In 2013, the Rams featured one of the slowest-paced offenses in the NFL. On the surface, that can likely be attributed to the on the ongoing evolution of the running game in the wake of quarterback Sam Bradford’s Week 7 injury and the subsequent emergence of rookie running back Zac Stacy. Is a slow offense a bad thing, though? And if so, are the Rams equipped to speed things up at all in 2014?
It’s an interesting thought as the team heads into it’s final week of OTA’s. As it stands, the offense features a very similar cast of characters that looked poised to heat things up quite a bit at this time last year.
Prior to the Rams taking a single offensive snap last fall, much had been made about offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s overhaul of the offensive scheme. After a series of moves that shifted the perceived balance of talent from the offensive backfield to the receiving corps, the Rams set out to install a spread offense to get more playmakers on the field. The team allowed the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, running back Steven Jackson, to void the final year of his contract and join the Falcons in free agency. In his stead, they were left with a young, untested group of backs in Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, and rookies Stacy and Benny Cunningham.
Along with that, they traded up in the draft to select elusive West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin at eighth overall and added his college teammate Stedman Bailey in the third round. Combined with the heavy free agent investments in tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long as well as the supposed further development of incumbent receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick, it’s not hard to see why the change looked like an obvious one.
As we all remember, the style shift didn’t quite pan out the way the team expected, and the Rams sputtered to a 1-3 start. The problem wasn’t necessarily due to any issues in the passing game (although that first 49ers game was a mess), but rather due to a non-existent complement in the rushing attack. Richardson picked up just more than 100 yards in three games as the feature back, while Pead led the team with 20 yards on six attempts against the Cowboys in Week 3. Neither scored a touchdown. As it turned out, the Rams weren’t as equipped as they’d thought to successfully execute a spread offense. Stacy would get the nod to start in Week 5, and the job was his the rest of the way as he racked up 973 rush yards in 12 games and added seven touchdowns.
When Bradford’s season ended prematurely in Week 7, the offensive focus shifted almost entirely to Stacy as backup quarterback Kellen Clemens stepped in. Outside of the few offensive explosions from Austin (namely in big games against the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears), the Rams would become a no-frills, run-first team. This is likely a reason for their low-ranking in offensive pace in 2013. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams ranked 21st overall in seconds per play with an average of 28.09. For some context, the Philadelphia Eagles finished the season ranked first in the category and were nearly five seconds faster than the Rams on average at 23.38. I’d argue that the Rams would be ranked even lower in overall time per play if they hadn’t been forced to pick up the tempo in the second half as a result of playing from behind on multiple occasions. They finished 10th overall in the category when factoring in the second half alone. Regardless, it was likely a far cry from what they’d anticipated as they headed into the season.
The thought I’m considering today is whether that’s even an issue. Given the success of Stacy (and Cunningham, to a lesser extent), would an even slower offense mean more production in 2014? As I detailed last week, the Rams are obviously committing to the running game with the selection of Auburn’s Tre Mason in the draft.
However, they do have a ways to go to compete with the Seahawks and 49ers – teams of which the Rams are suddenly built in the mold – in that regard. The piece discusses the run/pass ratio for each team in regards to play-calling, and the Rams fall well short of both in that regard despite their newfound run-first identity. In terms of offensive pace, Seattle and San Francisco were two of the slowest teams in the league. According to the metrics, Seattle tended to start quickly and the 49ers were faster when playing from behind, but the teams ranked 30th and 31st respectively in overall time per play.
And I think they did just fine.
So for me, an even slower-paced offense in 2014 likely means that the Rams are having a successful year. It will mean they’re grinding away at teams in the running game and not having to play from behind as much. In the race for the NFC West, maybe slow and steady really is the best approach.