The Rams' Offensive Improvement Is Unlike Anything We've Ever Seen
The NFL never ceases to surprise us.
I mean, through four weeks, the New York Jets and New England Patriots have the same record, and a month ago, it didn't seem completely insane to think that the Pats could flirt with a 16-0 season while Gang Green might struggle to win a game.
Unquestionably, one of this season's biggest surprises has been the improved play of Jared Goff and the offense of the Los Angeles Rams. Mired in a long run of losing, the Rams haven't been .500 since they went 8-8 in 2006, and they haven't been above .500 since they went 12-4 in 2003. But this year's team is off to a 3-1 start, highlighted by a 35-30 road win last week over the Dallas Cowboys.
The reason for the turnaround is pretty clear -- after years of shoddy offensive play, the Rams finally have a good offense. First-year coach Sean McVay, the architect of some quality offenses in Washington, has the Rams' attack humming, and the team's offseason overhaul of its receiver depth chart -- trading for Sammy Watkins, signing Robert Woods and drafting Cooper Kupp -- has paid dividends early on. Those things have helped Goff go from one of the league's worst passers to one of the best, per our metrics.
In fact, the jump in offensive efficiency, according to our numbers, the Rams have made from 2016 to 2017 is unheard of -- at least in our database, which dates back to 2000. In this piece, we'll be using our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted for strength of schedule. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
Yes, there are some caveats we must mention. The schedule has been soft -- particularly matchups with the Colts and 49ers -- and four games is a tiny sample size, but let's look at how much this Rams' offense has improved from last season.
Night and Day
There's no need to slow-play this -- the Rams are on pace for the largest ever year-to-year jump in passing efficiency, per our numbers, in our database. The numbers are mind-boggling.
The Rams ended 2016 with a schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play mark of -0.18, meaning the team actually lost 0.18 expected points each time it dropped back to pass. That's not good.
For context, not only was that the worst mark in the league last season, it was miles below the Texans' clip of -0.03, which was the second-worst mark in the NFL. In all, the 2016 Rams' offense was the 20th-worst passing attack since 2000.
Through four games in 2017, the Rams have gone from an offense that flattered the one Brock Osweiler piloted a year ago to a passing game that ranks among the league's best. Los Angeles has an Adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.36 entering Week 5 of 2017, giving them the second-best passing attack in football, per our schedule-adjusted metrics, trailing only Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
That year-to-year NEP jump of 0.54 is the biggest season-to-season improvement since 2000, as far back as our database goes. Really, what the Rams are doing is unlike anything we've ever seen.
|Year||Team||Adj Passing NEP per Play||Adj Passing NEP per Play in Next Year||Change|
I mean, a year ago, we were writing articles about how the Rams' offense was historically terrible, and now it's the complete opposite.
A schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.36 -- if they ended the year at that number -- would be tied for the fifth-best passing offense since 2000, according to our numbers. This Rams team would have a passing game that trailed only the all-time great offenses of the 2004 Colts, 2007 Patriots, 2016 Falcons and 2011 Packers, while tying the Passing NEP per play clip of the 2013 Broncos.
This is some wild stuff, man.
Even if the Rams take a step back over the remainder of the season -- and they almost surely will -- they're still going to finish with one of the biggest year-to-year jumps in passing improvement in our database.
He Went to Jared
Well, how in the world is the happening?
Football, as we know, is a very team-dependent game. The hiring of Sean McVay and the influx of talent at the wide receiver position have clearly had a big impact on this offense, and Todd Gurley has looked like one of football's best all-around backs through four games.
But this league revolves around quarterbacks, and, dude, Jared Goff is balling out. We have to give him major props, because he's looking like a pretty crazy outlier in recent NFL history.
Our JJ Zachariason did a study back in 2014 on how much we can pull from a quarterback's rookie year. The short answer -- a lot.
The gist of it is that a quarterback's rookie season tells us quite a bit about how he'll do moving forward. Quarterbacks who fare decently well, according to our metrics, as rookies tend to have solid career. On the flip side, signal callers who struggle mightily in their rookie season have to buck some steep odds to end up playing at a high level down the road.
Goff done bucked all the odds.
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the 2016 top overall pick as Goff finished with a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.28. Among the 39 passers with at least 100 drop backs last season, that was good enough for 39th -- dead last, for those scoring at home.
Wait, it gets worse -- a lot worse. Dating back to 2000, among passers with at least 100 drop backs in a season, Goff's Passing NEP per drop back of -0.28 last campaign is the single worst season in our database. His nearest rivals for the title of worst passing season in modern NFL history are the 2015 numbers put up by Zach Mettenberger (-0.24) and Austin Davis (-0.26).
This season, Goff's Passing NEP per drop back is 0.40, the best clip in the league among quarterbacks with at least 75 drop backs through four weeks. (For the sake of clarity, the reason Goff's Passing NEP per drop back [0.40] is different from the Rams' team Passing NEP per play mark [0.36] is that our team metrics are adjusted for strength of schedule.)
The table below shows this season's top quarterbacks, according to our numbers. It's sorted by Passing NEP per drop back, but Passing Success Rate is also in there. Passing Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs which positively impact NEP, and displaying both helps offset how much per-drop-back numbers can be affected by big plays. Among among signal callers with at least 75 drop backs in 2017, Goff's Passing Success Rate checks in fifth.
|Quarterback||Drop Backs||Passing NEP Per Drop Back||Success Rate|
Now that Goff is rubbing elbows with -- looking down at, to be more accurate -- Tom Brady and Drew Brees, I bet he doesn't return texts from Austin Davis and Zach Mettenberger.
All of this -- Goff's improvement, McVay's impact and so on -- is obviously an incredibly positive sign for the Rams.
As we mentioned before, there are a few caveats here. The most glaring one is that we're talking about four games. A 16-game NFL season isn't a big sample, and we've only played a quarter of that.
Secondly, the Rams have had a pretty easy schedule. LA has played three teams (Colts, 49ers and Cowboys) that rank in the bottom half of the league in both overall defense and passing defense, per our schedule-adjusted metrics. They've gone up against one really good defense -- Washington in Week 2 -- and it didn't go well, with the Rams being held to 312 yards and Goff completing 14 of 24 passes for 219 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 pick.
Will the Rams maintain this torrid four-game pace over their next 12 contests? Probably not. But there's no denying how much better this offense is than it was a year ago. In Goff, the organization appears to have found the franchise quarterback it has desperately been seeking, and it looks like they have the right coach to nurture Goff's development.
Oddly enough, it's now the Rams' defense that's holding them back. After having a top-12 defense in each of the last two years, according to our adjusted per-play metrics, LA's defense sits 27th right now, and that's with half their games coming against Brian Hoyer and the combination of Scott Tolzien and Jacoby Brissett.
As of now, our models have the Rams as the NFL's 26th-best team, but we do give them a 36.5% chance to make their first postseason appearance since 2004. If the defense can return to the level it's played at in recent seasons, the Rams can win what has turned into a pretty open NFC West. As of now, their chief competition is going to be the Seattle Seahawks, a team we have as division favorites, giving them a division-leading 49.6% chance to win the NFC West.
And wouldn't you know it -- the Rams host the Seahawks this week, with LA installed as an early 1.5-point favorite.