Kevin Demoff, the Los Angeles Rams’ chief operating officer, stood behind a lectern at the team facility on Dec. 12, 2016, and was asked whether general manager Les Snead would keep his job. The Rams’ dispiriting return to L.A. had culminated in the firing of their fifth-year head coach, Jeff Fisher, and all eyes quickly shifted to Snead, who came in only one month later.
Demoff said the Rams would “have a complete review of the entire organization” and left it at that, Snead’s role as the Rams’ GM never solidified — at least not in the public eye — until Sean McVay was hired as the head coach on Jan. 12, 2017. Even if Demoff and the Rams figured all along that Snead would return, the message was clear: Snead needed an extraordinary offseason to steer this franchise in the right direction and validate what had been built over the previous half-decade.
Then Snead went ahead and had one.
The Rams entered 2017 on the heels of 10 consecutive losing seasons and a 4-12 record. They finished 11-5, securing their first division title in 14 years while scoring more points than anybody else. They’re set up for long-term success. And while most of the credit has rightfully been directed toward McVay, Snead deserves a lot of it, too. He got a second chance and made the most of it, and now, it seems, he has staying power.
“It’s not about me,” Snead said recently, asked if he feels personal vindication for the way last season went. “I think you can do well in this job if you can always think, ‘Hey, it’s about the Rams. It’s about where you’re at in the standings.’ When you lose a game, or have a losing streak, or have a season like that — guess what, that’s part of it. You deserve criticism. So that shouldn’t bother you. I think what it should do is fuel you to try to maybe be on the other side of the critique.”
Snead has emerged on the other side. We took a look at the five ways he got there, in descending order.
5. Savvy moves at corner, center: The Rams were so lacking at cornerback that they had little choice but to franchise Trumaine Johnson for a second straight season, which meant paying him $16.74 million. But Snead was able to add depth — despite having to allocate most of his draft capital and salary-cap space to the offense — with a couple of bargain free agents. Kayvon Webster started on the outside — before rupturing his Achilles tendon in the team’s 13th game — and Nickell Robey-Coleman played the slot. They cost a combined $4.65 million toward the cap and were major assets on defense. Their presence also allowed the Rams to use cornerback E.J. Gaines in the trade that brought back a much-needed vertical threat in Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills. At center, Snead made a nice pivot. He hoped to acquire restricted free agent Ryan Groy, but the Bills matched his two-year offer in the middle of March. Three weeks later, he landed veteran John Sullivan, who played under McVay’s offense while with the Washington Redskins the previous season. Sullivan’s value had plummeted because he missed the entire 2015 season with back issues. He remained healthy in 2017 and proved to be a valuable asset for quarterback Jared Goff — all while costing less than $1 million.
4. Got it right with Robert Woods: Snead caught heat when he signed Woods to what ended up being a five-year, $34 million contract on the first day of free agency. The Rams desperately and glaringly needed a reliable big-play receiver, and Snead’s big splurge was on someone who had never even amassed 700 receiving yards? It raised eyebrows, but Snead was proven right. Big time. The Rams were searching mostly for scheme fits, and they initially identified Pierre Garcon, formerly of the Redskins, as an ideal one for McVay. But they also had a sneaking suspicion that the San Francisco 49ers would outbid them with their abundance of cap space. No matter. In Woods, they identified someone who is six years younger, would cost nearly 30 percent less and brought a similar skill set. Woods quickly established himself as the Rams’ go-to receiver, averaging a reception on 15.6 percent of his routes (only Todd Gurley did better on the Rams). He clicked with Goff, brought value as a run blocker and proved to possess more raw speed and playmaking ability than even the Rams gave him credit for. The best part: He’s only 25.
3. Nailed the draft: The Rams’ 2017 draft class accumulated an Approximate Value of 23, tied with that of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the third-highest in the NFL — even though the Rams made only one selection within the first 68 picks. Snead and his team of scouts and executives especially rocked the third round, selecting slot receiver Cooper Kupp and free safety John Johnson. Kupp immediately established himself within the Rams’ offense and led rookie receivers with a reception on 14.6 percent of his routes. Johnson moved into the starting lineup by Week 5 and finished ranked 15th among 87 qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus. The Rams’ fourth-round picks — vertical threat Josh Reynolds and pass-rusher Samson Ebukam — also look promising. So does Gerald Everett, the athletic tight end who became the Rams’ first pick at No. 44. Snead got that 44th pick by trading down from No. 37, which netted the additional third-round pick that changed the dynamic of his draft.
2. Invested in a left tackle: The Rams had suffered through Greg Robinson’s shoddy play for far too long. It was time to invest heavily in the blind side of their franchise quarterback, and Snead did that by guaranteeing $15 million to left tackle Andrew Whitworth on March 9. Whitworth, who turned 36 on Dec. 12, proved to be well worth it, both because of his play and his leadership. His presence created a trickle-down effect that improved the entire offensive line, allowing Rodger Saffold, Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein to settle into other positions. He was a coach on the field, not to mention an elite tackle who remained among the game’s best in pass protection and proved to be a major weapon as a downfield blocker in the screen game. Whitworth was named first-team All-Pro for the second time in three years and joined Hall of Famer Jackie Slater as the only tackles to make the Pro Bowl at 36 or older.
1. Vouched for McVay: It was Snead who first spoke up. When the Rams began the interview process for a new head coach, they found themselves most intrigued by McVay. Demoff, who led the search, had never heard an assistant draw such effusive praise. But McVay was only 30 at the time. It was a difficult circumstance to overcome. Then McVay interviewed with the Rams and blew them away. Demoff, Snead and senior assistant Tony Pastoors remained quiet for a moment. Then Snead broke the silence. He declared McVay “a stud,” and he told the room that he hoped they all had the courage to do the right thing. “I’m buying stock in Sean McVay,” Snead said then. Throughout the year, the two clicked. Their philosophies aligned, and Snead did a masterful job of shaping the offense to fit McVay’s scheme, helping the Rams more than double their previous year’s scoring output. McVay was handed the Associated Press’ Coach of the Year Award on Saturday, deservedly so. He helped Goff develop into a franchise quarterback, elevated Gurley among the game’s best running backs and made Aaron Donald believe in the path of this organization. Snead helped bring him here.