Inside the Rams locker room at their practice facility in Thousand Oaks, players are sectioned off by position group. Defensive backs and linebackers occupy one part of the room, with their wall of lockers facing one another. Wide receivers and running backs share another area, as do the quarterbacks and tight ends and so on and so forth.
Needless to say, the chatter and volume generated by each section is often reflected by the particular position.
And let’s just say the defensive linemen are an especially loud group. Not that it can’t get pretty loud among the wide receivers, too.
The quietest section belongs the quarterbacks, although their low volume is due mostly to a numbers game. The Rams carry three quarterbacks, and while Jared Goff, Sean Mannion and Brandon Allen aren’t exactly shrinking violets, from a purely statistical standpoint they can’t bring the thunder quite as powerfully as the rest of the room.
From a sheer numbers to volume ratio, the offensive linemen are easily the most low-key group. Maybe it’s just the thankless, almost tedious and methodical nature of their job. And the anonymity that comes with it.
It’s easy to exalt a beautiful touchdown throw or a terrific run or a stunning catch or a crushing sack or a game-saving interception through television replays and social media highlight clips. But not so much when an offensive guard begins a play by blocking a defensive tackle, only to recognize a stunt and seamlessly pass the defensive tackle off to the left tackle and go pick off the defensive end.
Although, for any of the former to happen it’s critical the later is being accomplished at a high level.
Which brings us to the quiet neighborhood in which the Rams offensive linemen reside in the team’s locker room. Last year, the reserved atmosphere seemed appropriate considering the major liability the group became during a disastrous 4-12 season.
With so much negative focus on their inability to adequately protect Goff or open holes for Todd Gurley, the last thing they wanted to do was draw any more attention to themselves.
But nobody has more of a right to demand a share of the 2017 spotlight than Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein, who have turned the Rams woeful 2016 offensive line into a group playing as well as any in the league.
The Rams are averaging a league-high 32.9 points per game – up from 14 last year. Gurley has regained his status as an elite running back with 986 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. And Goff has silenced his critics by emerging as one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL while throwing for 2,030 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But none of it happens without Whitworth, Saffold, Sullivan, Brown and Havenstein collectively doing their jobs at an elite level.
Yet barely a peep. At least not about themselves and the incredible job they’ve done as the engine of the high-powered Lamborghini that is the Rams’ offense.
“We’re in a good spot right now but the work continues. And we feel we can play better,” is about as far as Sullivan will go.
And good luck getting any self congratulation for a job well done thus far.
“I will at the end of the season, depending on what happens,” Havenstein said. “But even at that, it’s not going to be a ‘me’ thing or an ‘offensive line’ thing. It’s going to be a ‘team’ thing and an ‘offensive’ thing and an offensive thing within the scheme of a team-wide thing.”
“So far this year it’s been good. But obviously there’s a lot of football left to be played,” Havenstein pointed out. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
As bad as the Rams offensive line was last year, with left tackle Greg Robinson solidifying his bust status and Saffold having to move to fill gaping position holes and injury and ineffectiveness sabotaging center and right guard, they went into training camp confident that the left side of their line would be dramatically better with Whitworth, a perennial Pro Bowler, replacing Robinson and Saffold being permanently slotted at left guard.
That, coupled with Sullivan locking down center, gave the Rams peace of mind on the left side.
Things were much less certain on the right side – or, as Sullivan and others refer to it, the “Young side.” While Havenstein and Brown have solidified their position with effective, consistent play, it wasn’t so long ago the pair was considered among the biggest question marks on offense.
Havenstein was coming off an injury-riddled season and, for a time anyway, was moved to right guard when Robinson was given one-last shot at right tackle. But that plan was scrapped in OTA’s, with Havenstein moving back to tackle and Brown getting the nod – albeit tenuously – at right guard.
Neither was guaranteed and full-time starting role, and as OTA’s turned into minicamp and minicamp gave way to training camp, Rams coaches continually referred to the right side as a work in progress.
Brown and Havenstein understood the situation.
“It’s the NFL. There’s always anxiety,” Havenstein said. “You’ve got to play football to stick around. But I think everyone who’s here right now had a great mentality about it. No one was scared about the competition.”
Brown and Havenstein were drafted together in 2015 and the Rams envisioned them being long-time anchors. As did the two young teammates, perhaps even side by side. But circumstances always got in the way.
Brown battled injuries, including a broken leg that limited him to nine games in 2015 and a broken hand that cost him five games last year. When he was healthy, Rams coaches couldn’t figure out a position for him. In fact, last year he played every line position but center.
Meanwhile, Havenstein missed all of training camp and preseason last year.
“So we never really were able to stick together,” Brown said.
That’s all changed this year, as they’ve exclusively played side-by-side almost since the beginning of OTA’s.
“This is the first time we’ve gotten a chance to settle in over a long period, get in synch and develop a chemistry,” Brown said.
And it shows in their play, as illustrated by Goff being sacked just 10 times on 244 pass attempts – he went down 26 times on 205 attempts last year – and Gurley bouncing back as he has and the Rams offense churning as well an any in the NFL.
Eight games into the season, whatever anxiety that existed about the right side of the Rams line has vanished.
“Very pleased with those guys,” said Rams head coach Sean McVay. “Certainly there’s always things that we can clean up, but I think you watch their progression, the way that they continue to mature – they’re playing really good football right now. I think they’re getting comfortable, they’re getting a rapport with each other.”
There are a number of factors in play.
Getting consistent snaps alongside each other has been huge for the Havenstein-Brown working relationship with Brown. The addition of McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has meant a better utilization of individual skills and strength’s – Brown and Havenstein included – the veteran presence of Whitworth, Sullivan and Saffold, who serve as examples for the two third-year linemen to emulate.
And new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer has added a thorough, thoughtful voice that provides an element of high-level teaching with encouragement and allowance for input and feedback.
Havenstein and Brown, along with the rest of the offensive line, are not only provided the necessary tools from the new coaching staff but, just as importantly, a piece of ownership of their position group.
“Everybody is super detail oriented,” Sullivan said. “And just the dynamic of the room, the way Krom coaches, the amount of input that we’re able to give in terms of what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling. And then he’s able to take that and talk with Sean and make a final decision.”
It’s been an enlightening experience for Brown and Havenstein, who continually keep a close eye on their veteran teammates for tips. Especially Whitworth and Saffold, their left-side tackle and guard counterparts.
“They’ve been great,” Brown said. “Me and Rob take notice of the small things they do. The conversations, the small talk on the sidelines and watching how they go about forming that connection between each other.”
Eight games in, Brown and Havenstein has eased all concern about the right side of the line. Considering what the anxiety level was just a few short months ago, that’s a significant development.
“I’ve been very pleased with those guys and want to continue to seem them grow and develop,” McVay said. “But, just looking at where they are in their career and just kind of projecting moving forward, I feel very good about those two.”