NFL teams are obsessed with building slowly for long-term success. But in Los Angeles, they’d much rather win now
The Los Angeles Rams’ commitment to bucking orthodoxy is admirable. Rather than following the regular old blueprint of slowly and methodically building through the draft, the Rams are instead looking to microwave success year in, year out. They do not care for the recent fetishization of draft picks. They want good players, not high-value picks. And they want them all right now.
On Monday, the Rams shipped out a second- and third-round pick to acquire former All-Pro pass-rusher Von Miller from the Broncos. For any other franchise, it would represent a seismic move: a pair of valuable draft picks in return for what is effectively a 10-game (they hope) rental. For the Rams, the Oprah of draft equity, it was a humdrum Monday. You get a draft pick! And you get a draft pick!
It didn’t even matter that the Rams couldn’t absorb Miller’s cap hit. Adding a soon-to-be free agent for a second-round pick would have been a costly sum all of its own. LA tacked on the third-round pick so that the Broncos would absorb $9m of Miller’s remaining salary, allowing the Rams to sneak Miller under the cap.
This is what it looks like when a team goes, as they say, all in. It is normal in basketball and baseball: teams selling their future to better their odds ever so slightly in the now. Yet in the NFL, with a hard cap and a settled draft order, picks are the must-have commodity – all the more so since the 2011 CBA applied cheap salary slots to the draft order.
But Les Snead, Sean McVay and the Rams brain trust don’t care about the standard mode of operating. Ever since McVay was hired, the Rams have tried to remove doubt from the talent acquisition business: targeting high-end targets with multiple drafts picks. Better to burn valuable picks on established players in their prime than take a swing on a couple of college kids who could turn out to be busts, the theory goes. Veterans who have already proven themselves in the league such as Jalen Ramsey, Brandin Cooks, Matthew Stafford, and now Miller have all been acquired for future considerations.
The Ramsey deal changed everything. Once the Rams had committed two first-round picks, a fourth-rounder and a mega-money extension to a corner in his prime years, they shifted from a franchise with a medium-term vision into one that had a championship-or-bust mindset. Such is the way with a hard cap sport: once winning time arrives, you have to cash in.
Now the Rams are pushing that logic to its extreme. The team knew Jared Goff, their young quarterback, wasn’t good enough. But rather than jump back into the muddy waters of the draft, they moved Goff and a pair of draft picks to Detroit for Stafford, a known commodity who would help elevate the team’s ceiling. Adding Miller saps the team of long-term flexibility, too. And. They. Don’t. Care. The Rams 2022 draft outlook currently looks like this:
Round 1: Traded to the Lions
Round 2: Traded to the Broncos
Round 3: Traded to the Broncos; own a compensatory pick via Brad Holmes hire
Round 4: Traded to the Texans
Round 5: Own
Round 6: Traded to the Patriots
Round 7: Own plus the Dolphins’ pick
There is a commonly held belief that teams should be perennially building for the long term, that they should forever be laying the foundation for a potential dynasty.
That’s silly. A team only gets so many shots at winning it all. Planning for a two-decade-long run is folly. Over the course of the past 60 or so years, the NFL has had five true dynasties: The Packers of the 60s; Steelers of the 70s; the Niners of the 80s; the Cowboys of the 90s; the Patriots of the 2000s. Only the Patriots were able to push their peak across 20 years. Only one team – the Patriots again – were able to do so in the era of free agency. Unless you land the finest coach and quarterback of the respective era, you have no shot at sustaining contention over a 10-year period.
And there’s no shame in admitting that. The Carroll-Wilson Seahawks have been to two Super Bowls, winning one. That’s not a failure. The Manning-era Broncos and Manning-era Colts each went to two Super Bowls, winning one apiece. Not a failure.
There is a sense of humility to the Rams not chasing prolonged success, in admitting they cannot out-draft the entire league on a yearly basis. Instead, the Rams are allowing the rest of the league to reveal the difference-making players before they go and chase them on the trade market.
Miller may not be the difference this season, but he does tip the odds in the Rams favor. The Rams already have a good defense. They finished top in the league in efficiency last season and currently sit ninth in the league in EPA/play, right alongside the Bucs. By adding Miller, the Rams can build a defensive structure that complements their league-leading offense. Prioritizing that above an unknown rookie seems like a well-placed bet.
Like any league with a playoff system, the best team does not always win it all in the NFL. That’s why teams are so fervent in their belief to plan for the long term. Find the right quarterback, and you buy yourself 10-to-15 years’ worth of lottery tickets, offense proving to be more stable on a year-to-year basis than defense. Build a component core each season, the theory holds, and one of these years, your number should come up.
It’s sound logic. But the Rams’ decision-makers aren’t buying it. They’d rather have five tickets for this season, thank you very much. In the end, though, they will be measured by the same standard as everyone: Did they win it all or not?