<
>

One year after firing Jeff Fisher, Rams are suddenly on track

LOS ANGELES -- It was exactly one year ago today, if you can believe it, that the Los Angeles Rams rid themselves of Jeff Fisher.

What an uncertain time that was.

The Rams had just come off a 42-14 blowout loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons, their fourth of seven consecutive defeats to end their first season back in the nation's second-largest media market. The Rams knew then that they needed to make a change at head coach. So they fired Fisher, 13 games into his fifth season -- but they didn't really know what was next.

Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer, addressed the media for 45 minutes that Monday and called the 2016 season "an organizational failure."

"This team is not where it needs to be," Demoff said then. "And we need to own up to that from a coaching perspective, from a personnel perspective, from an administration perspective. I think all of us need to get better."

Nobody could've ever predicted that the Rams would get this much better. Not this quickly. They're 9-4 now, sitting as the No. 3 seed in the NFC after having already guaranteed themselves their first winning season in 14 years.

At this time last year, the Rams were lost. They didn't know what they had in Jared Goff, their potential franchise quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick. They didn't know if Todd Gurley could re-establish himself among the league's most dynamic running backs. They didn't know if the best years of Aaron Donald's career would be wasted on deficient teams. And they didn't know how they fit in this robust market of L.A.

Now the Rams have a head coach and a quarterback to grow with, not to mention plenty of young talent around them. They're starting to build real, sustainable excitement in Southern California, less than three years before the opening of their opulent new stadium. And their year-ago concerns have basically subsided. The first step was letting go of Fisher, who never got the offense right and, in hindsight, might have fostered an atmosphere that was too relaxed.

But that was only the first step in a long process, which we'll recap here.

The coach: The Rams' hiring contingency -- a group composed mostly of Demoff, general manager Les Snead and senior assistant Tony Pastoors -- didn't know what to make of Sean McVay when they met over dinner and discussed potential head coaching candidates last December. But they were more intrigued by him than anybody, because he was so young and because the reviews about him were so glowing. McVay blew the Rams away in his first interview, so much that they thought about cancelling an East-coast trip to interview a handful of other candidates in the coming days. Demoff was unreasonably anxious about McVay's meeting with the San Francisco 49ers, and that's when it hit him that McVay needed to be his head coach. Even if he was only 30 at the time. He was a sharp offensive mind, but also a magnetic leader. A star in the making. The Rams made him their new head coach, and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, on Jan. 12.

The staff: Wade Phillips didn't really know McVay. His son, Wes, was a tight ends coach on the Washington Redskins while McVay served as their offensive coordinator. Wes spoke well of McVay. So when McVay asked Phillips to join him as his defensive coordinator, Phillips agreed, never thinking somebody so young could be a head coach. Phillips, 70, helped build a quintessential support staff for a young head coach. With Phillips, McVay doesn't have to worry about defense. With John Fassel, in his sixth year with the Rams, McVay doesn't have to worry about special teams. His quarterbacks coach (Greg Olson) and offensive line coach (Aaron Kromer) have combined for 14 years as offensive coordinators. His offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur) spent the previous two years working with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. His linebackers coach (Joe Barry) has been a defensive coordinator for four years and his defensive line coach (Bill Johnson) has coached in the NFL for 17 years.

The draft: Their 2016 trade up to No. 1 left the Rams without a first-round pick and a need to be both efficient and creative. They needed more weapons for Goff, but they also needed to fill some gaps on defense. They wound up going mostly with smart, high-character players who might have been overlooked at smaller schools. They traded down, from 37th to 44th, to gain an additional third-round pick and made an athletic tight end out of South Alabama named Gerald Everett their first selection. They got Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, who now leads rookie receivers in most categories, in the third round. That round also netted Boston College safety John Johnson, who quickly forced his way into the starting lineup. In the fourth, they got Texas A&M receiver Josh Reynolds, whom the Rams thought could go in the second round, and Eastern Washington linebacker Samson Ebukam, who's already an important part of their defense. It became one of the Rams' best drafts.

The vets: The Rams had been one of the NFL's youngest teams for a while, and the thought heading into the offseason was that perhaps that needed to change. They needed strong veteran leadership in their locker room. Also, though, they needed to weed out players they deemed unreliable. As Snead likes to say: "If you rely on the unreliable, you basically become unreliable." Gone were Kenny Britt, an enigmatic wide receiver, Greg Robinson, a failed left tackle, and T.J. McDonald, a suspended safety. The Rams' first move was to splurge on Andrew Whitworth, one of the game's best left tackles. They then signed John Sullivan, a 10th-year center familiar with McVay's system, and Connor Barwin, a ninth-year linebacker familiar with Phillips' system. Robert Woods was signed in free agency and Sammy Watkins was acquired via trade, significantly bolstering the Rams' receiving corps with two former Buffalo Bills. Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman boosted the secondary.

The wins: It didn't take long for players to notice how sharp McVay was. They bought in quickly, and as they navigated through the offseason program and training camp, they felt that maybe -- just maybe -- they had the makings of a much better team than others projected. A playoff-caliber team, perhaps. But they couldn't be certain until the games started counting. The Rams blew out a shorthanded Indianapolis Colts team to start the season. Then they bounced back from a loss to the Washington Redskins with back-to-back road wins, against the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. They lost a game they should've won against the Seattle Seahawks, and then they won four in a row -- against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants and Houston Texans -- by a combined 103 points. It was clear by then that the Rams had vaulted themselves among the NFL's elite, their offense humming along, their defense improving every week and their special teams a consistent force.

All in a year's time.