Every NFL season, there’s a side that comes out of nowhere. The 1981 49ers were 1-2 before “The Catch” put them in the Super Bowl, the fifth-seeded NY Giants shocked everyone by beating the undefeated Patriots in the big game in 2007 and the Rams, then based in St Louis of 1999 lost their starting quarterback for the year in preseason. They plucked Kurt Warner from stacking shelves in a local supermarket and The Greatest Show On Turf went 13-3 before taking the NFL title.
Last year’s version of the Rams, now in Los Angeles, were 2017’s bolter. Under Jeff Fisher a season earlier, rookie quarterback Jared Goff struggled and the team limped to a 4-12 record. In came 31-year-old first-year head coach Sean McVay, who transformed the Rams into a scoring machine. McVay’s offense went from last to first in scoring (the first team in the Super Bowl era to do so) and Goff soared in his sophomore season, improving his passer rating from 63.6 to 100.5 as the Rams took their first NFC West title for 14 years.
Goff was just one part of the offense as the new head coach resurrected the career of running back Todd Gurley. In Fisher’s predictable offense, Gurley went from NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 to rushing for just 885 yards in 2016. McVay made the 6ft 1in 224-pounder the focal point of the offense and found creative ways to get the ball in his hands. The running back responded with career highs in rushing and receiving yards, receptions and rushing and receiving touchdowns, leading the league in scoring on the ground. He and Goff were helped by GM Les Snead’s savvy signings in the offseason. Veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, both older than their head coach, solidified the offensive line and provided leadership and positive influence for the young quarterback. Whitworth was impressed with the coach from the start.
“Anybody that spends five minutes with Sean McVay comes away from it and goes, 'Man, that kid's not 31’,” said the former Bengal. “It’s kind of the same as when you’re around a truly great player, a future Hall of Famer. You hear people talk about Jonathan Ogden or Anthony Muñoz or Deion Sanders, and they say, ‘You knew from the beginning this guy was gonna be special.’ That's how it is with Sean.”
To go with his coach’s honour, Gurley was voted Offensive Player of the Year and the centrepoint of the defense Aaron Donald won the award for that side of the ball – becoming the first trio in history from the same team to win all three in one season.
Donald was simply the most disruptive defensive force in the game. Again. McVay was comfortable enough in his own skin to hand-pick 70-year-old defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips and leave the defense in his capable hands. In the offseason, Snead and McVay pulled off an amazing coup when they traded for or signed three All-Pro players to add to Phillips’ unit. If it’s possible, Donald could be even more problematic for opponents in 2018 as alongside him will be five-time Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh. The former Detroit Lion became the highest paid defender in history when he joined Miami in 2015, a title that Donald briefly owned last week before Chicago’s Khalil Mack benchmark deal a day later.
Also joining the Rams was cornerback Marcus Peters, who led the NFL in interceptions in his rookie season of 2015 and has 19 picks and two touchdowns over three seasons with Kansas City, seven more than the next closest player. Kansas traded him to LA for a the knockdown price of one second, one fourth and a sixth-round pick amid reports of a confrontation with head coach Andy Reid, rows with fans and referees. Across from Peters will be another Marmite cornerback Aqib Talib (just ask Michael Crabtree), who arrived in a trade from Phillips’ old team Denver. The corner is fond of rubbing receivers up the wrong way but his cover ability is in no doubt. Quarterbacks waiting for targets to become open will be prey for Suh, Donald and Michael Brockers.
Snead’s aggressive fingerprints – the GM traded six draft picks, including two first-rounders, to the Titans to move up and select Goff in 2016 – are all over the 2018 Rams. With Goff in the third year of his four-year rookie deal and only counting around 4% of the salary cap the next two seasons and Gurley’s July extension backloaded until 2020, LA are in win-now mode but face a tougher NFC West than in 2017.
Their main competition should come from the San Francisco 49ers, yes those 49ers, the ones who haven’t had a winning record since 2013 and have three consecutive last-place finishes in the division.
Rookie GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan might have been concerned when their team started their first season 0-8 but the next day, surprisingly sent a 2018 second-round pick to New England for back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G had seemed to be the Patriots’ succession plan for 40-year-old Tom Brady and the 49ers had been shot down when they asked about his availability earlier in the year.
With his team in the middle of a lost season, Shanahan appeared more than content to sit his new passer on the bench rather than risk his health and safety as the Niners moved to 1-9. Garoppolo, however, had clearly learned from Brady and slipped effortlessly into the role of locker-room leader. When starter CJ Beathard was injured late in the Week 12 game, trailing Seattle 24-6, Shanahan had no option but to insert Garoppolo into the line-up. Two attempts, two completions, one touchdown later and the 49ers had a new starter.
The 26-year-old passer led his team to five straight wins to end the season, bagging a five-year $137 million contract in the process. Now the pressure is squarely on Garoppolo’s shoulders to live up to those numbers. His cause took a hit in the preseason when versatile free agent running back Jerick McKinnon was lost for the year. Defensively, co-ordinator Robert Saleh runs a Seattle-style defense and will have been delighted to welcome the ultimate Seahawk Richard Sherman in the offseason to mentor a young group.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider saw their Seattle team out of the playoff picture for the first time in six years – a period in which they contested two Super Bowls – and their reaction was to clean house. Big names Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor and Jimmy Graham headed through the out door, and Earl Thomas is still holding out while he awaits a trade elsewhere. Carroll also changed both co-ordinators among six coaching changes. Miracle-working quarterback Russell Wilson remains, which will keep the Seahawks competitive, but it’s going to take a huge coaching job for the oldest (but still the most enthusiastic) head man in the NFL to push them into the playoffs.
Similarly hard to predict will be the Arizona Cardinals, who saw always-quotable coach Bruce Arians and starting passer Carson Palmer retire. Fears were that 35-year-old receiver Larry Fitzgerald would join them but Fitz will return, as will 2016 yards from scrimmage leader David Johnson, who dislocated his wrist in Week 1 last season and was lost for the year.
Oft-injured Sam Bradford was signed to play quarterback this year and Josh Rosen was added through the draft to graduate into that role. New head coach Steve Wilks is a defensive specialist and, while he has the likes of Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker to work with on that side of the ball, he faces a big rebuilding job and a likely return to the NFC West basement.