Halfway through Sunday’s home game against the Houston Texans, it was clear that the NFC West-leading L.A. Rams had a problem: a 6-foot-5, 270-pound game-wrecker in an opposing uniform.
Thanks largely to the disruptive and destructive efforts of Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the Rams’ high-flying offense had been grounded in the first two quarters of Sunday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Limited to a trio of Greg Zuerlein field goals, L.A. held a 9-7 lead as rookie coach Sean McVay and his players filed into the home locker room.
Suddenly, an offense being lauded as the second coming of “The Greatest Show on Turf” resembled the sludge stuck in an ’80s-style drainage pipe emptying into the Pacific Ocean. And McVay, the 31-year-old, eternally turnt up coaching wunderkind, was determined to find a flow.
“Well, guys, we can’t play any worse — and I can’t put you in any worse positions — and we’re still up 9-7,” McVay told his offensive players at halftime. “The good news is, if we don’t piss down our legs, we’ll get it together and win this game. We’re out of sync, and one guy in particular is killing us. So now let’s find a way to fix it and go back to doing what we do.”
The Rams’ attack stayed stagnant for the first five-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter until — on the second play of their second possession of the second half — McVay dialed up a call that would break open the game, and second-year quarterback Jared Goff executed it to perfection.
With L.A. facing second-and-8 from its own 6-yard line, the Texans came out in a quarters defensive alignment, leaving each of four Houston players responsible for a horizontal quadrant of the secondary. There was also a wrinkle: The Texans blitzed a cornerback off the weak side and dropped a linebacker into coverage to take his spot.
When he recognized the coverage, McVay began speaking excitedly into Goff’s headset. “I couldn’t wait for us to snap the ball,” he said later.
The same went for his quarterback: As McVay called the play, Goff was already rushing to the line to take the snap. “We’ve got Robert here,” McVay reminded him — and the rest was pure artistry: Goff making a sweet play-fake to halfback Todd Gurley, who slid to his left and picked up the blitzing Kevin Johnson; Woods running a pinpoint post pattern up the right seam.
The only issue, as usual, was Clowney, who beat right tackle Rob Havenstein to the inside and bore down on Goff in the end zone as the quarterback prepared to throw. And then, just when it looked like the fourth-year pass rusher would wreck yet another opportunity, the 60,032 fans at the Coliseum witnessed a sublime sequence that summed up everything that has made the 2017 Rams dramatically different from their scoring-challenged 2016 forebears.
As Clowney said afterward, walking from the visitors’ locker room toward the Texans’ team buses, “Man, that s— was crazy. I don’t know how they did that.”
Havenstein, in a desperate measure that offensive linemen refer to as a “backdoor” maneuver, lunged his hand in front of Clowney and diverted him while spinning toward the quarterback. Goff, meanwhile, hung tough and absorbed a hit from Clowney just after delivering a perfect pass to Woods, who caught it in stride at midfield, with veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph in futile pursuit.
Seconds later, Woods was celebrating a 94-yard touchdown catch, the Rams’ longest play from scrimmage since 1964 — and the Rams were on their way to a 33-7 rout that reaffirmed their credentials as a legitimate, if totally surprising, contender.
“The greatest trait a quarterback can have is not fearing failure — and that’s how Jared’s wired,” McVay marveled Sunday night. “He had brass balls on that play, and he dropped a dime. And that was so big, ’cause it opened everything up — and after that, we were off and running.”
McVay had plenty to do with that, revising his game plan to run plays away from Clowney throughout the second half, supplementing that strategy by sliding extra blockers toward the linebacker and favoring calls designed to allow Goff to release the ball quickly.
“We had a problem,” veteran offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said, “and Sean solved it.”
In the process, McVay also killed the suspense in a mid-November interconference clash whose marquee value had already been depleted, as the Texans (3-6) were missing their own dynamic young quarterback — rookie Deshaun Watson — who’d suffered a season-ending ACL tear 10 days earlier.
Yet, running their winning streak to four was momentous for the Rams (7-2), who hold a one-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West and seem capable of outscoring anyone when they’re operating at peak performance.
As with Goff’s deep ball to Woods from his own end zone, almost nobody saw this coming.
Last year, the Rams had the league’s least productive offense, mustering just 224 points en route to a 4-12 record. Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, struggled mightily after taking over as the team’s starting quarterback in the 10th game of the season, and coach Jeff Fisher was fired with three games remaining in the dismal campaign.
After the season the Rams hired McVay, Washington’s promising offensive coordinator, who at the time was 30 years old — making him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. He and his 23-year-old quarterback have been lighting up the league since September, provoking comparisons to the 1999 Rams, who rebounded from a 4-12 record the previous season and swept to a stunning Super Bowl championship on the strength of future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and an explosive offense that commanded an iconic nickname.
Now comprehend this: The Greatest Show on Turf produced 526 points in the ’99 regular season, while the current Rams — the league’s highest-scoring team in 2017 — scored exactly half of that total (263) over their first eight games. Sunday’s output kept L.A. on that pace (32.9 points per game) and allowed McVay and his players to feel a lot better upon entering the locker room after the game than they had at halftime.
“We needed to hit some adversity, because we hadn’t hit any in a while,” said veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has proven to be one of the league’s best free-agent signees of the past several seasons. “All week long, we talked about it: What are we gonna do if we hit some adversity? Well, we found out.
“It’s funny, because the week before that, I was talking about how we need to hit some shock plays. We’d been grinding it out and working our way up the field, but leaving those big plays on the table. Then, the last two weeks … boom. It’s pretty impressive.”
Goff (25 of 37, 355 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) credited the stabilizing efforts of a Rams defense that forced four Texans turnovers. Like Whitworth, he also found value in having overcome Sunday’s first-half futility.
“Well, yeah — it’s good because we won,” Goff said. “As soon as we hit that big bomb, our intensity kind of went up a notch. You could feel that. And then we were rolling, and everyone got involved.”
While Woods (eight catches, 171 yards, two touchdowns) enjoyed a career day, Goff also had key connections with receiver Sammy Watkins (two catches, 41 yards, one TD) and Gurley (who had 68 receiving yards, matching his rushing total). And Goff and his former offseason roommate, rookie wideout Cooper Kupp, hooked up six times for 47 yards.
None of that success seemed likely after an opening quarter during which McVay’s offense bore an unwelcome resemblance to the 2016 Rams’ anemic attack — something that still bothered the coach hours after the game as he and several friends watched highlights on a large television screen at his home atop the San Fernando Valley.
“We had 6 yards of offense in the first quarter,” McVay scoffed. “Six yards! At that point, I thought we were well on our way to a 30-yard game. … It was a total pukefest. I was ready to crawl into a hole.”
Instead, he solved the problem and allowed the Rams to regain their stride in the second half. It’s becoming a trend — and the whole football world is starting to take notice.