Week 17’s showdown against the Green Bay Packers could be a defining moment for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
This past Monday marked the first time in 21 years that a National Football League franchise played a regular season game representing the City of Los Angeles as the Rams returned to Southern California. The Rams left Anaheim on March 15, 1995 in favor of St. Louis, Missouri. But after things were unraveling financially in St. Louis, they returned West. The Rams were given a hero’s welcomed when they returned to Los Angeles. And as L.A. is the second largest media market in the United States, the Rams immediately were once again thrust under the microscope.
The Rams began the 2016 National Football League with optimism and you really couldn’t blame them as they are in a new city, with a new fan base, and a new stadium on the way. The Rams are also in the process of developing their newest franchise quarterback in Jared Goff who was the first overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft. But when the Rams began play this past Monday night, they were shutout by the San Francisco 49ers 28-0.
In the game the Rams were thoroughly dominated by the 49ers in every facet of the game. The Rams only managed 185 total yards of offense, while they were 3-of-15 on third down conversions. The Rams also had 10 penalties for 102 yards which in itself is a recipe for disaster. And the architect for this futility was none other than Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.
21 of the last 22 years have seen Fisher as a head coach in the National Football League. Fisher’s time as an NFL head coach began in 1994 when he replaced Jack Pardee as the head coach of the Houston Oilers midway through the regular season. Fisher would stay with the Oilers franchise for 17 years which included the organization’s move to Nashville, Tennessee in 1997 as they would go on to be named the Titans. The highlight of Fisher’s tenure with the Titans came during the 1999 NFL season when he led Tennessee to their first and only AFC Championship in franchise history. In 17 years with the Oilers/Titans franchise, Fisher only had six playoff appearances as he compiled a record of 142-120.
Fisher would become the head coach of the Rams in 2012 and including Monday night’s loss to San Francisco, his record with the team is 27-37-1. Fisher has never posted a winning record with the Rams and he has been a polarizing figure in the National Football League for the simple fact that no head coach has done less than he has, but still manages to maintain his position. However Fisher now finds himself in a city that unlike Houston, Nashville, and St. Louis will want positive results immediately.
In losing to the 49ers, the Rams were outclassed and out coached, along with any other adjective that you could think of to describe their futility. The Rams issues started at the quarterback position where veteran Case Keenum got the nod. In the game Keemum was 17-of-35 passing for 130 yards while he was also sacked twice. Keenum finished the game with a quarterback rating of 34.2. Keenum is obviously not the Rams long-term option at quarterback as in five National Football League seasons, he has only started 16 games, while throwing 15 touchdowns passes to 11 interceptions. And when it became evident on Monday night that the Rams weren’t going to be victorious, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Goff to get a few reps as a quarterback, but Fisher made him inactive prior to the start of the game.
Fisher is coaching as if he is going to be the head coach of the Rams for a long time as there doesn’t appear to be a sense of urgency on his part, but he is now in a city that is all about “what have you done for me lately”. The Rams also gave up five draft picks to obtain the first overall slot from the Titans in order to draft Goff, and although that I am in favor of having a slow process as far as developing young quarterbacks, Goff is the best signal caller that is currently on the Rams roster.
More fuel was added to the fire about the Rams quarterback play when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who was immediately selected after Goff dazzled this past Sunday as he went 22-of-37 for 278 passing yards and had a pair of touchdowns in the 29-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Wentz is the Eagles best option at quarterback and he was on full display.
But overall as a team the Rams must play better as there is now a ton of pressure on them that they never had to deal with while they called St. Louis home. The Rams are set to host the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday and more than 90,000 people are expected to be in attendance at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first National Football League regular season game there since 1994. And for the Rams it will be their first home game at the venue since 1979. The Seahawks have been a perennial contender in the NFL during this decade and although that the Rams have been physical against them under Fisher, they need to get a victory over Seattle as a loss would not only make Los Angeles 0-2, but also 0-2 within the NFC West.
This is the time when leaders must step to the forefront, but the Rams parted with two of their leaders in the off-season when they released defensive end Chris Long who went on to sign with the New England Patriots, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis who is now with the New Orleans Saints. And with the likes of defensive end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams will still be able to produce a physical brand of football. But physical football alone won’t be enough as they must find a way to win football games as they must find a way to contain Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson after they allowed 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert to do whatever he wanted to on Monday night.
Fisher has not participated in the playoffs since 2008, and the Rams are the only team in the NFC West to not win the division since 2003. The Rams have talked a big game, but it is put-up, or shut-up time for this team as unlike in St. Louis, they cannot simply get lost in the shuffle in Hollywood.
X-Seattle Seahawks 12-4
The past four years have been the best stretch of football in the franchise history of the Seattle Seahawks. Over the stretch the Seahawks have a regular season record of 46-18 while they also have a Super Bowl Championship to their credit. And since Pete Carroll became the Seahawks head coach in 2010, this team has had depth at every position along with a competitive fire. In spite of not winning the NFC West last year, the Seahawks found a way to win a road playoff game before falling to the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Playoffs. And as Seattle bid farewell to running back Marshawn Lynch who was arguably the most physical runner in the history of the Seahawks, this is a team that is ready to make another run at winning the Super Bowl.
As the Seahawks record over the last four years is 46-18, a solid portion of that can be attributed to quarterback Russell Wilson. In four years as the Seahawks quarterback, Wilson has provided the Seahawks with strong leadership at the most important position on the field. Aside from the quality winning percentage, Wilson knows how to take care of the football as in four years in the National Football League, he has only thrown 34 interceptions. And Wilson’s ability to protect the football, along with his strong pocket awareness put the Seahawks in a position to win each game.
The Seahawks will miss the powerful runs of Lynch, but as he missed the majority of the 2015 National Football League season due to injury, they were still third in the league in rushing. Wilson’s elusiveness as a runner will once again be on display, while the Seahawks have high expectations for running back Thomas Rawls. In 13 games with the Seahawks in 2015, Rawls averaged 5.6 yards per carry and he was on his way to gaining 1,000 yards before a broken ankle ended his campaign. But if Rawls is able to regain his form, he has plenty of speed and elusiveness in the backfield that will compliment Wilson.
The Seahawks don’t have Pro Bowlers at the wide receiver position, but it doesn’t hurt that Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Tyler Lockett are in sync with Wilson. Baldwin has become Wilson’s most dependable wide receiver; especially on third downs and scrambling situations, and that will once again be the case in 2016.
In the last two off-seasons there has been some roster overhaul on the Seahawks offensive line, but the new additions of offensive tackle J’Marcus Webb and guard Jahri Evans will need to keep the machine that has become the Seattle offense going.
Defensively the Seahawks can still get after opponents with the best of them as they were second in the National Football League last year in total defense. The Seahawks defense will miss the contributions of defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, but they still have defensive end Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Aside from cornerback Richard Sherman, Bennett might have the biggest mouth in the Pacific Northwest. And just like Sherman, Bennett knows how to back it up as his motor on the field is just as active as his mouth.
But make no mistake about the fact the strength of the Seahawks defense is still in their secondary where they have a trio of All-Pros in Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor who can change the game plan of opposing quarterbacks.
Under Carroll, there isn’t a facet of the game that the Seahawks don’t take for granted as you can see with their commitment to special teams. The Seahawks have one of the best place kickers in the National Football League in Steven Hauschka, a punter in Jon Ryan who typically sets the defense up with great field position, and a kick returner in Lockett who has shown in a very short time that he is always one step away from breaking a big return.
In recent years the Seahawks toughest opponent has been the Los Angeles Rams, and when these two clash in Week 2, it could set the tone for each team’s season. But when the smoke clears at the end of the season, the Seahawks should once again be the team to beat in the NFC West.
Y-Arizona Cardinals 12-4
This is the dawn of a new day for the Arizona Cardinals as for the first time since 1974-1976 when the franchise still called St. Louis, Missouri home, the Cardinals have put together three consecutive seasons in which they’ve won at least 10 games. The Cardinals also made the NFC Championship Game last year for just the second time in franchise history as there has been a definite culture change that has taken place on the watch of head coach Bruce Arians and the folks in cactus country are definitely thinking about their team winning the Super Bowl.
The success of the Cardinals begins with the health of quarterback Carson Palmer. At 36-years of age, Palmer has bounced around during his National Football League career which has included stints with the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders. Palmer is still a very capable quarterback, but it comes down to his health as the injury bug has bitten him several times during his career.
Arians has gone to work as far as putting a solid team around Palmer that begins with the Cardinals offensive line. Guard Mike Iupati is entering his seventh National Football League season and each of the last four years have seen him reach the Pro Bowl as he is rapidly developing a reputation as one of the best guards in the game. Guard Evan Mathis joins the Cards after helping the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl last year. And as the Cardinals are Mathis’ sixth NFL team, Arizona is hopeful that his experience will pay dividends for them this year. The Cardinals also employ two of the larger offensive tackles in football with D.J. Humphries and Jared Veldheer as this is the unit that is charged with keeping Palmer’s uniform clean.
Under Arians, the Cards have been committed to a solid running game which was evident by the fact that Arizona finished 2015 eighth in the National Football League in rushing. The Cardinals have a trio of running backs in Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, and David Johnson that each possesses a different running style which keeps opposing defenses on their toes.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is set to begin his 13th year with the Cardinals. And as Fitzgerald is getting older, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as he still has some of the best hands in football while being a dependable pass catcher for Palmer. Aside from Fitzgerald, the Cards have speed at wide receiver in the form of John Brown, along with Michael Floyd who has a big frame as he can ward off smaller defensive backs.
In 2015, the Cardinals were fifth in the National Football League in total defense as this is a veteran unit that has turned into a band of brothers. Arians has made it a point to hire former NFL players, and if you look at the Cards defensive coaching staff, defensive line coach Brenston Buckner, linebackers coach Larry Foote, and defensive backs coach Kevin Ross all played in the league which makes it easier as they can relate to their players.
The Cardinals typically run the 3-4 defense which requires a stout defensive line to open up things for the rest of the defense. On Arizona’s defensive line, the likes of Red Bryant and Calais Campbell never stop moving, while the expectations are high for rookie defensive end Robert Nkemdiche who was the Cardinals first-round pick this past spring. This off-season has seen the Cardinals acquire outside linebacker Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots as he is one of the best pass rushers in the National Football League which only makes this unit stronger.
But just like the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals possess one of the best secondaries in football. Cornerback Patrick Peterson has great tremendous cover skills, while safety Tyrann Mathieu is turning into one of the best defensive players in the league. And Arizona also has a hard hitting strong safety in Deone Bucannon who is known to creep up into the box as a run stopper as he is indeed an intimidator.
Of the Cardinals first six games in 2016, only the New England Patriots made the playoffs last year as they will look to keep up with the Seahawks for supremacy in the NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams 8-8
The 2016 National Football League season will be nostalgic for anyone old enough to remember the days when the Rams called Los Angeles home. From 1946-1994, the Rams played in Los Angeles, until former team owner Georgia Frontiere decided to move the team to St. Louis, Missouri. However the current Rams owner Stan Kroenke was seeking a new stadium on the St. Louis waterfront which he was unable to secure, and that led the Rams returning to Los Angeles. And once you factor in that the Raiders left Los Angeles in 1994 like the Rams did, this marks the first time in more than two decades that the second largest metropolis in the United States has an NFL franchise to call its own.
Jeff Fisher is set to embark on his fifth season as the Rams head coach and you have to wonder how much more rope that he’ll be given as he has yet to post a winning record with this team. Fisher feels that the lack of production from the quarterback position has been a hinderance to this team which led him to trading up in the National Football League Draft this past April to select quarterback Jared Goff with the first overall pick.
To me Goff needs some time to get adjusted to the professional game, but since the Rams gave up so much in the draft to get him, you can expect to see him under center sooner rather than later in Los Angeles. On top of that, Goff will be dealing with immense pressure he’ll be under the Hollywood microscope.
But while Goff is attempting to get his feet wet in the National Football League, he can rely on one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Last year as a rookie, running back Todd Gurley arrived in a very loud way with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns to be named as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. The Rams are hopeful that Gurley can avoid the sophomore slump while also adding to the franchise’s tradition at running back that includes Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk.
The Rams also employ one the biggest and ferocious offensive lines in football that includes offensive tackle Greg Robinson, and guard Roger Saffold as there is plenty of beef in Los Angeles.
The Rams have an intimidating defense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good. The Rams have a stout defensive line that includes defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald, along with defensive end Robert Quinn who are all talented pass rushers. But the Rams were 23rd in the National Football League last year in total defense and they allowed two leaders to leave this off-season in defensive end Chris Long who signed with the New England Patriots and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is now with the New Orleans Saints. And that lack of leadership will definitely hurt the Rams defensively as they are seeking their first playoff berth since 2004.
The bright lights of Hollywood will be on the Rams, and it will be interesting to see how they’ll be able to handle it.
San Francisco 49ers 4-12
After being one of the best teams in the National Football League from 2011-2013, the San Francisco 49ers have once again fell on hard times. Last year saw the 49ers go 5-11 for their worst campaign since 2007. After just one year as the Niners head coach, Jim Tomsula was fired and replaced by former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. Like Tomsula, Kelly was dismissed last season. But for Kelly, he had a mutiny on his hands in the Eagles locker room. And for some strange reason, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke decided that Kelly would be the right man for the job in San Francisco.
According to the salary that Colin Kaepernick is receiving, he should be the 49ers starting quarterback, but that is something which isn’t etched in stone. Kaepernick has been the 49ers starting quarterback since 2012. But whereas Kaepernick’s athleticism allowed him to become a household name upon his arrival to the National Football League, he has been unable to make the adjustment to becoming a pocket passer. Kaepernick has been lukewarm at best to playing for Kelly who does use spread offense principles, however he’s never been a head coach that was willing to commit to using just one quarterback. The Niners were on the verge of trading Kaepernick to the Denver Broncos this off-season, until the quarterback wasn’t willing to take a pay cut. And what this makes for is something that is festering in the Bay Area that doesn’t smell good with Kelly who still has a college mindset.
Overall last year the 49ers were abysmal on offense as they were 31st in the National Football League in total offense. The Niners once proud rushing attack was reduced to a heap of rubble as they were 21st in the league in rushing with the team’s leading ground gainer being running back Carlos Hyde with just 470 yards.
Make no mistake about it that the 49ers will do a much better job of running the football this season under Kelly as he is committed to the ground game. The Niners commitment to the rushing attack begins with the offensive line that features left tackle Joe Staley who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons, and guard Joshua Garnett who is a rookie from Stanford University that San Francisco is high on.
When the 49ers were one of the better teams in the National Football League a few years ago, their defense was stingy and full of play makers. But that is no longer the case as middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman will try to lead an unproven group that will be fighting an uphill battle in the NFC West.
Unless Kelly has changed his mindset on how he treats his players, and how he chooses to treat his starting quarterback, San Francisco needs to prepare for a very long football season.
First Round Pick: Robert Nkemdiche-Defensive Tackle-Ole Miss
Best Pick: Robert Nkemdiche
There has been a definite culture change for the Arizona Cardinals in their three years under head coach Bruce Arians as they now find themselves among the elite teams in the National Football League. After making the NFC Championship Game last season, the Cardinals found themselves picking near the end of the first round of the NFL Draft. And there Arians would take a chance on Mississippi Rebels defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
Nkemdiche had the talent to be selected in the top five of the National Football League Draft, but off-the-field issues saw him slide. It appeared that Nkemdiche would fall out of the first round completely until Arians took a chance on him. Arizona should be a solid fit for Nkemdiche as there is leadership in the locker room and he will be held accountable for his actions.
Aside from Nkemdiche, the Cards were able to add depth in the secondary with their second round selection of Texas A&M Aggies cornerback Brandon Williams and in the sixth round with cornerback Harlan Miller from the Southeastern Louisiana Lions. But Arians and the Cardinals did miss an opportunity to draft a quarterback to groom behind Carson Palmer who is 36-years of age along with having a history of injuries. Instead the Cardinals decided to bring in Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback as an undrafted free agent, but it will be interesting to see if he’ll impress enough to make the roster.
First Round Pick: Germain Ifedi-Offensive Tackle-Texas A&M
Best Pick: Round Two-Jarran Reed-Defensive Tackle-Alabama
Since Pete Carroll became the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, this has been an organization that has made a habit of nailing it at the National Football League Draft which is why they have five playoff appearances and a Super Bowl appearance over that stretch.
The Seahawks really got busy at the 2016 National Football League Draft. In the first round, Seattle traded down five slots and still managed to draft Texas A&M Aggies offensive tackle Germain Ifedi. In Ifedi, the Seahawks get a versatile player that can play multiple positions on the offensive line, but he’ll most likely fill the void at left tackle after Russell Okung left to join the Broncos.
Seattle really lucked out near the end of the second round where they selected Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Jarran Reed. In some of my mock drafts, I had the Seahawks selecting Reed in the first round, and he still managed to be available that late in the draft process for them which was a huge coup for them.
The running back position in the National Football League is a spot where teams always need depth. And whereas the Seahawks must fill the void of running back Marshawn Lynch who retired, they stocked up on ball carriers with Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back C.J. Prosise in the third round and Arkansas Razorbacks Alex Collins in the sixth round. Prosise and Collins will provide the Seahawks with depth and speed. But for Collins he comes to the NFL with a ton of carries under his belt at Arkansas and you just wonder if that will wear on him in Seattle.
Los Angeles Rams
First Round Pick: Jared Goff-Quarterback-California
Best Pick: Jared Goff
It wasn’t a big secret that the Los Angeles Rams were going to use the first overall pick of the National Football League Draft on a quarterback; it was just a matter of which one. Heading up to the start of the draft, the Rams were able to keep one of the biggest secrets in sports to themselves, but they ultimately decided on California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff. At 6’4″, 215lbs., Goff has the prototypical height for the position, but he will need to bulk up to deal with the potential hits. Goff didn’t come from a pro-style offense at California which means that there will be a learning curve. However with all that the Rams gave up to get Goff, he will probably be thrown to the wolves too early.
Due to the fact that the Rams moved up 14 spots to take Goff, they had to part with several draft picks which robbed them of the chance to add depth. And hopefully for the Rams and Goff, we’ll see them have a successful marriage in Hollywood.
San Francisco 49ers
First Round Pick: DeForest Buckner-Defensive End-Oregon, Joshua Garnett-Guard-Stanford
Best Pick: DeForest Buckner
This off-season has not been a good one for the San Francisco 49ers. First, the 49ers hired a head coach in Chip Kelly who had just been fired by the Philadelphia Eagles after he lost the locker room there. And secondly, the Niners have been unable to trade a disgruntled quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.
After the Niners failed to complete a deal to send Kaepernick packing, they passed up on quarterbacks in the National Football League Draft until the sixth round when they selected Louisiana Tech Bulldogs quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel is a mobile signal caller that will fit into Kelly’s system. However there are a ton of questions around his ability to lead and execute an offense.
After San Francisco used their first-round pick on Oregon Ducks defensive end DeForest Buckner, they surprisingly traded back into the first to select Stanford Cardinal guard Joshua Garnett who they could have gotten much later in the draft process.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, these past few months are a clear example that the 2016 National Football League season is going to be a very long one for them.