In four years as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach, Sean McVay has made the playoffs three times. That’s not a small feat. Keep in mind that McVay’s contemporary in San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan, has only done it once in four years—and both made significant moves at quarterback this season to upgrade their chances of making deep playoff runs. With the hand initially dealt to him, McVay has done more.
But of course, once you move on from incumbent starting quarterback Jard Goff and install Matthew Stafford, you accelerate your clock and your expectations. It’s wild to think about a quarterback without a career playoff win in Stafford replacing a Super Bowl attendee in Goff and expectations rising, but such are the narratives around those two passers. Stafford has always seemed like a better quarterback than his context allowed; Goff has always seemed a product of his context, and not a good quarterback in a vacuum.
As such, you simply cannot be as good with Stafford under center as you were with Goff and call it a win. In 50% of the Goff-McVay seasons, the Rams made it to the divisional round of the playoffs. If the Stafford-led Rams end there: with a divisional round appearance, as one of the four best teams in the NFC, the season will seem like a failure. It may not be Stafford’s fault—the departures at defensive coordinator (Brandon Staley) and passing game coordinator (Shane Waldron) are concerning, and bad injury luck always looms—but it will feel like a failure nonetheless.
So the NFC Championship game feels like the bare minimum for a successful season, at least on the record books. That will be a tall task for McVay’s Rams, as they’ll first have to endure a brutal NFC West slate before potentially running into the Green Bay Packers or Tampa Bay Buccaneers for an NFC playoff game—but it’s the task set before them. They knew they needed to compete with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, and made the move at quarterback to do it.
In the building, a Super Bowl berth and win likely is the expectation, or at least the reasonable goal. McVay’s Rams made it there in the 2018 season without Jalen Ramsey, and have since offloaded first-round picks for players like Ramsey and Stafford. They are star-studded and continually poor in significant draft capital. They have double-dipped at skill positions (Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers; Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell) in an effort to continually evolve their offense. They are building their team as aggressive as anyone else in the league, and have yet to secure that Lombardi trophy to show for it.
As such, you could also argue that a successful season, through a narrower scope, has the Rams as a top offense in the NFL. After the 2018 season in which they were second in points/game, yards/game, and DVOA (all to the Kansas City Chiefs), they were a fringe top-10 team in 2019 and average to below-average in 2020. McVay’s offense, while a leader in the current swell of motion, play-action, and series football, hasn’t had its punch in a couple of years. If they’re going to get back to Super Bowl level, it has to.
So with the transition at defensive coordinator and some unfortunate injuries, the Rams’ Super Bowl hopes could be derailed. But if the McVay offense fires on all cylinders and leaps back into the elite echelon of NFL offenses, you can chalk up these past couple of offseasons, at least, as successes. And that’ll indicate the Rams are moving back in the right direction, even if everything didn’t pan out in 2021.