In a perfect world, NFL teams could have five or more years to build something special. That rarely happens. You can trust the process in the NFL, but you have to understand the process might last only two years before you’re fired.
The Los Angeles Rams understand this. Most teams in the Rams’ spot would be patient. Last season Los Angeles made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Their three most important players — Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Aaron Donald — are 23, 23 and 26 years old. And their coach of the year, Sean McVay, just turned 32. It’s a young team on the rise, one that you’d presume should be competitive for years to come. Instead, the Rams attacked the offseason like they were told the 2019 season would be cancelled.
The trade for receiver Brandin Cooks would be the centerpiece of most teams’ offseasons. For the Rams, it was just one of many big moves. They signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and traded for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. They shipped off defensive end Robert Quinn, linebacker Alec Ogletree, this year’s first-, fourth- and fifth-round picks and a second-rounder next year. It has been a while since a team moved all its chips into the table like this, and it’s a bit unusual that it’s the up-and-coming Rams who did it. However, it’s smart.
The Rams are aware of the current market in two ways. They get that it’s a year-to-year league. And they know the most valuable asset in the NFL might be a good starting quarterback on his rookie contract.
The NFL turns over every year. Ask the Dallas Cowboys. They went 13-3 in 2016 with some young stars. Then they went 9-7 last year, missed the playoffs, were surpassed by the Philadelphia Eagles in their own division and nobody is talking about them as a contender anymore. The Cowboys were on top of the world and that was just two years ago. When you look at the NFL five years ago, it looks like a different world. The Eagles were division champs in 2013 … with Chip Kelly as head coach. Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to a No. 1 seed. The San Francisco 49ers were in an NFC championship game with Colin Kaepernick; since then they dove all the way to 2-14, got Jimmy Garoppolo and are now one of the NFL’s chic teams again. Just because the Rams were good last year and relatively young guarantees nothing, and they seem to understand that.
There’s also a window to leverage Goff’s contract. Goff has cap hits of $7.6 million and $8.9 million in 2018 and 2019, and a fifth-year option after that. That’s peanuts for a quarterback as good as Goff. The Rams will extend him in the next year or two, but his low cap number opens up a window for the Rams to spend on talent around him. While Cooks and Peters will probably get extensions because they’re young, Suh signed a one-year deal and Talib has two years left on his. They’ll drop off the cap before Goff sees his salary triple. They’ll also need to plan for Donald’s massive extension, which should come soon.
All this maneuvering might not work out. The most notable recent example of a team going all-in like this was the 2011 Eagles, in their “dream team” offseason. They went 8-8. It’s not like the Rams are perfect. They’re thin at edge rusher, don’t have a difference-making tight end, there’s no good Plan B if do-everything back Gurley goes down, and whoever replaces Ogletree at inside linebacker will be a big step down. They’re beatable, like any NFL team. But all they can do is maximize their chances to win a Super Bowl while the window is open, and they’ve certainly done that.
The missed draft picks will sting down the road, though the Rams got a couple of fourth-round picks back for Quinn and Ogletree. But when those draft picks are really delivering value in three and four years, the Rams might be mediocre again anyway. That’s just how the NFL works everywhere outside of Massachusetts. Part of it is the short career span of most players. Teams having no patience with anything is a factor too — 22 of 32 NFL coaches were hired in 2014 or later. Why worry about 2021 when you don’t even know if you’ll have a job by then?
If nothing else, it’s a fun experiment. About seven months ago, nobody cared about the Rams. They were just a bad team in a city that didn’t seem to notice they were there. After last season’s breakout and their splashy offseason, they’re going to be the buzziest team heading into this 2018 season. When everyone makes their season predictions in August and September, watch how many pick the Rams to win it all.