Are the St. Louis Rams Building Their Run Game Backwards?
There’s been a debate over the past few years about the value of the running back position.
With a well-built offensive line, it’s believed, a multitude of backs could perform well in the run game regardless of their pedigree. The Dallas Cowboys are testing this theory to the extreme this season with Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden as the team’s backs behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Still, others argue a great back can produce behind any offensive line. Those on that side of the argument typically throw out the names Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson, not accepting that there’s only so many Marshawn Lynchs and Adrian Petersons -- to date there’s been one of each. Well, there’s technically been two Adrian Petersons, but that’s besides the point.
This brings us to the St. Louis Rams, who surprised many by jumping into the latter camp during the NFL Draft. With the 10th overall pick this season, the Rams selected Georgia running back Todd Gurley. Most probably won’t need a refresher on Gurley, but he was hailed as one of the most talented backs to come into the draft in years. He likely would have been taken higher had he not torn his ACL during a game in November of 2014, but that was an unfortunate injury that happened. And there now lies one of the first obstacles for the future of the Rams’ run game. While Gurley can be a generational talent, he will still be recovering from a torn ACL. And while returning from a torn ACL is not the process it used to be, it is still a major injury.
Maybe Gurley can be the type of dominant back the Rams are expecting once he gets back on the field. But maybe the running back position wasn’t exactly the weakness it may have appeared to be in the 2014 season.
There is a difference between not being a weakness and not being good. Those can be mutually exclusive descriptions. The St. Louis running backs might not have been a weakness, but they certainly weren’t good according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels.
The Rams’ leading rusher last season, Tre Mason, carried the ball 179 times and had a Rushing NEP per attempt of -0.08. That placed him tied for 53rd among 79 running backs with at least 40 carries in 2014. He also was the best running back of the group. Benny Cunningham was just behind him at -0.09 Rushing NEP per attempt on 66 carries and the since-traded Zac Stacy was even worse. Only five backs with at least 40 carries put up a worse Rushing NEP per attempt than Stacy’s -0.18.
Place yourself in the St. Louis war room on the night of April 30 and you too might see the need for a running back. But for a running back to succeed, he must rely on other positions, five mainly, to help him out. The current problem in St. Louis is that group of five players along the offensive line haven’t been very good.
Holding the Line
There’s been more pedigree than performance on the St. Louis offensive line over the past few seasons. Former number-one draft pick Jake Long came over as a free agent before the 2013 season, but his 48-hour physical needed before signing helped foreshadow his tenure in St. Louis. The Rams spent the second overall pick on an offensive lineman before last season, but Greg Robinson struggled in 2014 shifting between guard and tackle.
Take a look at some Rams games from last season -- the problems in the run game don’t start with the running back. Routinely, there wasn’t a hole wide enough for any of the running backs to gain effective yards. This had a big impact on the team’s rushing stats, both standard and advanced. In seven games during the regular season, the Rams failed to reach 100 yards rushing as a team. We can scoff when a broadcast pulls up a team’s record when a certain running back has so many carries or yards because most of that is a product of already being ahead in a game, but some production on the ground would be nice.
Those three games took place against the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers twice and Arizona Cardinals twice. Sure, we can write that off as strong defenses overpowering an inferior offensive line. That’s true, but it shouldn’t be an excuse. St. Louis plays in the NFC West, where it must face Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona twice a year during the regular season. Looking back on those games, holes closed before they even opened. Maybe a better running back could have done a little more with a little less, but it’s not as if Rams running backs made little effort.
Take one of the best runs of the day in the Week 8 game against Kansas City. Justin Houston is rightly pushed to the inside on an outside play but gets loose a little too early and forces Mason to juke to the outside in order to pick up the 14-yard gain.
Fixing the Problem
It’s not even as if the Rams think the drafting of Gurley will be the fix-all to an effective running game. They went on to spend a large amount of draft picks on offensive linemen following the selection of Gurley.
They chose Rob Havenstein in the second round and selected three more linemen through the remainder of the draft. They also just selected Clemson tackle Isaiah Battle in the fifth-round of the Supplemental Draft. The Rams now project to have two rookies, along with Robinson in his second year starting on the offensive line -- this after letting one of their more productive linemen, Joe Barksdale, leave as a free agent without much of a fight.
It would appear the Rams believe they can develop offensive linemen in front of a great running back while many teams in the league are making the opposite shift. The Rams may be right. Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has been able to get some positive work out of some unheralded prospects.
The Rams saw a problem and addressed it, but the way they addressed it is more intriguing than the problem itself. It is fair to wonder if St. Louis could have taken a lineman with the 10th overall pick and waited until the second or third round to select a running back and allow him to develop in a committee.
Even with all the problems laid out and the draft capital used to fix it, the Rams ranked 15th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt as a team last season as the 16th run-heaviest offense. St. Louis will take a chance on developing those offensive linemen to help create a stable run offense. They’ll be putting a lot of faith in their new star running back once he’s healthy, but that development up front is likely to play just as big a part.
There might not be one right way to try to rebuild a run game, but the Rams could need a lot of things to break right to avoid being exactly where they were a year ago.