The Rams have followed their successful run toward winning Super Bowl 56 after the 2021 season with the worst Super Bowl hangover ever in 2022.
Los Angeles was an NFC powerhouse at 12-5 last season. The team won’t be making the playoffs at 3-9 this season going into Thursday night’s Week 14 home game vs. the Raiders.
With Sean McVay as their wunderkind head coach, the Rams made the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons. They racked up three NFC West division titles and a pair of conference championships along with that ring.
But now there are key issues going forward on whether the Rams can quickly return to relevance in 2023 or be forced into more of rebuilding mode with limited means to improve personnel. On one hand, Los Angeles’ freefall can be chalked up to a rash of relentless injuries. On the other, there are some real fundamental concerns.
Here’s breaking down the six biggest questions facing the Rams beyond this season:
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Will Aaron Donald follow through on his retirement?
Donald, who turns 32 next May, has done everything he can in the NFL to prove his worth as one of the most dominant defenders ever with the individual accolades and the ultimate team reward of winning a Super Bowl. He came back to try to “run it back”, which won’t happen now.
Donald, who has had remarkable durability for his intense, physical level of play over nine seasons, is dealing with a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the Seahawks game in Week 13 and will keep him on the shelf for Week 14 vs. the Raiders.
At a compact but powerful 6-1, 280 pounds, Donald has worn down a little battling constant double-teams and tough blockers inside. His level of disruption in 2022 has dropped off. He’s unlikely to make it a sixth consecutive season with double-digit sacks with only 5 in 11 games. Should Donald hang it up after the hangover, it would be difficult for the Rams to accept but also could provide a source of financial relief for a situation that would flip into a rebuild.
Will Matthew Stafford remain the starting QB?
The Rams’ moved Jared Goff and two first-round picks for Stafford and were rewarded with a Super Bowl ring right away. Year 2, however, was an absolute nightmare for Stafford when healthy. Now his season has ended with a concerning neck injury (spinal cord contusion) coming off multiple concussions in a short period. Stafford also turns 35 in February.
Keep in mind that Stafford also was dealing a right (throwing) elbow injury in training camp. After tying for the league lead in interceptions in 2022, Stafford will end up with one of his worst passing seasons in terms of efficiency and yards per attempt.
The nature of his current contract makes it impossible for the Rams to move on from in 2023. It’s still very expensive to do in 2024 or 2025. Given the Rams gave up a lot to get him, they won’t be giving up on that investment.
But Stafford also has more wear and tear pile up on him. With the ring in hand to redeem his career in Detroit, it can’t be ruled out that either he chooses to retire or injuries keep corralling him. The Rams should think about restructuring Stafford’s contract, anyway, for some salary-cap relief to perhaps creating an earlier feasible out.
The Rams just added Baker Mayfield off waivers from the Panthers because of injuries to Stafford and backup John Wolford (neck). Beyond giving them some experience at QB, it’s also a cheap flyer to see whether Mayfield has any chance to be viable insurance for Stafford in McVay’s offense.
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What positions do the Rams need to address the most?
The Rams have missed edge rusher Von Miller’s impact on the defense. But the departure of another future Hall of Famer — long-time stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth to retirement — was the biggest veteran personnel blow.
Not only was Whitworth a rock of a blocker, but he also was the leader of a cohesive unit with right tackle Rob Havenstein providing another outside anchor. But replacing Whitworth has been a disaster, with Joe Noteboom not living up to promise before being lost for the season to cause a revolving door. Center Brian Allen has been either hurt or playing hurt and the mix of guards around him have struggled.
Offensive line must get the most offseason attention. The defensive front has missed Sebastian Joseph-Day and will become a high priority, too, should Donald retire. Having not much in the secondary to thwart opponents beyond cornerback Jalen Ramsey also has been exposed a liability with the pass rush being half as effective as it was in 2021.
In addition, the season-ending injuries to Cooper Kupp (ankle) and Allen Robinson (foot) thinned out the receiving corps and the young backups also are getting hurt. The running game has come full circle back to Cam Akers, but there’s nothing reliable there.
The Rams have seen a lot of recent strengths become weaknesses in a hurry. McVay and GM Les Snead have plenty of work to do.
How do the Rams navigate a tough salary-cap situation?
The Rams have a lot of money attached in big contracts with Donald, Stafford, Ramsey and Kupp. They are just under the cap for 2023 for now. But also consider there also are sizable investments in Robinson, Noteboom, Havenstein, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and inside linebacker Bobby Wagner.
One can’t blame the Rams for spending with their title defense in mind, as few could have imagined their sharp decline from a Super Bowl winner. But unless they can restructure multiple deals and make some tough cuts, the Rams are hampered to make any notable moves again on the open market. Should money free up from Donald and/or Stafford choosing to retire, the Rams would get some flexibility to improve needed areas with young veterans.
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How will the Rams’ lack of a first-round draft pick affect their rebuild?
The Rams have one more year without a first-round pick in 2023 as that belongs to the Lions from the Stafford-Goff trade. But they still have significant draft capital for Snead and McVay. On Day 2, the Rams do have a second- and third-rounder. They have nine more picks, all in the fifth round or later, for 11 total selections.
The upcoming draft will mark the seventh consecutive year in which the Rams haven’t had a first-rounder. The last was Goff at No. 1 overall in 2016. In his decade as the GM, Snead hit on a lot early with Donald being the best pick in 2014. But since 2017, when the Rams stole Kupp in the third round, it’s been spotty at best with the biggest splashes coming via trades. Snead will need to get sharper with his selections again to turn quantity into high stockpile quality.
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Will Sean McVay stay through the struggles?
McVay is only 36, but he’s established as a savvy, elite coach in the NFL after six seasons. He’s 58-33 in the regular season and 7-3 in the playoffs. He’s got his ring and proved his football intelligence is unparalleled. He did also spark an incredible turnaround from the messy St. Louis-to-Los Angeles transition with Jeff Fisher. McVay did very well with one rebuild, but would he want to go through another that’s bound to put a lot of stink on the stellar stuff?
McVay just got married in the offseason and has stated work/life balance is important to him as he starts a family. He’s not someone who wants to grind himself to a pulp. The Rams will require only more of his attention with the challenges of a rebuild. He’s also smart, photogenic and articulate enough to have a long fine career in NFL television, where there’s bigger money available and not the same level of stress. In that sense, he could follow what the late John Madden and Jon Gruden once did as top young coaches.
There’s also the consideration that McVay could be thinking like older Super Bowl-winning coaches such as Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton and Doug Pederson. That is, coaching will still be available to him in his situation of choice should he walk away from this Rams situation and take a break. If the Rams don’t look like they can be good again for a while with the wrong answers to the above questions, McVay can find a better situation for big-time success now vs. later.