranks 23rd while giving up an average of 275.0 passing yards per game.
This is a team that’s benefitted from quarterback injuries, and feasted on a hobbled Russell Wilson who wasn’t his dangerously mobile self during that 9-3 win over the Seahawks which was brimming with slop. The Rams also intercepted Drew Stanton twice Sunday when Cardinals' starting quarterback Carson Palmer left due to a possible concussion.
How are the Rams winning then? With their pants-soiling pass rush, mostly. Of the unit’s seven sacks on the season, three came against the Cardinals. Any team that employs defensive tackle Aaron Donald will always have a menacing defensive front. Coming into Week 4, Donald led all defensive tackles with 24 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
But even with the havoc created by those pocket-collapsing monsters up front, there’s still a hazy confusion around the Rams.
A team that can get shellacked and shutout by the lowly 49ers and then score 20-plus points just once over three straight wins—and in one of those wins they also allowed 32 points—has only proven that football is weird. The best compliment we can give for now is deserved praise for the Rams' road resilience, as two of those wins have come away from Los Angeles, and one against a supposed NFC contender in the Cardinals.
The right reaction is to nod about that, and then stare blankly. Which is also the reaction generated by the entire Rams era presided over by head coach Jeff Fisher.
Moments of brilliance are almost always outliers amid the rubble of another rudderless season. In due time, normalcy will be restored, but for Fisher normal is being utterly average.