From Super Bowl champs to Sean McVay's worst season, Rams on the brink

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- When Sean McVay was chanting "run it back" at the Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl parade earlier this year, the coach couldn't have envisioned where his team would be nine games into the 2022 season.

Los Angeles enters Week 11 against the New Orleans Saints at 3-6, after dealing with injuries all over the field but especially on offense. Quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn't been properly protected by a decimated offensive line and missed last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals because he was in concussion protocol.

When McVay was asked about whether coming off a Super Bowl season has made it easier, he chuckles.

"No. Does it make it easier to go through the downs, is that what you're asking?" McVay said with a smile. "No."

The struggles of this Rams team can be connected to last season's Super Bowl winner. Los Angeles traded first-, second- and third-round picks in 2021 to acquire Stafford and Von Miller, both of whom played key roles in that championship run. The result of those aggressive moves: The Rams front office had to build the 2022 team without much draft capital or salary-cap flexibility.

There's also bad luck, of course, to not only deal with this many injuries, but to have them hit at the same spot at the same time, especially as the team was breaking in new players because of who they let leave during the offseason. But while the injury rate is unlike anything McVay has gone through, the worst came in Sunday's loss to the Cardinals. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp sustained a high ankle sprain that required surgery and he's now on injured reserve.

McVay won't use injuries as an excuse for the team's poor play. But how did the Rams go from a Super Bowl parade in mid-February to their worst season under McVay since he was hired in 2017?

While no one has a clear answer, Rams COO Kevin Demoff said it's a combination of a "trying and unusual" season and something the team needs to learn from.

"Our model has been a top-heavy team that has been consistently one of the least injured teams for the better part of the last five to seven years. So our injury luck wasn't just luck, it was part of the system," Demoff said. "What has changed this year? Did playing 21 games contribute to this year's injuries? Did we miss warning signs in the offseason? A regression to the mean? I think we have to study both outside factors and our approach this year to better understand why this year is an outlier on the injury front."

DESPITE THE FACT the Rams were coming off a Super Bowl victory, there were questions surrounding the way the franchise built the team and key pieces that weren't a sure thing to return.

There were reports McVay was being pursued to enter the broadcast booth. Aaron Donald, the face of the franchise and the player who made the stop that clinched the Super Bowl victory, was contemplating retirement.

Instead of losing both, the Rams went all out to keep their core together, signing McVay, general manager Les Snead, Stafford and Kupp to contract extensions, as well as reworking Donald's contract to make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

After those deals, the Rams' core of four players -- Stafford, Donald, Kupp and cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- account for 47% of Los Angeles' team cap, according to the Roster Management System. That is the second-highest in the NFL among the top four players on a team; only the Chiefs' -- quarterback Patrick Mahomes, defensive tackle Chris Jones, left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and defensive end Frank Clark -- have a higher percentage of the team's cap. It was important for Donald, he said when he signed his new contract, that the Rams continue to build and keep that core together. But on Thursday, Donald said nobody would have thought this team would be on the outside looking in at a playoff spot.

"Nobody expected to be in a position where you're 3-6 after just coming off the season we had," Donald said.

"But we're here now, and nothing you can do but just continue to play and try to control what you can control."

One key member of the Super Bowl team that didn't return was Miller, who opted to sign a six-year, $120 million contract with the Buffalo Bills. The Rams didn't have high draft picks or prioritize their salary cap space to replace Miller, instead relying on the players they had in the building to pick up that production. His absence has been felt, as the Rams have struggled to get consistent pressure, outside of Donald, and have 18 sacks, which ranks 25th in the NFL.

WHEN THE WORD "unprecedented" is thrown around to describe the Rams' offensive line situation this season, it's not an exaggeration. Los Angeles has used a different starting offensive line in all nine games this season. According to Elias, the Rams are the first team in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to use a different starting five on the offensive line in each of their first nine games.

Make that 10 different offensive line combinations after Chandler Brewer, who started at right guard against the Cardinals, injured his knee and was placed on injured reserve. The Rams also placed tackle AJ Jackson on injured reserve due to blood clots and will sit out the rest of the season.

The inconsistency on the offensive line has shown on the field. Los Angeles, which finished the 2021 season leading the NFL in pass block win rate, ranks 24th in that metric this season. Even before all of these injuries, the Rams were going through transition on the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired and right guard Austin Corbett left in free agency, signing a three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers.

The Rams did try and use their draft capital to add some depth, using their top draft pick -- a third-round selection -- on guard Logan Bruss, who tore an ACL and MCL in a preseason game.

This season, the Rams have played three left tackles (Joe Noteboom, Jackson, Ty Nsekhe), three left guards (David Edwards, Bobby Evans, Coleman Shelton), three centers (Brian Allen, Shelton, Jeremiah Kolone) and four right guards (Shelton, Tremayne Anchrum Jr., Oday Aboushi, Brewer). Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the only offensive lineman to play in all nine games for the Rams.

"Everybody's talked about the offensive line being five strong, one unit all together," offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. "Well, when you have the injuries, you have the revolving door a little bit, that's difficult to all get on the same page and do things as one and that's something that we're striving for."

And not only do the changes on the offensive line make it difficult for this offense to move the ball consistently, but it's also been a challenge for Stafford to be without wide receiver Van Jefferson for six games and now Kupp for at least four.

AFTER THE RAMS' loss to the Cardinals, Donald went to find Kupp in the locker room.

"I just went in there and gave him a hug and told him I love him," Donald said.

It's not just Kupp's production on the field the Rams will have to replace but what he means to this team.

"He's a big spark, not just to this offense," Donald said. "To this team."

Kupp had accounted for 34% of the Rams' receptions this season, which is the highest mark in the NFL. Kupp had entered the Rams' Week 10 game with 72 catches, which put him on pace for 153 over a 17-game season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The NFL single-season record is 149 by Saints receiver Michael Thomas in 2019.

The Rams will use a "committee" approach to replace Kupp's workload, Coen said Thursday, and he feels good "about Brandon Powell, Ben Skowronek, Van Jefferson, Allen Robinson, those guys coming in and making an impact."

"And [we'll] see what Lance McCutcheon and those guys, Tutu Atwell -- we've got a committee of guys who really need to step up."

Kupp had surgery on the ankle Wednesday and will be out at least four weeks, although McVay referenced that the "tightrope" procedure that was performed on Kupp typically has a recovery time of five to six weeks. Unless the Rams drastically turn this season around and are fighting for a playoff spot in six weeks, it may not make sense to put Kupp back on the field for the final few games.

AT 3-6, ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Rams a 4.3% chance to make the playoffs and a 0.5% chance to win the NFC West, where Los Angeles currently sits at the bottom.

At this point, the front office might be peeking ahead at the 2023 draft. The Rams would be in line for a top-10 draft pick, but their 2023 first-round pick will go to Detroit as part of the trade that brought Stafford to Los Angeles. The team currently has six draft picks in 2023, although four are in the sixth or seventh rounds.

Despite the long odds, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris reiterated twice Thursday he doesn't consider this season over and won't unless and until the Rams are eliminated from playoff contention.

"[Other NFC teams] win and we lose, there won't be much time, right?" Morris said. "So it's all determined based on that."

But even though the Rams haven't been eliminated from making the playoffs, McVay said he's been forced to focus on more than wins and losses, instead trying to find "some of those small victories" this season.

"Do we want to go out and win every game based on the amount of work and how important it is to so many people?" McVay said. "Of course. But I think you do have to be able to be process-oriented in order to not let that three-hour window totally hijack your ability to move forward.

"You've got to remind yourself of that. So it's been challenging, but that's the approach that you take.

"I do believe, when you look back on it, it'll cause a lot of the great growth that will hopefully be beneficial for years to come."