In 1999, the St. Louis Rams were coming off a 4-12 season. They started 7-2, averaged a league-high 32.9 points per game and won the Super Bowl as the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
In 2017, the Los Angeles Rams are coming off a 4-12 season. They’re 7-2, averaging a league-high 32.9 points per game and …
Kind of spooky, eh?
“To me, it’s not that hard to figure out,” said Jon Gruden, former Super Bowl-winning coach, current “Monday Night Football” analyst and lifelong friend to the McVay family that includes 31-year-old Rams rookie head coach Sean McVay.
“The kid Sean has at quarterback [Jared Goff] was the No. 1 overall pick. Last year, he had no protection, no blocking at all. He was a rookie under siege. Sean went to the GM [Les Snead] and addressed the major issue.”
“Left tackle,” said Gruden, who brought McVay into the NFL as his 22-year-old coaching assistant at Tampa Bay in 2008. “In Greg Robinson, I think they tried to save a bad idea for too long. It wasn’t pretty.”
Not coincidently, the Rams finished last in scoring (14.0).
This past offseason, the Rams signed 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth to play left tackle. Former Viking John Sullivan, who played center in Washington last year when McVay was Redskins offensive coordinator, was brought in to be the cerebral leader up front.
“Whitworth has turned that team around,” Gruden said. “They easily have the best running back in the league in Todd Gurley, who’s now getting some blocking. And they added receivers — Robert Woods [free agency] and Sammy Watkins [trade] — who are a lot better as Rams than they were as Bills.”
Case Keenum was 4-5 as the starting quarterback a year ago when pressure from above forced then-coach Jeff Fisher to start Goff. He went 0-7 with an unqualified offensive coordinator, Rob Boras, a longtime tight ends coach whose only full season as an NFL offensive coordinator was last year.
“Sean’s been great,” Goff said Wednesday. “His offense has been a pleasure to learn.”
So what does he do that Boras didn’t?
“I don’t know,” Goff hedged. “I don’t like to talk about last year.”
In nine games, Goff has gone from presumed draft bust to joining Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to surpass 2,300 yards passing and a 101.0 passer rating through Week 10 of their second seasons.
Goff, 22, has 2,385 yards passing and a 101.5 passer rating heading into Sunday’s game against Keenum and the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I don’t think [this game] is something that’s shocking to either of us,” Goff said. “We worked really hard this offseason to get to where we are now. There’s no shortcut to it. I think we learned that last year.”
Defensively, 70-year-old coordinator Wade Phillips is working his usual magic with a 3-4 defense that sports five former first-round picks in the front seven. Now with his ninth NFL team as either head coach or coordinator, Phillips has crafted the No. 3 scoring defense (18.0) — up 20 spots from last year — with his signature five-man rushes.
On a unit that ranks third in sacks per pass play, tackle Aaron Donald is the linchpin and, according to Gruden, “the best inside pass rusher on the planet.”
One of the reasons McVay got the job was being able to prove he could hire Phillips. He got to know Phillips through Wade’s son, Wes, who became one of McVay’s best friends when they coached together at Washington.
“I would be willing to bet that if you asked [Vice President of Football Operations] Kevin Demoff and [owner] Mr. [Stan] Kroenke, it certainly helped to have Wade on my list,” McVay said. “People asked me how the interview [with Phillips] went. There was no interview. It was, ‘Will you just please come work with me if I get this job?’ ”
Phillips said yes. McVay got the job. Nine games later, they’re heading for Minnesota partying like it’s 1999.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org