A year ago, the Los Angeles Rams and Sean McVay were at the top of the NFC, fresh off a Super Bowl berth that saw their offense fall flat against the New England Patriots.
The Rams, by all accounts, were stocked with young talent, had a genius head coach and were primed to lord over the division until someone knocked them off. The good feelings in LA lasted a little over a month, as the 49ers pummeled them 20-7 while holding the Rams to 157 total yards. McVay's team had a better showing at Levi's Stadium in Week 16, but still fell 34-31, finishing the season at 9-7 and missing the playoffs.
McVay and the Rams now are looking up at Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, hoping to chase them down and get back to the top of the NFC West. As you might have heard, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it should be no surprise that McVay plans to take a page out of Shanahan's coaching book this season when it comes to managing his backfield.
"I think it'll just naturally work itself out. I think if you look at that success San Fran had last year with that running back-by-committee approach," McVay said on the Helliepod, via The Rams Wire. "What I thought Kyle (Shanahan) and their players did a great job of is, 'Hey, we're going to have an open-mind approach, we're going to be committed to trying to have some balance and then we'll go with the hot hand or whoever really expresses himself as deserving of the carries."
[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
The Rams had to run away from Todd Gurley's disastrous contract. Cutting him cost the Rams $20.15 million in dead money, the second-most in league history. The Rams cut Gurley just two years after signing him to a four-year extension, which was set to begin in 2020.
With Gurley off the roster, the Rams are going in the polar opposite direction and trotting out a backfield by committee which will include Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown, Cam Akers and John Kelly.
The 49ers did well with a running back by committee approach in 2019, with Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida sharing the load evenly in the early part of the season before Mostert took over the lion's share of the carries late, including a historic performance in the NFC Championship Game when he rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the 49ers' 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers.
After being knocked from the top of the NFC West, McVay and the Rams had to recalibrate in order to compete with the 49ers. Facing salary-cap issues, the Rams cut Gurley, who had battled knee ailments, in an attempt to free up money to build out the roster in 2020 and in the future.
But McVay and the Rams' 2019 struggles went well beyond Gurley's performance. They owned one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and instead of addressing that sieve of a unit in the offseason they elected to run it back, hoping for better results. That's the definition of insanity.
An even more troubling issue for the Rams is the expected regression of Jared Goff, who recorded the lowest passer rating on play-action passes last season. That's an issue for a team whose offense is heavily predicated on play-action, throwing the most play-action passes in 2019.
Going away from the star running back approach is a good way to modernize your roster-building approach, but that's not the reason the Rams sunk and the 49ers surged in 2019. The 49ers are set up for long-term success atop the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks will contend as long as Russell Wilson is taking snaps and the Arizona Cardinals look primed to become a contender in a year or two.
The Rams could face a reckoning in 2020. The 49ers are better than them at nearly every position, and LA has few options for a quick improvement. If Goff continues to go the other way, the Rams might be forced to bottom out and do a complete rebuild while the 49ers lord over the division.