Sean McVay’s message was thinly veiled.
The Los Angeles Rams head coach was “proud of the way” his team “competed” against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. He was “appreciative and grateful for what the guys did.” They would even “try,” McVay said after the 26-10 loss, to “build on this one.”
The goals were well-stated. Because trying and building is all the Rams can hope for the remainder of this season.
The defending Super Bowl champions, whose record now dips to 3-8, know it’s over.
McVay’s tone and his vocabulary reflected it. The increasing number of star players whose injuries are warranting rest and surgeries reflects it. This is not to say that the Rams are tanking. But the realities of what can be salvaged in an injury-riddled, offensively incoherent season are starting to hit.
And it’s reasonable to ask: How soon can a remedy arrive?
Consider how starkly the Rams’ title-defense year stands in contrast to that of the Chiefs, who beat the Rams at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs won a Lombardi Trophy following the 2019 season. They competed in another Super Bowl the following year, the conference championship last year, and now — in Year 3 after the Lombardi — they enter December again as the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Routes to the championship, with the statistical improbability required to traverse them, often differ. For these two franchises, their personnel strategies diverged vastly. They also, even when accounting for the Rams’ unbelievably poor injury streak, tell a story about the franchises’ pursuit of a second title in close succession.
‘F*** them picks’
To be clear, before considering the current state of each roster, nearly every NFL team would gladly ride either route to a Super Bowl. Sustained success is ideal, but the road to becoming the last team standing is unlikely enough that beggars can’t be and aren’t choosers.
Still: Rams general manager Les Snead’s “F*** them picks” build has triggered a very different follow-up act than the Chiefs’ traditional draft-and-develop path.
The Rams didn’t necessarily mortgage their long-term future to win. But did they drastically reduce their chance at near-term repetition with their management of capital?
Along the Chiefs' route to winning it all in the 2019 season, they selected two first-round draft picks and six second-rounders in the five prior drafts. One first-round and three second-round picks awaited them in the two subsequent years.
The Rams, on the other hand, amassed zero first- and five second-round picks in the five years prior to their big moment. In the two subsequent drafts: no first-round picks, and just one second, await.
Their stars — think receiver Cooper Kupp, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and quarterback Matthew Stafford — can still play at a high level when healthy. But when they, or even some of their fellow starters, have fallen to injuries that are not uncommon in football, Los Angeles’ ability to push through with backups appears shaky.
The Rams’ 11 offensive line combinations in 11 games this season is jarring. But the Chiefs also dealt with offensive line health issues the season after their Super Bowl victory. For Kansas City, that hurt its ability to win in its second straight Super Bowl appearance. Los Angeles is a near lock to miss the postseason altogether, much less return to the biggest stage.
The Rams’ playoff outlook has looked bleak for weeks, and, per The New York Times’ playoff path simulator, their Sunday loss was not really mathematical elimination. The Times’ simulator runs 84,476 scenarios through its system to determine likely outcomes. The major swing, it appears, will hit the Rams next week should they lose to their division-rival Seattle Seahawks (6-5).
Win out after this week? The Times simulator pegs the Rams’ chances at a playoff berth at 65%. Lose next week, then win out? The postseason viability falls to 1%.
Even those scenarios are generous: The likelihood the 3-8 Rams win out with a slate including two Seattle bouts and a game against the Los Angeles Chargers is hard to imagine.
Rams fall short in more than just game
In the Rams’ Sunday visit to Kansas City, they stayed more competitive through three quarters than oddsmakers expected.
Nearly halfway through the fourth quarter, hope still lingered.
Hope for the Rams’ upset of the 15.5-point favorite Chiefs, hope for the defending Super Bowl champions’ unlikely return to the postseason, hope that in the absence of their starting quarterback and top two receivers, the Rams could somehow show a spark of life that left reason to believe.
With 8:55 to play, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes eyed his third-and-goal options, stepping up in the pocket to aid a clean throw. His toss traveled a clean path ... into the hands of Rams safety Nick Scott.
The Rams, trailing by just 10 points, would reclaim the ball with a chance to threaten.
But two plays later, the Chiefs returned the favor intercepting Rams third-string quarterback Bryce Perkins with immediate positioning in the red zone. The Chiefs would again swipe Perkins the next drive, this time courtesy a tipped pass and subsequent catch.
The game, and likely the season, slipped out of reach.
Injuries and absurd turnover on the offensive line spearheaded the Rams’ path to this point. McVay quipped Sunday night that his team has used “more offensive linemen than anyone probably ever has in the history of this game” along this 11-week carousel. An ineffective run game and generally broken offense were symptomatic of those two root causes. The combination has generated momentum against the return this season of quarterback Matthew Stafford, who missed Sunday’s contest with a neck strain and second stint in concussion protocol (the Rams have not said he has a concussion). McVay announced Sunday that receiver Allen Robinson II will undergo season-ending surgery, piling atop the six-to-eight weeks Kupp is already out recovering from surgery on a high ankle sprain. Even if Stafford feels up to returning, he’d take the field with shoddy protection and scant reliable targets.
Perkins threw his first career touchdown in his first career start. But on the day, he managed just 100 passing yards, a touchdown and two interceptions on 13-of-23 passing. He led the Rams on the ground, too, with 44 yards on nine carries. No Los Angeles skill played accounted for 40 yards.
Mahomes, meanwhile, completed 27 of 42 passes for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception in addition to 36 rushing yards. The Chiefs more than doubled the Rams’ scoring and yardage output, neutralizing the boost from the Rams’ most impressive game element: their defense holding the potent Chiefs to 1-of-6 in the red zone.
Perhaps the Rams benefit next year from a swing in health, or they flip their philosophy and restock with a trade like the Chiefs made this offseason with Tyreek Hill. Kansas City acquired five draft picks in exchange for Hill, including 2022 first- and second-round selections that bumped the franchise to four picks in the first two rounds.
Could the Rams find a similar star player to mortgage for capital? Maybe, as Snead did along the way to Los Angeles’ most recent confetti, he and the franchise will find another way to buck the trends and capitalize on market inefficiencies.
For now, fronting a third-string quarterback and down two receivers, McVay is left celebrating effort and progress. Expect his playoff run to warrant the assessment that Sunday he gave his run game.
“I thought you saw some bright things,” McVay said. “But not quite enough.”