Saturday’s Divisional Round tilt in the LA Coliseum was one of the more entertaining of the weekend, offering explosive plays, suddenly resurgent running backs, and Aqib Talib turning in one of the most Aqib Talib performances of all time, by getting injured, returning to the game to almost wreck his team’s chances by being called for pass interference in the endzone, and finally screaming “fuck” into Jared Goff’s face on live TV after the game for no discernible reason.
But one of the more intriguing battles was the one waged in the trenches, between the surprisingly old Rams offensive line and the staggeringly young Cowboys defensive front. Perhaps it’s my ignorance, but these teams always occupy the opposing positions in my head: the Rams are the youthful, vibrant team of Goff and Sean McVay, all dimpled smiles and hopeful expressions, while America’s Team is one soaked in the decrepit mediocrity of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, and veterans like Jason Witten and Tony Romo clinging onto roster spots long after they reached their peaks.
Yet the numbers tell another story; none of the Cowboys starting defenders, not just their front seven, had over a hundred career games, and none were older than 29-year-old Tyrone Crawford. The Rams offensive line, meanwhile, were nothing short of the Old Grumblers, Dwarf warriors of the Warhammer setting, long of beard and furrowed of brow, respected for their age, wisdom and constant grumbling; of the five up front, three were at least 30, and boasted 581 career games over a total of 41 seasons between them. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth alone has only played in three career games fewer than all of the Cowboys’ starting defensive linemen put together.
Even the two youthful members of the unit, right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Haverstein, are unusually experienced for a pair of 26-year-olds, with 99 career games between them heading into Saturday’s contest.
The line has also benefitted from remarkable consistency, being the only unit in the league for every lineman to start every game at the same position. Ideas like “experience” and “teamwork” are often bandied around, as if having shot an arm into the chest of a defensive lineman a thousand times over carries some inherent benefit, that will improve the play of the attacker by virtue of simple repetition, but the continued existence of players like Blaine Gabbert demonstrate that simply being around the NFL for years does not guarantee a high level of performance. This Rams line is, therefore, experience turned concrete and wisdom made real, significant individual skill married with tight bonds of cooperation and understanding, forged over months of slugging into defensive linemen together.
Just look at the numbers behind the team’s performance en route to a 30-22 victory that was never really in doubt from the middle of the second quarter onwards. Zero sacks, one quarterback hit, and two tackles for loss, from a defensive front that boasted young studs like Jaylon Smith and Leyton Vander Esch.
Behind the Rams’ line, another veteran rumbled all over the upstarts in white, as CJ Anderson, formally the feature back on the 2015 Broncos team that won it all, running for 123 yards off 23 carries and two touchdowns. CJ Anderson! A player with undoubted talent, but who had bounced from the Panthers, to the Raiders, and finally onto the Rams’ roster when star back Todd Gurley went down with an injury. After struggling to make an impact in the Panthers’ backfield, stumbling to 104 yards off 24 carries in 9 games, and not seeing the field with the Raiders, he exploded behind the Rams’ offensive line, running for 299 yards in 2 regular season games with Los Angeles, scoring twice and, now, leading them into the NFC Championship game.
In some ways, Anderson is the antithesis of the vaunted Rams line. Where the line is consistent, Anderson has struggled to hold down a roster spot all season; where the line is a tight-knit bunch, Anderson didn’t make his first start of the season until December; where two of the line were drafted by and have played their entire careers with the Rams, Anderson is on his fourth team in six years. But in other, more important ways, he fits the mould of the Rams’ ground attack perfectly. Like Whitworth to his left, he is a vastly experienced player, one of those who has “done it all”, as they say, and is a Super Bowl champion on a team that, beyond the offensive line, was the league’s fourth-youngest at the start of the season, and is a veteran presence on a side that is ultimately one of wide-eyed hope than steely-eyed focus.
While he has also been dismissed as a one-dimensional back, perhaps more due to his stout, stocky figure than anything else, he has displayed a mental flexibility crucial in McVay’s offence. He has a pass-catching pedigree far in excess of other power backs, such as LeGarrette Blount and his heroic average of 7 catches a year over his distinguished career, putting up close to a thousand yards through the air in his four years as the Broncos’ starter.
But he can also perform a number of roles in an offence that is built primarily on versatile players. Robert Mays wrote an excellent piece in The Ringer last week, which broke down how the Rams offence has become the monster that it is. The idea is that, in an age of increasing schematic complexity and playbooks thicker than Bibles, the Rams have moved in the opposite direction, using a single formation to devastating effect. While the rest of the league has a number of ultra-specialised players spread across a number of formations, making the offence complex by design and recruitment difficult, bordering on impossible, the Rams generate complexity and flexibility through individual players, while the broad strokes of the system remain the same.
Mays notes that the Rams use 11 personnel – a formation featuring one back, one tight end and three receivers – on 96% of their offensive snaps this season, by far the highest figure in the NFL, and one that makes the team more resistant to setbacks like injuries and absences. While Josh Gordon took several weeks to familiarise himself with the Patriots’ notoriously complex offence, and was only a significant contributor after a few games up in Foxboro, Anderson has been able to slot into Gurley’s shoes far more quickly.
And this is nothing new for the Rams this season. When slot receiver Cooper Kupp tore his ACL after eight games, the third of the three receivers that take to the field so often, Josh Reynolds was able to slide into the team without much of a hiccup. In the last eight games of the season in which he recorded a catch, he hauled in 25 balls for 346 yards and 5 touchdowns, numbers that stack up really quite well against the man above him on the depth chart, who caught 40 passes for 566 yards in 6 scores in the same number of games.
It is at this point that the metaphor atop this piece begins to break down. The Old Grumblers is a title that sprung to mind when watching the veteran Rams offensive line push around those whippersnappers from Dallas. The consistency of the team’s formations and personnel certainly adds to the change-resistant idea of the Grumblers, but the versatility of individual players and the explosiveness of the unit as a whole is more akin to an Imperial army or a Dark Elf Bloodbowl team.
Perhaps that is McVay’s greatest triumph in his young career of great triumphs. At a time when the league is being pulled in opposite directions – the Ravens embody a kind of hard-nosed game not seen for 40 years; the Chiefs throw passes and caution to the wind with delightful, yet reckless abandon; the Bengals have only just lurched out of the Marvin Lewis quagmire for the first time in a thousand years; and the Patriots continue to be the league’s chameleons, relentlessly altering their systems and gameplans by the drive, let alone by the week – the Rams offence is an odd middle ground, a point of balance around which the rest of the league revolves. All of the numbers are impressive, but none of them are record-shattering: second in total offence; second in scoring offence; fifth in passing yards; and third in rushing yards.
NFL Research made the point midway through the game that the Rams had, until that point, put up more rushing yards, 250, than the Cowboys had total yards, 249; and this was with their star running back still hobbling back from injury. The Rams are one of the most balanced and effective offensive units I’ve seen in a while, and were it not for the chaotic atmosphere that will greet them in the Superdome this weekend, I would make them favourites to reach the Super Bowl.