8:30 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Rams -2.5, Over/Under: 40
Mirror images face off in a key NFC West battle tonight, as the Los Angeles Rams travel to Levi’s Stadium to face the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, California. After equally depressing campaigns, it’s ironic that these franchises would choose nearly identical methods in rebuilding their struggling teams, for both have opted to hire young, bright offensive minds without the benefit of any Head Coaching experience. In the case of the Rams (1-1, 1st in NFC West), the Front Office had to move on from the painfully mediocre Jeff Fisher Era, which they finally ended prematurely thirteen games into the 2016 campaign, their first since returning to Los Angeles after spending the previous twenty-one years in St. Louis, Missouri. Needless to say, their first year in the City of Angels did NOT go according to plan; finishing 4-12 wasn’t even the worst of it for the Rams, who were oftentimes dreadfully boring to watch Offensively, which is an absolute sin for a professional sports team looking to thrive in Los Angeles. Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley was essentially neutered behind a dismal Offensive Line and unimaginative Coaching Staff, with his production dropping from 85.1 Rushing Yards per Game in 2015 (4.8 Y/A) to 885 Yards (3.2 Y/A), despite playing in four more contests than he did in the previous term. However, perhaps nothing was as unforgiveable as the handling of No. One Overall Pick Jared Goff, whom the Rams moved up for (and traded a wealth of picks in the process) to select with the hopes of finally establishing a foundation at Quarterback. Unfortunately, there were problems from the jump, as Fisher and Co. refused to unleash the Rookie despite Case Keenum’s considerable struggles under Center. Ultimately, when he finally did got the nod, Goff didn’t fare any better, completing just 54.6% of his Attempts for an average of 155.6 Yards per Game (3.75 NY/A), with five Touchdowns and seven Interceptions in the final seven games of the season, all the while posting a pedestrian 22.2 Quarterback Rating. While it was hard to believe that the kid was really THAT bad, it became imperative that Management find a way to not just fix him, but develop him moving forward. And who did Los Angeles hand the torch to, you ask? Well, that would be none other than Sean McVay, who at thirty-one years of age became the youngest Head Coach in NFL History. The former Offensive Coordinator of the Washington Redskins worked wonders with Kirk Cousins from 2014 to 2016, which no doubt left a profound impact on the Rams in their decision-making process. And while it’s still far too early to tell, it appears that McVay’s tutelage of his young Quarterback is already showing early signs of promise; through two games, Goff has looked far more composed than he did a year ago, completing 66.7% of his Attempts for an average of 265.0 Yards per Game (8.95 NY/A), with a pair of Touchdowns and an Interception to his credit, while seeing his Sack Percentage, which was an absurd 11.3% in 2016, fall to a far more respectable 5.3% thus far. After thrashing the Indianapolis Colts in a 46-9 blowout in the Season Opener, McVay’s charges very nearly toppled his former employers, the Redskins, a week later in a narrow 27-20 defeat. Trailing 20-10 at Halftime, the visitors rallied back behind Goff and Gurley, with the former finding the latter for an 18-Yard Touchdown Pass midway through the Third Quarter, before Greg Zuerlein tied the game with just over seven minutes left in the final stanza. However, the hosts would respond with a ten-play, 70-Yard Drive culminating with the aforementioned Cousins finding Ryan Grant for an 11-Yard score to take the lead with 1:44 left on the clock. Goff and Co. would get one more possession, but he was intercepted on the first play of the drive, effectively ending the game. Even in defeat, this group showed promise as both Goff (15-of-25 for 224 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT) and Gurley (136 Total YDS, 2 TD) were utilized in a manner befitting their talent and potential. Fear not, Rams’ Fans, for your team actually has a PLAN in place, which may not sound like much, but is a damn good start.
Meanwhile, speaking of plans and the lack thereof, the 49ers (0-2, Last in NFC West) are once again starting from scratch as the specter of Jim Harbaugh’s departure continues to haunt the Franchise. Since the Head Coach left in favor of Ann Arbor, Michigan, this team has completely floundered in the most outstanding of manners, going 7-25 over the past two seasons. In 2015, long-time Defensive Line Coach Jim Tomsula was elevated to the Head Gig only to sputter to a 5-11 record before unceremoniously being relieved of his duties. In 2016, Chip Kelly was brought in after the divisive Offensive Guru was ran out of Philadelphia after nearly three years on the job, yet failed to inspire where his predecessor couldn’t, earning an abysmal 2-14 record before he too was handed a Pink Slip for his troubles. Now on their fourth Head Coach in as many years, why should we believe that this time will be any different for this flailing Franchise? Well, for starters Ownership finally parted ways with General Manager Trent Baalke, who was seen by many as the architect behind Harbaugh’s departure, signaling a clean, fresh restart, which wasn’t the case in either of the past two years. While former nine-time Pro Bowl Safety John Lynch was as surprising a hire as any to replace Baalke, the acquisition of Kyle Shanahan as Head Coach was anything but. Shanahan has long been one of the more sought-after Assistants in the league, with the dynamic, young Offensive Coordinator being held in very high regard in many NFL Circles given his success helming quality offensive attacks with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, and most recently NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. And let’s not forget his pedigree, which as the son of two-time Super Bowl-winning Head Coach Mike Shanahan, is something that neither of his two predecessors could claim. However, with all due respect to the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco has in all likelihood earned the title of the most daunting of rebuilding tasks, for it is really quite remarkable how this team which just three years ago was flush with talent and depth throughout their roster, has fallen on such hard times. And it’s with that said, that through the first two games of the campaign that no matter how good he may be at calling plays and crafting gameplans, Shanahan simply doesn’t have the kind of talent to compete on a weekly basis with the better teams in this league. Or at least that’s the case on Offense. Defensively, the Niners really got after the Panthers (287 Total YDS) and Seahawks (312 Total YDS), relegating them to just 5.3 Net Yards per Attempt (9th Overall) and 3.3 Yards per Carry (12th Overall), all the while yielding a solid 17.5 Points per Game (9th Overall). Defensive Linemen DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas have the makings of a special young group, while veteran Linebacker Navorro Bowman looks as healthy as he’s been in years. The problem though, is that this team has been outscored 35-12 thus far, averaging a scant 6.0 Points per Game (30th Overall) on a league-worst 251.0 Total Yards (32nd Overall). Journeyman Brian Hoyer was brought in to stabilize the Quarterback position after Lynch and Co. passed on selecting one early in the Draft, but it appears that the 32-year old isn’t the best of fits for Shanahan’s system, completing 62.9% of his Attempts for an average of 146.0 Yards per Game (3.75 NY/A), with zero Touchdowns and a pair of Interceptions. Then again, it’s not like Hoyer, who has overachieved in a number of his previous stops, has much to work with at the moment. Pierre Garcon (79 REC, 1,041 YDS, 3 TD in 2016) was signed in Free Agency to bring some speed and experience to the Receiving Corps, but has generally underachieved since leaving Peyton Manning and the Colts back in 2011, while Carlos Hyde (988 YDS, 6 TD in 2016), who probably has the most to gain featuring as the lead Tailback in Shanahan’s typically productive rushing attacks, is really the only weapon to be found in the Backfield. Look for the fourth-year veteran to eventually flourish in his coach’s preferred Zone-Blocking Scheme, having already gotten off to a solid start, averaging career-highs in both Yards per Game (84.5) and Yards per Carry (7.0), and racking up 124 Yards against Seattle’s fearsome Defense last weekend.