In many ways, the Los Angeles Rams seem like the oddball success story of 2017. They hired the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, paired him with a defensive coordinator more than twice his age and handed them an underachieving roster to win with in one of the most competitive divisions in the league. Yet despite the seemingly long odds, nearly everything Los Angeles did this year has worked, and now the team appears as balanced and dangerous as any in the NFC.
Just one season after scoring the fewest points in the NFL by a significant margin, the Rams lead the league in that department in 2017. That success derives in great part from the offensive design and play-calling of 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay. Where high-scoring offenses in the recent past have relied on on-the-fly adjustments by quarterbacks and skill-position players, spectacular individual play by either position group or both, McVay instead limits the volume of offensive concepts to better accommodate his mostly young personnel. He disguises that simplicity with pre-snap motion -- an easy way to reveal defensive coverages -- and formational variation, thereby refreshing Los Angeles' approach and keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
While McVay displays his brilliance within a multitude of situations, he reveals his true mastery of offense within the red zone. Despite working with a second-year quarterback, a still-developing offensive line and no true alpha receiver, the Rams have MacGyvered together a creative and prolific offensive attack inside the 20. That attack starts with Todd Gurley, who McVay featured in one of his more inventive goal-line plays this past Sunday.
Gurley would normally occupy most of the attention from the defense, given his skill set and place within the Rams offense. However, rather than position him as a typical tailback, McVay places him at the line of scrimmage as part of a receiver bunch to the right of the formation. More specifically, Gurley lines up as the innermost receiver, cloaking his intentions to defenders. From there, he can run over the middle, work to the back of the end zone, chip or block down on a defensive lineman or any number of maneuvers. In this instance, Gurley ran underneath the other bunched receivers into the flat, fully unnoticed by the defense until he had a five-yard cushion. A moment later, he caught an easy pass from Jared Goff for the score.
Having an MVP-caliber weapon like Gurley certainly aids an offense at the goal line, but McVay's deployment of the running back and the rest of his offensive personnel enhance those scoring opportunities. No NFC team in 2017 has produced more red-zone touchdowns than the Rams, who average 2.5 per game. That figure accounts for the lion's share of the team's average of 2.9 offensive touchdowns. Los Angeles depends on McVay's ingenuity at the goal line for its scoring success.
Meanwhile, the Rams have finally put together a dominant defense after years of underperformance. All-Pro Aaron Donald anchors a defensive front that also features stud pass rusher Robert Quinn and unheralded nose tackle Michael Brockers. Former safety Mark Barron has become a fixture as an off-ball linebacker, while Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner patrol the secondary. And, of course, Wade Phillips coordinates the defense as well as he did during his championship-winning tenure with the Broncos. Together, they form one of the most potent defenses in the NFL, a unit that ranks first in scoring and sixth in DVOA.
Other NFC teams might have greater individual strengths, but none possess the Rams' overall balance heading into the postseason. The Eagles can compete defensively with any opponent across the league, especially with a front seven headlined by Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. Still, the offense has taken a significant step back since Carson Wentz's season-ending knee injury, leaving the Eagles vulnerable. The Saints' prolific offense has proven to be the most efficient in the conference, ranking second overall in DVOA heading into the final week of the regular season. However, their defense trails that of the other NFC frontrunners due in part to the lack of a true field tilter. The Vikings essentially represent the opposite, featuring a star-studded defense and an offense without a trump card. The Panthers have a high ceiling but manage to make most of their games closely contested affairs.
The Rams don't have a way of securing a first-round bye in the playoffs, but they will host a game in the wild-card round. Their opponent for the round remains unclear, but they have to feel good about their chances throughout the postseason. Philadelphia, which owns the top seed in the NFC, barely beat Los Angeles with Wentz in the fold. Without him, the Eagles look like an underdog in a rematch. The Saints lost the head-to-head matchup and could still end up losing their division race. Only the Vikings dominated the Rams during the regular season, though that game looks like an outlier compared to the rest of Los Angeles' schedule.
The Rams could well end up as a one-and-done team in the playoffs. The core of their roster remains young and inexperienced, while their head coach, barely older than his players, has minimal postseason experience. The lack of a first-round bye also means they will have to play a difficult game on the road should they advance.
Still, in an NFC playoff field otherwise populated by flawed squads, Los Angeles has a navigable path to Super Bowl LII. The Rams might not match the sheer firepower of their "Greatest Show on Turf" era, but they have the opportunity to replicate that team's improbable transformation from cellar-dwellers to league champions.