At the conclusion of Saturday night’s Los Angeles Rams loss to Atlanta in the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs, NBC’s Al Michaels, a lifelong L.A. Rams fan, predicted that “the Rams are going to be great for a long time.” After an 11-5 season under coach Sean McVay, and the fact that they were the second youngest team in the NFL, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. But with the history of the franchise’s ownership, how safe is that prediction?
I’m willing to throw out the previous records of Enos Kroenke’s Rams, because in St. Louis there was a clear and concerted effort to alienate the fan base by losing. They wanted to be able to say in their relocation proposal that “despite significant financial investments, the Rams have been unable to improve the financial performance of the team in the St. Louis market.” In detail, they said “The Rams have consistently spent to the salary cap in each year under Stan Kroenke and have significantly increased the coaching and scouting budgets…(and) despite these investments…Rams attendance since 2010 has been well below the League’s average.”
Looking back with 20-20 hindsight now, we see that the franchise used the second pick in the 2009 draft, and $33 million guaranteed, on tackle Jason Smith. Virginia’s Eugene Monroe, a better prospect and pro, was available. In free agency in 2013 the Rams spent big dollars on tackle Jake Long, who had been, and continued to be, injury plagued…and mediocre tight end Jared Cook. In the draft, the Rams traded up to get Tavon Austin, leaving DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best receivers in the NFL, on the board. Not only did they pass on Hopkins, but they let receiver Danny Amendola walk to New England. In 2014, the Rams took Auburn tackle Greg Robinson with the second pick in the draft, despite the presence of more pro-ready, and better players Jake Matthews of Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan of Michigan on the board.
In a passing league that requires a quality left tackle to protect the quarterback’s blind side and good wide receivers, the Rams acted like they were trying, but really weren’t. This season, they decided to replace the bad receivers they had collected in St. Louis and brought in a new group…Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins. And they dumped Robinson and signed veteran Andrew Whitworth to play left tackle.
So yes, the Rams were spending to the cap…but doing so for lesser talent. This is all old news, but it’s an illustration of what the franchise was doing to get out of St. Louis. Even if we dismiss what Kroenke’s NFL franchise was doing, let’s look at the history of his other franchises in the big four sports in the USA, the Denver Nuggets in the NBA and the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL. On both teams’ websites, they list Kroenke as the owner…despite the NFL saying they had solved his cross-ownership issue. Make no mistake, Stan Kroenke is in charge of those franchises.
Kroenke’s 2009 Denver Nuggets advanced all the way to the NBA Western Conference Finals. And during that series, as longtime Denver columnist Woody Paige related to Bernie Miklasz a couple of years ago, “I remember sitting on a bench with him in Los Angeles when the Nuggets played the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. He came over and sat down and pointed at the Lakers and said ‘I went over the salary cap this year by 20 million dollars, and they’re over the salary cap by 75 million dollars. I can’t compete with them. I can’t win an NBA Championship.’” Within two years, the two leading scorers from that team and second and third highest paid players, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, were traded. The Nuggets also allowed their highest paid player from that Conference Finals team, Kenyon Martin, to leave in free agency. In the four years after that league semifinal appearance, the Nuggets were knocked out in the first round.
After the 2013 season, in which veteran coach George Karl won NBA coach of the year honors for winning 57 games and making the playoffs despite a roster decimated by Kroenke’s frugality, Karl was fired. The Nuggets haven’t made the playoffs in the four years since. Last year, they had the fifth lowest payroll in the NBA, according to SpoTrac.com. This season, after the ridiculous free agent signing of Paul Millsap to the third highest salary in 2017-18…behind Steph Curry and LeBron James…they have the eleventh lowest payroll.
Kroenke’s NHL team, the Colorado Avalanche, were led by coach of the year Patrick Roy as they won the Central Division in 2014. That team’s top scorers were 23-year-old Matt Duchene, 21-year-old Gabriel Landeskog and 22-year-old Ryan O’Reilly. Their leading scorer in seven playoff games was Paul Stastny, who signed with the Blues in free agency that summer. Within two and a half years, Roy had resigned as coach and two of those top three scorers had been traded over money, with Landeskog apparently next.
O’Reilly had held out during the 2012-2013 season because he didn’t think the Avalanche were offering fair market value for his services. He ultimately signed a two-year offer sheet with Calgary, but Colorado matched it. When the contract was up, the sides avoided arbitration with a two-year, $12 million deal. After a year, the Avalanche found that deal unpalatable and sent O’Reilly to Buffalo for Mikhail Grigorenko, who washed out and signed in Russia last summer, and Nikita Zadorov, who hasn’t reached average status with the Avalanche.
This year, Duchene, making $6.5 million, was traded to Ottawa in a three-team deal that sent three draft picks and three prospects to Colorado. After a decent start, the Avalanche have fallen to sixth place in the division. They have the third lowest payroll in the NHL. Landeskog is 25 and has three and a half years left on his contract, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moved.
In 2016, Kroenke said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston that “For me, being an individual owner, I have to have some sort of reality involved. If you want to win championships, then you would never get involved.”
That’s what he said. And we saw what his teams have done after succeeding…actions that speak even louder than his words.
It’s not unreasonable for Al Michaels to look at the Los Angeles Rams and think they’re going to be good for a while. But if you look at Kroenke’s past…well, I’m from Missouri. He’s going to have to Show Me.