The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl have become a war of attrition for football fans. Storylines become played out quickly, individual matchups are overanalyzed and overblown, and we hear the words “legacy” and “elite” in relation to quarterbacks used ad nauseam.
But there is one topic that, while uninspired itself, I do enjoy discussing leading up to the Super Bowl. There’s something to be gained from looking at how a non-playoff team compares to one or both of the conference champions. In the specific case of the Rams, how do they stack up with a Seattle team that not only hails from the same division, but has also reached the Super Bowl in back-to-back years.
So how do the Rams reach the level of success that the Seahawks have enjoyed the last two years? Let’s start with the obvious: They need to find a quarterback. It’s a task that’s easier said than done, but without a reliable signal-caller, the Rams will constantly find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to being a contender. The 2000 Ravens (quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer) and 2006 Bears (Rex Grossman) are two examples over the past 15 years of teams that relied on defense (much like the present day Rams). But those teams were also aberrations. It’s still a quarterback-driven league.
Just as important as finding a franchise signal-caller is establishing an identity on both sides of the ball. The Rams have their identity on defense: They’re active up front, they’re athletic at linebacker and they’re physical at all three levels. Just like the Giants did when Jerry Reese took over as general manager in 2007 (and subsequently won two Super Bowls over that span), the Rams are building one of the most ferocious pass rushes in football. They have the personnel, now it’s just about executing for 16 games (and avoiding a slow start like they did this past season).
But the offense is a different story. Jeff Fisher wants to establish the run, but so do most head coaches and offensive coordinators. Even a perceived pass-happy play-caller like Sean Payton understands that running the ball effectively allows an offense to stay on schedule. And when you stay on schedule, you set yourself up in third-and-manageable situations, which leads to more first downs and, hopefully, more points.
Saying you want to run the ball and establishing the ground game as an identity are two different things. The Seahawks want to be a run-first team and then pick up big chunks of yards in the passing game. They’ll run inside zone, stretch, and power with the read-option mixed in, then go play-action off of those plays. There is no misconception about who they are or what they do. And what they do, they do very well.
This is where the Rams need to be. Top-ranked run defense, average run defense, piss poor run defense, it doesn’t matter; if the face of the Rams’ offense centers on Tre Mason and the rushing attack, then they need to be able to run the ball against any opponent. Establishing a true identity also allows the team’s talent evaluators to zero in on matching personnel to the scheme. Look at Seattle: If the 215-pound Marshawn Lynch needs a breather, the 220-pound Christine Michael or the 222-pound Robert Turbin take over. Those runners have varying degrees of athleticism but all three fit the offense.
Becoming complacent is another pitfall the Seahawks have avoided on their way to building a championship organization. The Percy Harvin trade was an outright mistake by GM John Schneider but he didn’t compound that mistake by hanging onto the talented but (reportedly) troubled receiver. Overpaying Matt Flynn in March of 2012 was another mistake but that didn’t stop Pete Carroll and Co. from starting a third-round rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson when Wilson outperformed Flynn in training camp and preseason.
Offensive guard John Moffitt was a mistake that Seattle made in the third-round of the 2011 NFL Draft but in the summer of 2013, the Seahawks were able to dump him in a trade with Denver.
Bad trades, free agent signings and draft picks happen in the NFL. No team is immune to poor investments, including the Seahawks. But it’s the organizations that quickly realize their mistakes and move on that usually have success. In relation to the Rams, I thought Fisher made a prudent move by dumping Ray-Ray Armstrong this season when it was clear that the talented but undisciplined linebacker was going to keep making on-field mistakes. Cutting a limited player like Austin Pettis was a sound decision as well.
But not drafting a quarterback to compete with Sam Bradford last year was a mistake. That was a decision that showed complacency and it wound up biting the Rams when Bradford went down again. Will they make that same mistake this offseason?
One thing the Rams have done well that the Seahawks have also accomplished is keeping their core intact. Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril and Brandon Mebane are all under contract for at least the next two years. Wilson and Bobby Wagner will eventually need new deals but the core remains in place for Seattle. This is not unlike the situation with the Rams, who have key pieces Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Chris Long, T.J. McDonald, James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree under contract for the foreseeable future. It’s no coincidence that the Seahawks have achieved stability considering their players have stayed together over the last few years. Granted, they’ll face an entirely new set of challenges when they finally have to pay Wilson, but it’s not as if they have other pressing needs that coincide with that task (outside of maybe figuring out how to proceed with Lynch).
Like Seattle, building continuity and chemistry is an area of importance that the Rams have grasped under Fisher. Now we’ll see how far and how fast this team comes to matching some of the other concepts that the Seahawks have seemingly mastered.