Sean McVay’s history shows Rams can’t afford to be pass-happy on offense
OAKLAND — Sean McVay is a quarterbacks guru who loves tight-end mismatches and now gets to game-plan with receiver Sammy Watkins. But don’t forget the Rams’ running backs. McVay should not.
The Rams have Todd Gurley, who underachieved badly in 2016 but seems poised for a bounce-back season after a strong training camp. McVay, the Rams’ rookie coach and their play-caller, might be tempted to throw the ball a lot, but his recent history suggests that the ground game works.
McVay’s second preseason game as a head coach takes place Saturday, when the Rams play at Oakland. Last week against Dallas, the Rams totaled 33 pass plays and 28 run plays.
“When you put together any offensive system,” Rams running backs coach Skip Peete said this week, “you try to have some form of balance, with the run and the pass. When you go back and look at Coach’s history, as far as his time in Washington when he was calling plays, that’s what he did. There was a balance between the run and pass.”
McVay called plays last season as Washington’s offensive coordinator. In the team’s eight victories, it ran the ball on 47.2 percent of its plays. In seven losses, Washington ran on only 29.1 percent of its plays.
Washington ran the ball more as the 2016 season progressed, but in total, the team passed on 61.6 percent of its plays, the seventh-highest average in the NFL last season. Washington averaged 24.8 points per game, only the 12th-highest average in the league.
Will that change with the Rams? They have a second-year quarterback in Jared Goff, and they don’t know exactly what to expect from Gurley or from an offensive line that seems upgraded but struggled badly last season in pass and run blocking, as the Rams compiled some of the NFL’s worst offensive stats.
The tendency, with a coach, quarterback and organization all attempting to make a good impression in Los Angeles, might be to sling the ball around the field, but that’s not always the most prudent plan. For instance, New England in 2016 averaged 34.4 pass attempts and 30.1 run attempts per game.
“It’s hard to be a dominant offense if you’re not balanced,” Rams center John Sullivan said. “You have to make teams worry about both facets. Obviously, everybody loves seeing big-chunk plays and throwing the ball down the field, but the way you open that up sometimes is by running the ball effectively. One feeds off the other.”
Sullivan should know. He spent most of last season in Washington as the backup center.
Washington started last season 0-2, and in those games attempted 89 passes and only 29 runs. So astounding was the disparity that McVay actually went before local reporters and said he would call more run plays.
He did. Washington won its next four games, in which it attempted 138 passes and 109 runs. Washington kept running the ball, even after a midseason injury to lead back Matt Jones. McVay turned to Rob Kelley, an undrafted free agent, who became a trusted option.
Now, McVay has Gurley, who averaged only 3.2 yards per carry last season behind a struggling offensive line and alongside a sputtering pass game.
McVay recently praised Gurley as a “violent runner” and certainly is talking a good game, in terms of making Gurley a focal point of his offense.
“He’s definitely a complete back,” McVay said. “I think he’s motivated in the right way. I can’t say enough about what he’s done right now and the challenge, just like anything else is, ‘Can we continue to sustain that over time?’ That consistency that we’re striving for and Todd’s been a great example of that for our team so far.”
McVay clearly attempted to line up his running backs upon his arrival. He inherited Gurley, then the Rams signed free agent Lance Dunbar to emulate Washington’s Chris Thompson. McVay regularly used Thompson as a pass threat out of the backfield, and Dunbar mirrors Thompson’s size and skill set.
The only problem is, Dunbar hasn’t made it onto the field in preseason practices because of a bad knee. Gurley has been getting more work as a pass-catcher, and the Rams like the effort of undrafted free agent Justin Davis, who is shifty in the open field.
So, the evolution of the Rams’ offense continues, and it will get a longer look Saturday, as the starters are expected to play into the second quarter against the Raiders.
“I think it’s about attacking and winning football games,” Sullivan said. “We scored a ton of points last year, and now that’s the expectation in Los Angeles, that we’re going to do the exact same thing. We’re going to use all facets of the game to attack teams, and we’re going to try to put defenses on their heels.”
The Rams on Friday signed outside linebacker Davis Tull and cornerback Carlos Davis, and waived receivers C.J. Germany and Justin Thomas.
Tull spent last season on Atlanta’s practice squad and most recently had been in the Canadian Football League. Davis went undrafted this year out of Mississippi.
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