NFL Media researcher Dante Koplowitz-Fleming explores five potential overreactions heading into Super Bowl LVI.
1) The Rams mortgaged their future to get to Super Bowl LVI
The good news: The Rams are playing for a Lombardi Trophy, in their home stadium, in large part due to their aggressive pursuit and acquisition of stars over the past 12-plus months.
The bad news: They have not made a first-round pick in the draft since taking Jared Goff first overall in 2016, and they are not slated to select in the first round until 2024.
Unless the Rams trade up into Round 1 in the next couple drafts, they'll go seven straight years without a first-round selection. That would tie them for the second-longest span ever, behind only Washington's streak of 11 straight years from 1969 through 1979.
If the lack of draft capital wasn't enough, the Rams have several high-profile starters currently bound for free agency: C Brian Allen, WR Odell Beckham Jr., RG Austin Corbett, OLB Von Miller and CB Darious Williams.
Oh, and starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who recently turned 40 and has one year left on his deal, isn't a lock to return for a 17th season.
L.A. will have to find a way to either keep or replace these significant contributors despite being a projected $14 million over the salary cap in 2022 (fifth-least cap space in the NFL, per Over The Cap).
While all of that could spell long-term trouble, the Rams' situation isn't actually as dire as it seems and could be worse. Although they can't re-stock their roster using high-valued draft assets, Les Snead & Co. do have a track record of hitting on Day 2 and 3 selections (Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Jordan Fuller and Greg Gaines) and could easily find some cap relief by employing the NFL's most tried-and-true tool: contract restructures.
The Rams can clear up more than $10 million in 2022 just by restructuring Leonard Floyd's $16.5 million base salary into a signing bonus, spreading his cap hit out evenly over the final three years of his deal. They could save a combined $20 million more by doing the same with Jalen Ramsey's and Cooper Kupp's contracts. And an extension for Matthew Stafford could potentially save L.A. significant salary cap space next season.
Even if the Rams have an uphill battle moving forward and will eventually have to foot the bill for all of these restructures, if they're consistently competing for Super Bowl titles, isn't the risk worth the reward? I think the NFC champions would surely say yes.
Fun fact: The last team to go seven straight drafts without a first-round pick was Washington from 1984 to 1990, and they won one Super Bowl in the middle of that span and another one in the season immediately after. Washington's GM for most of that stretch was Hall of Famer Bobby Beathard, who served as a consultant for the Falcons during current Rams GM Les Snead's tenure in Atlanta (Snead was with the Falcons from 1998 to 2011).
2) Joe Burrow is the next Joe Montana … and Ja'Marr Chase the next Jerry Rice
Sorry, Mr. Montana: There's a new Joe Cool in town.
Montana has long been revered not only for his 4-0 Super Bowl record, but for helping the 49ers' transformation from also-ran into NFL juggernaut. In 1981 -- Montana's third NFL campaign, but first season as a full-time starter -- he led San Francisco to a 13-win campaign (five more than the Niners had in the previous two seasons combined) and a Super Bowl title. The Hall of Famer ranked first in the NFL in completion percentage (63.7) and was top-five in passer rating.
Fast forward 40 years, and Burrow is having a similarly astounding impact on the Cincinnati Bengals. In his first season starting more than 10 games (his second season as a pro), Burrow has led Cincinnati to a 10-win campaign (four more than the Bengals had in the previous two seasons combined) and a Super Bowl appearance. Oh, and he did so while leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4), as well as finishing top-five in passer rating (108.3).
This year, Burrow became the first quarterback drafted No. 1 overall to reach the Super Bowl within his first two seasons. The 25-year-old also became just the second quarterback (Terry Bradshaw is the other) to end a playoff win drought that spanned his entire lifetime (30 seasons) and take his team to the Super Bowl.
But Burrow has not been a one-man show this season. Like Montana, the Bengals passer has himself a superstar on the perimeter in rookie phenom Ja'Marr Chase. The 21-year-old receiver stepped into the spotlight and proclaimed he would break every record the Bengals have, and we know how that's unfolded. Whether measuring by single game, rookie season or rookie playoff performance, Chase's name is at the top of all modern-day records for a first-year player.
Just look at how Chase's rookie production compares to Rice's first season as a full-time starter (his second in the NFL):
- Chase: 81 rec., 1,455 yards, 18.0 ypc, 13 TDs, 85.6 ypg.
- Rice: 86 rec., 1,570 yards, 18.3 ypc, 15 TDs, 98.1 ypg.
As a tandem, Burrow and Chase already have made their mark on the league. In their first NFL season together, the former LSU teammates have connected on 14 touchdowns (including playoffs). Just three duos have more touchdown connections in their first NFL season playing together: Tom Brady-Randy Moss in 2007 (24), Randall Cunningham-Randy Moss in 1998 (17) and a tandem from the Bengals' opponent this week, Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp (20 and counting).
They've got a long road to go to catch Montana and Rice, but this Bengals combo is off to a fast start.
One last "Joe" comparison that Burrow would love to make a reality: The only starting quarterbacks in history to win a consensus national championship in college and a Super Bowl in the NFL are both named Joe (Montana and Namath). The 2020 College Football Playoff National Champion would be happy to become the third Joe on that list.
3) You don't need a top-five quarterback to win a Super Bowl ...
... but you do need your quarterback to play at a top-five level to get there. And yes, there's a difference.
At the start of the season, neither Joe Burrow nor Matthew Stafford were widely considered top-10 players at their position. Looking back at Gregg Rosenthal's Week 1 QB Index (which holds up pretty dang well now for something released in September), Burrow ranked 26th while Stafford placed 13th. And let's be fair to Rosenthal: Those two quarterbacks combined for just seven wins in 2020, and Burrow was coming off of a season-ending knee injury.
The two Super Bowl quarterbacks may not have been viewed as top-five passers entering the season, but they certainly have played like it. According to Next Gen Stats' new Passing Score metric, Burrow and Stafford ranked second and third, respectively, with both trailing MVP-favorite Aaron Rodgers. Per that same model, nobody was better on third down than Burrow and nobody had a higher red-zone mark than Stafford.
Looking at the last 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (four of which were Tom Brady), some names immediately pop up that seem out of place: Nick Foles, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning have combined to win 30 percent of them! But here are those three quarterbacks' combined numbers during their respective postseason title runs: 302.7 passing yards per game, 26 passing touchdowns (to only two interceptions) and a 111.0 passer rating. Those marks would all have ranked top five in the 2021 regular season.
4) Matthew Stafford's legacy depends on the Super Bowl LVI outcome
Stafford's career passing yards (49,995) and passing touchdowns (323) both rank 12th in NFL history (all other HOF-eligible QBs who hit those thresholds are already in Canton), but he will likely have to contend with a horde of QB talent when he eventually hangs it up.
Right now, Tom Brady (lock), Drew Brees (lock), Ben Roethlisberger (lock), Eli Manning (likely) and Philip Rivers (not out of the question) are all recently retired and ballot-bound. Matt Ryan, who ranks ahead of Stafford in wins, yards, touchdowns, Pro Bowls and has an MVP to his name, is two and a half years older than the Rams QB and could retire around the same time.
That's some stiff competition at quarterback, let alone all the other worthy candidates at different positions who will be up for a gold jacket in the coming years.
Stafford started his playoff career with three losses, all in the Wild Card Round, all on the road and all with the Lions. Fortunately for the 13th-year pro, he's since improved his playoff record to 3-3, and has a chance Sunday to join Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as the only other QB to lose his first three postseason starts and eventually win a Super Bowl.
A ring on Sunday would add some much-needed juice to Stafford's Hall of Fame résumé, bolstering his case up against Rivers and Ryan, as well as others who have won the game's ultimate prize.
5) A good run game isn't necessary to win a Super Bowl
Here are the last four Super Bowl winners (and where their rushing attacks ranked in the regular season): 2020 Buccaneers (tied for 28th), 2019 Chiefs (23rd), 2018 Patriots (fifth), 2017 Eagles (third).
What does that tell us? Nothing.
The Rams and Bengals each ranked in the bottom 10 in rushing yards during the 2021 regular season, and both ground games have continued to struggle in the postseason. Los Angeles has averaged 94.3 rushing yards per game but just 2.92 yards per carry in the playoffs, while Cincinnati's averaged 88.0 yards per game and 3.77 yards per carry this postseason.
The Rams reached the Super Bowl three years ago with the third-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, but that's just not the case this time around. In their dominant Super Wild Card Weekend win over the Cardinals last month, they ran the ball 38 times for 140 yards. In the Divisional Round and NFC Championship Game combined, they ran it 59 times for … 143 yards. If anything, they are committed to running the ball. But with a per-carry average beneath 3 yards, they have not been effective in this pursuit in the playoffs. Strangely enough, teams to make the Super Bowl averaging fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in the playoffs have won seven of 10 Lombardi games (most recent winner: the 2016 Patriots, who averaged 2.87 yards per carry prior to Super Bowl LI).
Takeaway: You can make -- and win -- the Super Bowl even if you are not good at running the football. Super Bowl LVI will be the third Super Bowl in a row that is won by a team ranked bottom 10 in rushing yards. The era of run-first teams hoisting the Lombardi Trophy may be in the rearview mirror.