Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Once Super, Rams Sliding into Uncertain Future

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 13, 2019

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) after getting off a pass during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Rams' problems will not be easily fixed, the Steelers' not-so-secret weapon and why the Chiefs and 49ers may not last long in the playoffs. All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

   

1. Rams turning to sheep

After the Rams' humiliating loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, running back Todd Gurley II was asked about his usage in the second half, when he had just six touches for 38 yards. Gurley didn't touch the ball once in the fourth quarter. His response was telling.

"I'm used to it," he said.

That's not the answer you want to hear from your franchise back, but it also shed light on one of the greatest mysteries surrounding the reigning NFC champions: Why is a team that was one of the most dominant last year now disintegrating before our eyes?

Heading into Week 11, the Rams are 5-4 and in third place in the NFC West. They are, unbelievably, in danger of missing the playoffs.

Two AFC scouts who have watched Los Angeles closely the past two seasons said the Rams' struggles are complex, but one thing that stands out is that head coach Sean McVay has yet to find any solutions.

"He's an excellent coach," one of the scouts said, "but he's massively struggling right now. No coach in the NFL is struggling right now as much as he is."

One of the best indicators of McVay's struggles was how wide receiver Cooper Kupp went without a catch against the Steelers. That seems as if it should be almost statistically impossible.

So what's happening? The scouts say the Rams' issues fall into four categories:

• Coaching: All of McVay's moves that worked last year aren't working now. The scouts say McVay needs to make some drastic moves to shake things up.

 Gurley: His decline is one of the most confusing aspects of the team's struggles and a genuine puzzle. Gurley doesn't have the same burst he did last year (possibly because of injuries), but the game plan has also de-emphasized his usage. Through eight games, Gurley is averaging 13 carries per game, five fewer than last season.

The Rams have to make a decision. Either go all-in on Gurley, or don't. They can't do both.

 Offensive line: It was one of the NFL's best last year, but it is now easily one of the worst. The interior of the line is a particular problem, which likely has contributed to the team's problems running the ball. Against Pittsburgh, the line was blown back on almost every play.

 Jared Goff: One of the scouts said the Rams' fourth-year quarterback is "playing scared, and I get it. He's getting hit almost every pass play." He believes Goff is shell-shocked by the poor line play and the physical beating he's taking. Last season, Goff was hit 34 times all season while passing, according to Pro Football Reference. That tally is already up to 30 this year, and he still has seven games to play.

Goff is a solid quarterback, but he currently has an 82.7 quarterback rating, which is lower than Jameis Winston, Joe Flacco, Mitchell Trubisky and Marcus Mariota (who got benched).

There's time to turn things around in L.A., but not much. If something doesn't change soon, the Rams will be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their sofas at home and left wondering how a franchise seemingly headed for a long run of success has taken so many steps back.

    

2. Prescription for a rebound

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 20: Head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams looks on during the second half of a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The uncomfortable truth about the Rams is that the only thing that might shake them out of their malaise may be wholesale changes.

Better play from the offensive line would help, or a change of personnel there.

So would increasing the number of touches for Gurley or, again, perhaps a change of personnel. If Malcolm Brown can get things moving on the ground more than Gurley, then Gurley should take a seat on the bench for now. And yes, if Goff keeps struggling, consider benching him, too. No, Blake Bortles isn't the answer, but when a talented team struggles like this, a coach needs to consider all of his options.

Those, of course, are short-term solutions. The bigger issue is not so easily fixed, and that is the possibility that two of the team's biggest recent contractual moves—giving Gurley a four-year, $57.5 million extension and Goff a four-year, $134 million extension—were wildly wrong.

That's easy to say now, and to be fair, I didn't think those were bad decisions at the time or are now. The Rams had to sign them both when they did, and they gave each the going rate.

However, both players are massively underperforming.

It isn't all their fault, but they are a huge part of the problem. And when players sign for that kind of money, they are supposed to be solutions to other problems, not become issues in and of themselves.

    

3. Pittsburgh's man of steel

CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 13: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on from the sidelines during a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park October 13, 2019 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Mike Tomlin's tenure as Steelers head coach has been good and occasionally interesting. And while he has received his share of criticism, it's hard to deny the simple truth: The guy can coach his ass off.

What's he's doing now is proof why. The fact that this Steelers team is 5-4 is one of the more stunning stories of the NFL season. There is no way in hell the Steelers should be in spitting distance of the playoffs, but they are, and that's because of Tomlin.

In less than a calendar year, Pittsburgh has lost Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger (although he will return next season). And still, the Steelers are above .500.

Tomlin has done it largely by energizing his young defense. I've been raving about this defense's potential for some time, but I thought it was one or two years away from being effective. Tomlin has made it a force now. Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the league in points allowed per game and 12th in yards allowed per contest. It's kept the Steelers close each week and has taken some pressure off of an offense that needs some space to make mistakes.

There are some excellent Coach of the Year candidates, but if the Steelers keep winning, Tomlin should be at the top of the list. 

   

4. Star search

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

The reason the NFL remains so wildly popular is because of the quarterbacks, and there are some damn good and exciting ones we can plan on seeing in the playoffs this season.

In the NFC, the QB field is shaping up to include Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

And in the AFC: Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

Now, all of these names were in the playoffs last year (minus Rodgers), but the level of play of most of them is better this year, which is saying something.

That could make for some of the most exciting playoffs we've seen in years.

    

5. 'You changed the game'

This interaction between Ravens coach John Harbaugh praising quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of the more special moments you will see from this year. It's also one of the few times a mic'd-up player or coach actually showed us something interesting.

Of the many unique traits Jackson has, his smarts often are overlooked, but that's a huge reason he has played himself into the MVP conversation and Baltimore has played itself into Super Bowl contention. The Ravens have thrown their entire playbook at him, and he hasn't flinched. I'm told he's one of the hardest-working people many in the organization have ever seen.

This is what happens when a franchise with a proven track record for identifying talent ignores critics, trusts its scouting instincts and trusts the player.

    

6. Wilson or Jackson?

Frank Victores/Associated Press

On Twitter, a place of sordidness, debauchery, nerdism and football geekery, I was asked a question: If you could start a franchise with either Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson, who are you picking?

The answer seems obvious, but it isn't to me.

Wilson would seem to be the clear choice at this point in time. He's prospered behind some absolutely putrid offensive lines at various points in his career and still kept the Seahawks at the top of the sport.

But this question calls for projection. If you are starting a franchise, which player has more upside? That's where this gets interesting.

And in that case, you'd have to go with Jackson. He has the potential to be Wilson and then some. He's faster, more athletic, extremely smart and, like Wilson, is an accurate passer.

There are other ways to dig into this question, and it's fun. So excuse me while I go to my chalkboard and Venn diagram this.

    

7. Heart of a lion

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 11: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks drops back to pass against the defense of the San Francisco 49ers in the game at Levi's Stadium on November 11, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

While Jackson may be my pick for the future, this season has made it clear why few QBs are playing better than Wilson right now. The Seahawks' win against the 49ers on Monday night was Wilson's 28th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, according to Pro Football Reference. That ties him for the most since 2012.

On top of that, Seattle has come back to win three times this year after trailing by at least 10 points.

Wilson is why. He's 6-0 in his career against teams that are at least eight games over .500 at the time he plays them, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That means when the competition gets tougher, so does Wilson.

The Seahawks are one of the mentally toughest teams in the league, and Wilson leads that group. He's, as they say, unflappable, and that gives Seattle a chance every time it plays.

Heart still counts for something in the NFL.

    

7. Jason Garrett's kryptonite

Watch what Jerry Jones says here. It is actually quite the indictment of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. Jones is basically saying: Their coach knew how to take away our biggest weapon, and ours didn't know how to counter.

This has long been one of the biggest criticisms of Garrett—that he isn't a strategist. He isn't a coach who will outthink his counterparts. He just rolls his players out and claps

Eventually, a coach has to win a game schematically. That's what the Vikings coaches did. They kept Dalvin Cook running and were able to stuff Ezekiel Elliott. They outcoached the Cowboys.

Garrett doesn't seem to have the ability to do the same.

     

8. Chiefs defense could be costly

James Kenney/Associated Press

I thought the Chiefs defense would improve from what we saw last season, when it ranked second-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed per game.

Boy, was I wrong.

This season, it ranks 19th in points allowed per game and 22nd in yards allowed per game. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The Chiefs are getting little pressure on the quarterback, and the secondary isn't good.

All of this means that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has to throw for 400 or 500 yards each week to keep the Chiefs in the game.

As good as Mahomes is, that isn't sustainable.

If the Chiefs don't fix this, they will be one and done in the postseason. 

    

9. San Francisco's turnover machine

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown an interception in four of his last five games. San Francisco has been able to overcome those mistakes because its defense has been so good, and Garoppolo has been able to overcome his turnovers with solid play.

That calculus won't last as the games get more important and the opponents more capable. And it certainly won't work in the postseason. Garoppolo and the 49ers have been working on cleaning up his mistakes, but it isn't working, and that could cost them more than a regular-season loss. It will cost them a postseason one.

    

10. Seeing isn't always believing

First, there was the blue dress versus the gold dress.

Then, there was yanny or laurel.

Now, there is heads vs. tails.

Some people say they hear quarterback Geno Smith say "heads" in the overtime coin toss between the Seahawks and Niners on Monday night. Others (including me) thought we heard "tails."

Whatever you hear, there's one thing we can all agree on. The NFL's overtime format is still nonsensical.

Just have one 10-minute period where they play until someone wins. If they tie, then it's a damn tie.

And by the way, it was definitely "laurel." 

              

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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