LOS ANGELES — Standing on top of a double-decker bus driving through the city, general manager Les Snead took in the Los Angeles Rams‘ Super Bowl parade. His attire — a white long-sleeve shirt with his photo and the line, “F— them picks” — was a nod to the method that got them to the moment.
Five years after the Rams hired coach Sean McVay to pair with Snead, Los Angeles won a Super Bowl. The Rams did it with a nontraditional roster build — constructing the top of the roster mostly through the trade market instead of first-round picks. The next challenge is sustaining their success.
As the Rams enter the 2022 season, which starts Thursday at SoFi Stadium against the Buffalo Bills (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), they face another obstacle: Repeating as Super Bowl champs. The last team to win back-to-back Super Bowls was the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
It has been challenging, even for teams that have been built for sustained success, like the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle, which went to the playoffs eight times in nine seasons between the 2012 and 2020 seasons, won one Super Bowl during that period.
And despite the hope from the Rams that they’ve extended their window — thanks to signing McVay, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp to contract extensions and reworking defensive tackle Aaron Donald‘s contract to ensure he didn’t retire — to build on their Super Bowl victory, it only takes a look at recent history to see why it’s such an uphill climb in the salary cap era.
“You lose your players like Von Miller because other players like Cooper Kupp need more money and to win you need everything right,” former NFL GM and ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said. “I’m not taking anything away because they deserve the credit, they won the Super Bowl. But if [then-49ers safety] Jaquiski Tartt hangs onto that pass from Matthew Stafford in the [NFC] Championship Game, they don’t even make it to the Super Bowl. So to win it is really, really hard and everything has to go right.”
While the Rams may not build their roster in the exact same way every season, their philosophy of being aggressive “when you find a chance to make your team better” is something Rams COO Kevin Demoff said he doesn’t think will ever change under McVay and Snead. The trio is always looking for the window of opportunity for a championship.
“You’re trying to find that balance of, yes, you’re clearly in the window with some elite players who won,” Demoff said. “And they’re saying, ‘OK, how do we make sure that we’re maximizing our talent then?’
“But you also are trying to figure out how you consistently retool for the future, so that that’s not just a sudden drop off.”
SO WHY DID the Rams’ team-building philosophy work? In part, Demoff said, because Los Angeles found an inefficiency in the market when it came to trading for veteran players and was able to take advantage of that value.
“Through a lot of the trades you found that maybe veteran players were undervalued in terms of draft compensation,” Demoff said, pointing to the draft compensation the Rams traded for Stafford (two first-rounders and a third-rounder) compared to the picks the Denver Broncos sent to the Seahawks (two first-rounders, two second-rounders and a fifth-rounder) for quarterback Russell Wilson this past March.
One example of the philosophy was how the Rams traded for one of the final pieces of their Super Bowl winning roster, getting outside linebacker Von Miller at the trade deadline. The Rams acquired Miller for second- and third-round picks in the 2022 draft, and the Broncos paid $9 million of Miller’s remaining $9.7 million salary for the season. It was a rental, but one that allowed the Rams financial flexibility to add a former Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP in exchange for two Day 2 draft picks.
The Rams also got used to operating without high draft picks.
“With the draft picks, it was a little bit by necessity,” Demoff said. “You traded away picks for Jared [Goff], you had to get better. Even Sean [McVay]’s first year here, we didn’t have a first-round pick. So you started to learn what life was life without that.
“And once you become accustomed to that lifestyle, kind of like, ‘OK, we can make this work.’ And so I think it all happened organically. It was never our intention to zig while others zag. It was conversations about what was best for our team at each turn that wound up being maybe heretical at the time that others wound up adopting.”
“They put a different spin on an old conversation that you need your draft choices,” Tannenbaum said.
While it certainly has happened more around the NFL in recent years, including a busy 2022 offseason that saw trades involving stars such as Wilson, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and A.J. Brown, it was the Rams that were the first team to be so consistently aggressive on the trade market.
The trades this offseason “probably have a little bit to do with the Rams,” Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at the league owners’ meetings. “People [are] realizing maybe you can win the Super Bowl without draft picks.”
SNEAD INSISTS THE ambitious trade strategy wasn’t always the plan. While watching practice at the team’s facility in Thousand Oaks, California, less than six months after that viral T-shirt moment during the Rams’ victory parade, he said seeing how McVay’s first season in Los Angeles unfolded jump-started the team’s aggressive approach.
After going 4-12 in coach Jeff Fisher’s final season in 2016 — the Rams’ first back in Los Angeles after returning from St. Louis — McVay went 11-5 in his first season in 2017.
“It’s like, ‘Whoa, holy cow,'” Snead said. “He can be more than good. Probably great.”
It didn’t take long before Snead realized the organization needed to “take advantage of that window.” That offseason, the Rams traded their first-round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They built up their defense, trading for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“After the ’17 season, you can aggressively pursue some of those voids because you’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s go shoot our shot,'” McVay said. “Let’s not be afraid to fail.”
The Rams went to Super Bowl LIII to cap the 2018 season, losing to the Patriots 13-3. After coming so close, Los Angeles continued to aggressively add talent, trading two first-round picks for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in October 2019.
Los Angeles went 9-7 and missed the playoffs that year, then lost to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round to end the 2020 season. At that point, the Rams believed they had gone as far as they could with Goff, pulling their most aggressive move yet and agreeing to trade a package that included Goff and two first-round picks to the Detroit Lions for Stafford on Jan. 30, 2021.
Around the league, there were questions about whether the Rams’ all-in, star-studded roster would work, according to Tannenbaum.
“There was a lot of skepticism because, especially going to a 17-game season [in 2021], it was going to challenge their depth,” Tannenbaum said. “To their credit, they were able to survive with a very, very top-heavy roster. … And the next part of the skepticism would be, is it sustainable?”
The Rams clearly think so, as they continued to go all-in on securing star power this offseason, becoming the only team in NFL history with two players — Stafford and Donald — who have an average salary of at least $30 million per year. Los Angeles also extended Kupp ($26.7 million APY) this offseason and signed former Chicago Bears receiver Allen Robinson II ($15.5 million APY) as a free agent thanks in part to the short-term cap savings it secured by extending its returning stars.
“I’ve always said the greatest traits Sean and Les have, and a little bit Stan [Kroenke] from an ownership perspective, is they’re fearless,” Demoff said. “And they don’t worry about what happens if it goes wrong. They truly believe that they’re making the best decisions in the interest of the organization.”
FOR THE RAMS’ aggressive plan to work and result in a bigger window for Super Bowl contention, Los Angeles has had to adapt in other ways. Yes, Snead said, the Rams have leaned on the trade market, but they’ve also had to make up for the premium price of those star players on the back end through compensatory picks.
“Everybody makes a joke … about, ‘Oh, screw the picks,'” McVay said. “That’s not at all how we see it. There’s a lot of value. There’s even more value on those picks as it relates to developing some guys in the latter parts of the draft where you have a specific vision.
“And then those guys that we do build around, they’re not asked to be anybody but themselves, but they do have the expectation of raising the level of play of others around them and that’s just by being themselves.”
And Los Angeles has found draft value despite not having a first-round pick since selecting Goff in 2016. The biggest example is, of course, Super Bowl LVI MVP Kupp, a third-round draft pick out of Eastern Washington in 2017. But the Rams have also found other key starters outside the first round. Thirteen of the Rams’ 22 starters in Super Bowl LVI were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted free agents.
Los Angeles has found talented players late in part because they trade back “to collect as many picks in the second through seventh round as possible,” Snead said, “so that we have more sharp shots at the board.”
Part of the Rams’ team-building philosophy is when they do lose unrestricted free agents — including draft picks they don’t re-sign after their rookie deals end — they don’t necessarily replace them with other unrestricted free agents. Instead, “we replenish with the players that we’ve drafted,” Snead said.
WHEN ASKED ABOUT inspiration from other teams in adopting an aggressive mindset, Snead points to a move made 11 years before the Rams’ Super Bowl LVI victory.
When Snead was in Atlanta with then-general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons traded up in the 2011 draft to take wide receiver Julio Jones. It was an aggressive move that made sense for a team with ascending quarterback Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. And it got Snead thinking.
“We began to win, consistently for the first time in Atlanta, with Matt,” Snead said. “And [Dimitroff] was one of the first to really make an aggressive move of realizing, ‘Wow, we’re in this window where we got a chance to contend. We have this franchise QB. And how do we build around that QB? Why don’t we use some future draft capital to go up and get maybe one of the better wide receivers in the draft?’
“You could see his mentality, our mentality of why. We’re aware of this window. Let’s make a bet that we can make the most of this window.”
The Rams are not the first team to try to build a star-studded squad, although they are the first to do it on this scale and through aggressively utilizing the trade market.
Shortly after the Rams agreed to trade for Stafford, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV after signing quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette as free agents and trading for tight end Rob Gronkowski during the 2020 offseason.
But trying to build a “Dream Team” — as the Philadelphia Eagles discovered in 2011 when they spent more than $225 million in free agency to sign players such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith, Vince Young and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie only to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs — isn’t as simple as the Rams have made it look.
And while the Rams’ success with this strategy certainly has factored into team-building around the league, the fact that players are “somewhat being aggressive” about where they want to play has also led to the increased movement this offseason, a trend that favors the Rams, Snead said.
“Now all of a sudden when players like Jalen [Ramsey] want to be traded, we may get a call and it’s, ‘Hey, Jalen would love to be there. Are you interested?'” Snead said. “So now it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This is a kind of a unique opportunity.’
“Usually those players in the past didn’t knock on your door and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to be with you’ and ‘Oh, by the way, my team’s willing to trade me.’ So now we have to really sit out and go, ‘Wow, should we take advantage of this opportunity?’ Maybe teams that are in … let’s call it ‘not Los Angeles geographical location,’ not winning, may not get that opportunity.”
RIGHT NOW, THE Rams have built around a core of Donald (31 years old), Stafford (34), Kupp (29) and Ramsey (27). As that core ages, will the Rams’ strategy of trading away first-round picks — they’re not scheduled to have one until the 2024 draft — have to change?
“I do think it’s interesting,” Snead said. “It seems ironic to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to replace a third-rounder in Cooper Kupp with a first-rounder. So that means that third-rounder exceeded expectations. Our philosophy has shown the work is, ‘Hey, when we do have, as Sean likes to say, players that change the math?’ We can continue thriving by drafting contributors, starters second through seven.”
The difference, of course, is it’s less likely you get “math changers” as the draft goes on.
“Cooper Kupp’s one, but you can’t plan on that,” Snead said. “So there is going to be that moment where those players retire, whatever. OK, how do we react to that? How do we manage that situation?
“But sometimes I say, ‘Well, if Aaron Donald would’ve retired this year, I don’t think it would’ve mattered if we’d have had a first-round [pick]. We’re not replacing Aaron Donald.’ But what it could have done is you could draft a player that’s, let’s call it more [of a] first-round talent than third. And maybe somehow manufacture the production you lost with him with other players, but maybe not at that level.”
Tannenbaum said he thinks eventually, the Rams are going to have to “modify” their approach, “because at some point you’re going to have to integrate good young players and rookie contracts are the most economically efficient way of doing that.”
Of course, while the Rams have had a lot of success, their nontraditional and aggressive methods also can lead to moves that don’t work. Expensive and ill-fated contract extensions for Goff and running back Todd Gurley are an undeniable part of the team’s track record.
But the Rams’ success since McVay was hired in 2017 — four playoff appearances, three division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and one title — has happened in large part because of how Los Angeles’ roster was built.
In keeping with the strategy, the Rams’ 2022 roster has been built around a strong core of players, but it is also counting on improvement from several draft picks.
And while Los Angeles will continue to be aggressive in holding onto this Super Bowl window, as evidenced by the moves the team made this offseason, the Rams’ brain trust is continuing to figure out what that next nontraditional move might be.
“So I think for us, it’s on to find whatever that next inefficiency in the marketplace is,” Demoff said. “I’m not saying we’ve identified it. Probably even if we did, we probably wouldn’t say what it was. But your goal is always to find the inefficiency because in an efficient market, you’re not going to outperform the normal rates.
“The league has probably gotten more willing to trade aggressively for veteran players who have contract issues or some of those things. So, there’s probably not an inefficiency there.”
— ESPN NFL reporter Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report