The Rams won the NFC for the first time since 2001 in what was overall a very successful 2018 season. While the year did not finish off the way Los Angeles would’ve liked, there’s plenty to review from the Rams’ second season under head coach Sean McVay.
Here are five takeaways from 2018.
1) AARON DONALD IS ARGUABLY THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE
This is not really breaking news, but defensive tackle Aaron Donald once again has made a terrific argument with his play for being the best player in the NFL.
Despite not attending training camp as his representation and L.A. negotiated a six-year contract extension, Donald set the world ablaze in 2018 — leading the league with 20.5 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, and 41 quarterback hits. Those are ridiculous numbers for any player, but especially an interior lineman.
They’re also why Donald was named AP Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. With that, Donald became just the third player in the award’s history to win it back-to-back, joining Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
And while Donald certainly has earned a little time off, he said instead he’s going to get right back in the gym on Thursday.
That’s right — this Thursday.
Donald clearly isn’t the type to settle, and he’s looking to improve for next year.
2) JARED GOFF TOOK A REAL STEP FORWARD
Quarterback is often called the most difficult and/or the most important position in sports. And no, Jared Goff didn’t play to his standards in the Super Bowl. But the Cal product definitely took a step forward in his development for his third professional season.
Goff set career highs in most major statistical categories, including completion percentage (64.9), touchdowns (32), yards (4,688), and passer rating (101.1). He also had arguably the league's passing performance of the year, completing 26-of-33 attempts (78.8 percent) for 465 yards with five touchdowns against the Vikings in Week 4.
But as McVay often says, the truest measurement of performance is consistency — and that’s where Goff can stand to improve as he moves forward in his career. There’s plenty of reason to believe that he will, though, since he’s made drastic improvements in his first two seasons in McVay’s system. And that should only continue as McVay and Goff grow their partnership in a third year.
3) AQIB TALIB IS A DIFFERENCE MAKER
Safety John Johnson often said this season that cornerback Aqib Talib’s presence on defense put everyone at ease, given the veteran’s knowledge and mastery of coordinator Wade Phillips’ system. Phillips himself also said during the week of the Super Bowl that the Rams wouldn’t have been in the final game of the season without Talib.
“He missed some games, but those 10 games he played, we played pretty good,” Phillips said.
If it seemed like Los Angeles played better on defense with Talib, well, the basic numbers confirm that. In 11 games with Talib — including postseason — the Rams allowed 17.8 points per game and 321.1 yards per game. In eight games without the veteran corner? Los Angeles allowed 401.3 yards per game and 30.8 points per game.
Now the regular-season matchups against the Saints and Chiefs were in that eight-game stretch without Talib, so that may skew the numbers a bit — just based on how explosive both of those teams were offensively. But those stats are still quite notable.
So, yes, there’s a clear difference between how the Rams performed with and without Talib in 2018. And it’s a good thing the cornerback is under contract in 2019 and scheduled to be back, because with a healthy Talib for a full season, Los Angeles’ defense should be even better.
Check out the best photos from the Los Angeles Rams matchup against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
4) WHERE THERE’S ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Every player will say he can get better once the season ends, and all players are looking for places to improve. But as a whole, there are a couple places where Los Angeles can stand to improve both offensively and defensively.
On offense, that’s performance in the red zone. While L.A. finished No. 2 in points per game and No. 3 in scoring percentage (48.6 percent of drives ended with points), the Rams ended the regular season No. 18 in red zone percentage and No. 22 in goal-to-go percentage.
It’s nitpicking for sure given the overall offensive numbers and the fact that L.A. made it to the Super Bowl. But the Rams can do a better job of putting the ball in the box when they get deep into opponent territory.
Defensively, Los Angeles can definitely improve against the run. Now, we obviously saw a significant improvement in the postseason where the Rams allowed just 98 yards rushing combined in the two victories over Dallas and New Orleans. And even in Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots only really got the run game going late in the fourth quarter.
But in the regular season, the Rams ranked No. 23 overall against the run, and No. 32 in yards allowed per carry (5.1). Even with the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, that’s an area where L.A. can certainly get better during the 2019 regular season.
5) BELIEF THEY’LL BE BACK
After Sunday’s loss, many of the Rams expressed a confidence and belief that they’d be back in the big game with a chance to win a championship sooner than later.
On Tuesday, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said he believes that in large part because of how connected the team was throughout the 2018 season.
“I can honestly feel the relationships with the players, with the coaches — getting everything out of each other that we want. That’s what I sum up the season, we were connected and we bonded together like we were a family,” Robey-Coleman said. “We got to crank it back up in another month, couple of months, so I hope nothing don’t change too drastically up until that point, but I am real positive about the near future.”
But even more than that, the Rams have the talent all over the place to be competitive for years to come. Goff is under contract for the next two seasons — and is eligible for a contract extension. Gurley and Donald signed long-term extensions before the start of the 2018 season. And McVay is as bright of a young coach that the league has to offer.
The offseason program will start in a couple months on April 15. There will undoubtedly be departures and new arrivals. But that’s when the Rams will again begin to pursue the ultimate prize in football.
And next time, they plan to bring it home.