For three hours in Pittsburgh on Sunday, it was clear that Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay doesn’t have the same magic as his first couple seasons. We can drill it down to a baffling two-play sequence.
If Freddie Kitchens or Adam Gase had a similar decision-making process, we’d want them fired before they got on the team plane. In the third quarter, with the offense stalled, all of a sudden Blake Bortles was in the game at quarterback. He ran a really awkward read option and was stuffed for 1 yard on third-and-2. This was the plan. There was a plan to remove Jared Goff for Bortles in a key situation.
“We just had Blake come in. That was the play that we had designed for Blake,” McVay said, via Cameron DaSilva of The Rams Wire. “It wasn’t anything where Jared – you know, he was good. He was OK. That was a play that we were going to get Blake involved in and that was part of the game plan.”
Somehow, that wasn’t even the worst play in that sequence.
On fourth down, punter Johnny Hekker came on. He lined up at shotgun depth and not his usual spot to kick. The Rams practically announced Hekker was going to throw it; it’s hard to even call it a fake. Hekker’s pass was intercepted by running back Trey Edmunds.
So on a key sequence McVay took Jared Goff off the field to run with Bortles, then pass with his punter. That’s ... something. Just to show he hadn’t gone temporarily insane, McVay didn’t give Todd Gurley one touch in the fourth quarter of a close game. Gurley averaged 6.1 yards per carry over the first three quarters.
McVay is a good coach but he’s having a bad season. His offense, with Goff regressing at a troubling rate, has looked awful a few weeks. They were steamrolled at home by the San Francisco 49ers, but the 49ers have maybe the best defense in the NFL. The Steelers don’t have a bad defense, but they shouldn’t nearly shut out Los Angeles’ offense. The Rams had 15 possessions on Sunday and didn’t score a touchdown. Going back to their last game, the streak of possessions without a touchdown is now 19.
“That’s the kind of game it was today — just bad,” Gurley said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The defense played a hell of game. Just weren’t able to help those guys out.”
We spent a lot of time the past two seasons praising McVay. He was seen as something between a genius and the man who was reinventing offensive football. It’s only fair to give him some much-deserved blame when the Rams are sitting at 5-4 and in real danger of missing the playoffs.
It’s not like McVay can’t coach anymore. But defenses have caught up to his play-action heavy attack. The Rams didn’t have Brandin Cooks (concussion) on Sunday, their offensive line has taken an enormous step back, Gurley isn’t what he once was and there are some questions about Goff. Those are significant factors, and some are out of McVay’s control. It’s also true that the Rams’ offense hasn’t been the same since the end of last November.
This is where McVay really earns his reputation. He had a long offseason after Bill Belichick coached circles around him in the Super Bowl. That happens. But the Rams look mediocre and might find themselves trailing by four games in the NFC West by the end of Monday night. The competition for wild-card spots will be intense. And the Rams don’t look like they’re up to that challenge. We might find out a lot about McVay over the rest of the season.
Here’s a look at the coaches, players, executives or anyone else feeling the heat on Monday, after Week 10 of the NFL season:
HOT: Jared Goff isn’t making his money
Fair or not, expectations change for a player as his salary changes. If you get a $134 million extension, you need to play like one of the best quarterbacks in football.
Goff isn’t close to that. He was 22-of-41 for 243 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He had a 53.4 passer rating. He has had a passer rating of 80.3 or less in five of the Rams’ nine games.
Goff will get criticism, but it’s not like the Rams can do anything. Blake Bortles isn’t going to take over. He’ll just get random plays in games to run awkward read options. The Rams aren’t going to get rid of Goff. His contract precludes that. The Rams should have dodged an extension with Goff, traded him to a desperate team and started over with another quarterback on his rookie deal. But what’s done is done.
Goff doesn’t look like the same player this season. He hasn’t been protected well, and that matters. But he also hasn’t done anything extraordinary. And he’s getting paid to be an extraordinary quarterback. It’s looking more like he’s not.
HOTTER: Freddie Kitchens still calling bad plays
At least Kitchens got a win Sunday. If the Buffalo Bills had come back to win, Kitchens’ seat might have been melting.
On one comical sequence that started at the Bills’ 1-yard line, the Browns ran eight unsuccessful plays in a row — not even two defensive penalties that kept the drive going helped — and they were stopped on fourth down. Later, the Browns were stopped near the goal line again and were going to go for it on fourth down. A false start penalty led to a short field goal, and maybe that was for the best. There was also a strange decision to call a timeout with three seconds left in the third quarter, when it seemed like the Bills’ offense wasn’t going to run a play. Who knows.
Kitchens won’t give up play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, even though it seems that could help. Kitchens hasn’t done a good job with game management because he’s calling plays, and he’s not calling plays as well as last season because he has to worry about game management.
The Browns won 19-16. That’s a good thing. The schedule is lighter and it’s possible for the 3-6 Browns to get back in the playoff race. But Kitchens is going to have to eliminate some mistakes.
BLAZING: The Giants are wasting Saquon Barkley
Yahoo Sports’ Kimberley Martin chronicled Barkley’s frustration after a stunning 13-carry, 1-yard outing in a loss to the Jets. Barkley deserves blame, especially for some blocking breakdowns.
But this stat from ESPN’s Field Yates is telling as well:
Giants RB Saquon Barkley had -13 rushing yards before contact on Sunday, the fifth-fewest by a player since ESPN began tracking it in 2007. He was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of 13 runs. The Jets dominated the Giants up front Sunday.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 11, 2019
No wonder Barkley was frustrated.
Maybe Barkley will be a Frank Gore or Adrian Peterson who seemingly plays forever. He’s built that way. But it’s also possible he’s a normal running back with a relatively short prime. When the Giants drafted Barkley No. 2 overall, that was part of the deal. And they’re simply not doing enough to help him. Even Barry Sanders wouldn’t do much when given minus-13 yards before contact in a game (well, OK, Barry could have made something out of it).
It’s rare to look at a team in terms of building around a running back, but Barkley is a rare talent and the Giants invested a premium pick in him. And right now he’s on an island, stuck with a terrible team.
MELTING: Jason Garrett’s stubbornness is not good for Cowboys
The NFC is really tough this season. Every loss will hurt. The Cowboys, with a tough schedule coming up, can’t afford to lose winnable games.
That’s why two weird play calls at the end on Sunday night sting so bad. The Cowboys rolled into the red zone with Dak Prescott in the two-minute drill, then decided to hand it to Ezekiel Elliott on second and third down. Elliott hadn’t found much room against the Vikings all night. He lost 3 yards. The Cowboys threw incomplete on fourth down. The Vikings won 28-24.
“Yeah, again, you want to attack different ways,” Garrett said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “It’s important for us to run the ball.
“Unfortunately we got to that fourth-down situation and didn’t convert.”
Receiver Amari Cooper: “If we had to do that situation over again, we would run it again.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the debate over the outdated notion of having to establish the run. Why then? Prescott was in a great rhythm. The Vikings were having trouble covering Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb. Just go with what’s working.
Garrett is always under the microscope. If the Cowboys miss the playoffs — and that’s a real possibility given their schedule, the Eagles lurking and the fierce fight for NFC wild-card spots — two play calls on Sunday could end up making the difference.
MOLTEN: What will the Cincinnati Bengals do with Zac Taylor?
No team wants to go one-and-done at coach. It’s hard to go through that as an organization. And the Bengals seem unwilling to do anything big, especially when it costs money.
But how much hope can there be with Taylor? He was the epitome of a guy who got hired because of his association with Sean McVay. His resume wasn’t fitting of an NFL head coach. It was a risky hire that isn’t working out, so far.
The Bengals were embarrassed on Sunday. They were down 28-3 in the first half. Lamar Jackson was pulled early in the fourth quarter and wore sunglasses on the sideline. The Bengals made the decision to go from Andy Dalton to rookie Ryan Finley at quarterback, and Finley was predictably mediocre. He had 167 yards, a touchdown and an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Taylor is in a bad spot. The Bengals’ roster wasn’t good and injuries have wrecked any upside it had. Maybe it’s unfair to blame Taylor. But Cincinnati is 0-9 and 0-16 isn’t out of the question. Cincinnati still plays the Jets and Dolphins so there’s hope there for a win, but they aren’t better than either of those two teams right now. The Bengals are the worst team in the NFL. It looks like they’ll get the first pick of the draft and whichever quarterback they pick will provide hope, but between now and then, the Bengals have to figure out if they have the right coach in place.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: