Why the Rams’ long-term plan is a cautionary tale for the Bears

The Bears should not want to be the Rams when they grow up: they mortgaged future first-round draft picks and salary-cap space to go all-in — and might have already peaked.

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Los Angeles Rams v Chicago Bears

Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky throrws around Rams edge rusher Dante Fowler last year.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears should want to be the Rams when they grow up: they’re the defending NFC champions with the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a head coach who, at least last season, was the envy of the league. The Super Bowl appearance helped them make a splash in their new hometown, selling seat licenses in SoFi Stadium, which opens next year.

The Bears should not want to be the Rams when they grow up: they mortgaged future first-round draft picks and salary-cap space to go all-in —and might have already peaked. The Rams are 5-4 and have an 11.4 chance of making the playoffs. The two teams above them in the NFC West, the 49ers and Seahawks, are near-locks to make the postseason this year and have bright futures beyond it.

The Rams reaching the Super Bowl last year trumps the best thing the Bears have done in a a decade. But as the two teams prepare to play Sunday, here’s why the Rams’ long-term plan should be a cautionary tale for the Bears:

Lesson 1: Don’t pay your QB early

The Rams could have let quarterback Jared Goff play the fourth year of his contract this season — and the fifth year of his rookie option in 2020 — before setting pen to paper. Instead, they gave Goff a four-year, $134 million deal in September.

They had reason for their faith in him — Goff had a career-best 101.1 passer rating last year. Still, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the postseason — and led the Rams to three whole points in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

The Rams guaranteed him $110 million — the most ever for a quarterback, surpassing Carson Wentz. Their reward this season? Goff’s 82.7 passer rating is worse than Mitch Trubisky’s. In nine games, he’s gone from the most valuable chip in sports — a standout quarterback on a rookie deal — to an albatross who will only get more expensive. The Rams can’t get out from under his deal until 2023.

In better times, Trubisky seemed likely to push for a similar contract extension — he, Goff and Wentz share the same agents. That won’t happen this offseason, as the Bears aren’t confident he’s their quarterback of the future. But Goff is a good reminder — don’t pay your quarterback until you have to.

Lesson 2: Genius can be fleeting

Sean McVay was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2017, Matt Nagy the following season. Both were labeled as play-calling geniuses. But this season, they’re only as good as their quarterbacks— which is to say, 5-4 and 4-5, respectively.

The Rams are ranked 15th in yards per play, the Bears 30th. Neither are close to where they expected to be. The outside pressure is mounting on both teams.

“I think inevitably when things aren’t going the way that we want, there’s scrutiny on myself, there’s scrutiny on [Goff]—and there’s comfort in knowing that you’re going through it together,” McVay said. “It’s really about the people in our building.”

McVay tries to be solution-oriented.

“That’s what I expect to epitomize,” he said. “You just go back to work and you put your head down and you don’t let the outside circumstances affect or influence your confidence or your ability to just say, ‘Hey, I can’t wait for the next opportunity to do it better, when that presents itself.’”

The Bears are living a worse fate, but they can relate to the Rams.

“I think it’s a great example that, as you go through the history of this sport, especially at the quarterback position, and you deal with … you’re talking about a team in the Rams that was in the Super Bowl and had two really good back-to-back years,” Nagy said. “They’re still playing good football. They’re 5-4. It’s hard to win in this league.

“And they’re very well coached … But, yeah, you do see at times not just with quarterbacks, but players in general, that sometimes go through the highs and lows of their careers. For right now, both of those quarterbacks are kind of in that valley right now.”

Lesson 3: Be careful whom else you pay

After making Khalil Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, the Bears must be judicious with whom they re-up, and for how much.

Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are free agents this offseason, but 2021 will be crucial. That’s when receiver Allen Robinson, safety Eddie Jackson, running back Tarik Cohen, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and cornerback Prince Amukamara have contracts that expire — unless the Bears give them a new deals first.

The Rams aren’t in salary cap hell — but they can see it from here.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the second-highest paid defender ever. Next year, he, Goff, running back Todd Gurley and receiver Brandin Cooks will count for $95.09 million against the cap — about half the projected cap for the entire team. In 2021, they’ll count for $90.4 million.

The Rams still have to account for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who will be a free agent after 2020.

The Rams’ return on investment this season? Cooks has struggled with concussions and Goff has simply struggled. The Rams paid Gurley the largest per-year-average contract of any running back, ever, when they signed him to a four-year, $57.5 million contract — with $45 million guaranteed —in July 2018.

Gurley, though, missed the last two games of the 2018 regular season with a mysterious knee problem. The Rams seem to be monitoring his workload this year, too — he’s yet to touch the ball 20 times in a game. In Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, he didn’t get a single touch in the fourth quarter.

Lesson 4: Control your draft picks

The Bears gave up their first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 in the Mack trade.

The Rams won’t have one in 2020 or 2021 — and didn’t in 2017, 2018 and 2019, either. They’ve used them in trades for Ramsey, Goff, Cooks and to move back in 20198.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace likes to say he operates with a“no regrets” mentality. Rams general manager Les Snead and McVay, meanwhile, seek to blast every last regret to smithereens.

“I think it’s really just the risk-reward,” McVay said. “We always want to have a short-term and a long-term goal in mind and there are a lot of elements that come into play. We felt like when you have the ability to acquire ... a player like a Jalen Ramsey … those are things that you’ve gotta be aggressive and you’ve gotta be confident that this is the right decision and you don’t look back. That’s basically it in a nutshell.”

The Rams have to rob from their draft picks to help their salary crunch—a cycle the Bears can’t afford to jump on. After trading for Ramsey, they gave the Dolphins a fifth-round pick to take injured cornerback Aqib Talib and the $4.2 million left on his contract.

The Rams are thrilled with the Ramsey trade. But the bill will come due.

They all do, eventually.

“You continue to evaluate yourself in every decision you make—whether it be with trades or everything that our jobs entail —and make sure that you’re self-scouting and you’re making sure to keep yourself accountable as these decisions are accumulating,” McVay said. “And you look back and say, ‘All right, are we stacking good blocks or are these things we can learn from?’

“Fortunately, when you can acquire a player like Jalen, we felt really good about that.”

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