The Los Angeles Rams thought they were building a perennial powerhouse over the last four years. Instead, they were digging a hole for themselves, one good idea at a time.
Trade a fistful of draft picks for the chance to select Jared Goff? Good idea! A team must do anything it can to grab a franchise quarterback, and trading up for one was all the rage back in 2016.
Sign Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension? Good idea! He just took you to the Super Bowl. Backload the cap hit into 2020 and 2021? Also a good idea. It will provide short-term cap flexibility to sign other guys.
Trade two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder for cornerback Jalen Ramsey? Good idea! He's a "shutdown cornerback" and "generational talent," so he's worth one first-round pick for each vague cliche. The Rams looked like they were one player away from beating the Patriots last year, and Ramsey is one heckuva one player.
Sign Todd Gurley to a four-year, $60 million contract? Maybe not the best idea. But Gurley was durable, versatile, integral to the offense and a team-first guy who helped the Rams crawl out of a 4-12 quagmire. Are you seriously going to be Ebenezer Moneyball and not reward a contributor like that?
Add Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews to the defense? They're proven veteran leaders! Dante Fowler Jr. on a short-term deal? The Jaguars are a one-stop shop for disgruntled talent!
Lots of justifiable moves. Lots of good-to-exceptional players. But the Rams ended up paying too much for too little, and now the whole adds up to far less than the sum of the parts.
The Rams were eliminated from the playoffs with Saturday's loss to the 49ers. Their season has been defined by missed opportunities and catastrophic blunders: allowing 55 points to the Buccaneers, scoring just 12 points against the Steelers, getting trounced in a must-win game by a Cowboys team that specializes in losing must-win games. Sometimes the offense let the defense down; sometimes vice versa. The Rams were a different team every week, but only a handful of those teams lived up to expectations.
Chalk it all up to a "Super Bowl hangover" if you'd like—whatever that means. But the Rams have problems that extend beyond one disappointing season.
They have just $25.5 million in available cap space for next year, per Over The Cap. That's not nearly enough to pay important in-house free agents such as Fowler, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, kicker Greg Zuerlein and others, let alone make additions.
The Rams also have no first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 thanks to the Ramsey trade. So they are a .500-caliber team that will be unable to add impact players through free agency or the draft, and they are almost certain to lose a few starters they can no longer afford.
Wait, it gets worse.
Ramsey is due for a contract extension, and he has a reputation as the sort of fellow who will keep reminding everyone that he is due for an extension until he gets one. The going rate for a top cornerback (based on Xavien Howard's deal with the Dolphins) is $15 million per year over five years. Ramsey will likely expect to shatter the going rate, and the Rams cannot exactly play hardball with him after trading so much to get him.
Extending Ramsey will limit the Rams' ability to retain lower-tier, in-house free agents such as linebacker Cory Littleton or cornerback Troy Hill (free agent in 2021). They'll soon be cutting their starting lineup to the quick to make ends meet.
So it's a good thing Weddle and Matthews are on the payroll to stabilize the defense in 2020, right? Wrong. The pair of mid-30-somethings looked creaky late in the season, particularly in run support, which made it easy for the Cowboys to stuff the ball down the Rams' throat and for Lamar Jackson to do Lamar Jackson stuff to them. Both of their needles are rapidly reaching "E," but neither Matthews nor Weddle (should he not retire) will be easy for a team with no cash or top draft picks to replace.
Go ahead and add Gurley to the "creaky" list, though he's just 25 years old (33 in running back years). He's currently 19th in the NFL with 789 rushing yards at a below-average 3.9 yards per carry. Gurley was especially ineffective in the Rams' toughest losses: five carries for 16 yards against the Buccaneers, six carries for 22 yards against the Ravens, 11 carries for 20 yards against the Cowboys. His easily replaceable level of performance will cost the Rams $17.5 million in cap space next year.
Poor offensive line play contributed to Gurley's decline. The Rams let center John Sullivan and guard Rodger Saffold leave last offseason without finding suitable replacements. Youngsters such as Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Joseph Noteboom have been subpar-to-disastrous in their place, and there's no one waiting in the wings to replace Whitworth. To repeat the refrain: no cash and no first-round picks mean the Rams can't make needed upgrades.
We saved Goff for last on the list of Rams problems because we didn't want this to be one of those "Everything Is the Quarterback's Fault" columns. Goff, like many other capable quarterbacks with outsized contracts, is a midsize family sedan with a Rolls-Royce price tag. He can take a team to the Super Bowl or to .500, depending on who is surrounding him. But the Rams overpaid once to get him and a second time to retain him, which will make it increasingly difficult over the next two years (when Goff will gobble up over $68.5 million in cap space) to build a supporting cast to get the most out of him.
That's the problem with the way the Rams built their roster and payroll (except for Aaron Donald, who is a bargain at any price). Lots of teams overpay at quarterback and remain competitive. Splurging for a running back isn't the end of the world. Contenders can afford to trade first-round picks for immediate contributors now and then. Paying a premium to rent the services of someone such as Ramsey or bulwarking a playoff roster with veterans can make sense when a team is gambling on a quick return to the Super Bowl.
None of the Rams' decisions were bad in isolation. But by doing all of them at the same time, they choked off all avenues to improving the bottom 30-40 spots on their roster: the guys who block, tackle and kick well enough to make Goff and Gurley look great and keep the team from losing to the Steelers and Cowboys.
The Rams' only hope for the next two years is to saddle up Goff-Gurley-Donald-Ramsey-Whoever and hope Sean McVay's brilliant coaching can make the most of the crumbling supporting cast. Unfortunately, McVay's coaching, like the Rams' personnel strategy, looked much more brilliant this time last year than it does now.
Eventually, the Rams will get their first-round picks back and pay off the bulk of those big contracts. Maybe their core players will still be good by then. And perhaps the hole they have dug is not as deep as it looks. Their front line should keep them from falling too far below .500. They'll probably just be stuck in a 7-9 rut that lasts for a few seasons.
That's right, the Rams are about to start going 7-9 again.
You know what Jeff Fisher would say about that.