To win against the Panthers, the Rams need to put their recent difficulties to rest.
As if coach Sean McVay did not have enough problems.
The defending Super Bowl-champion Rams are under .500. The offensive line is a shambles. The quarterback can’t stop committing turnovers, and the defense can’t force one.
And now there is internal turmoil.
Running back Cam Akers won’t play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers because of what McVay has described as an “internal” issue. McVay did not provide a hearty endorsement when asked if he expected Akers to remain on the roster.
Next week’s open date — during which McVay, general manager Les Snead and their staffs will reassess everything — cannot come soon enough.
“What I’ve been very fortunate with, going into the sixth year, I think you realize how blessed and fortunate you’ve been where those things have been at a minimum,” McVay said. “But that is what you sign up for.”
Akers’ situation, coupled with the matchup against the struggling Panthers (1-4), makes for some compelling subplots.
The Panthers fired coach Matt Rhule after Sunday’s defeat by the San Francisco 49ers, and injured quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are in the final year of their contracts. So, there is speculation that the Panthers might start over and possibly begin a rebuild by trading running back Christian McCaffrey.
The versatile McCaffrey spent most of the previous two seasons sidelined because of injuries, but he is exactly the kind of player McVay would covet to jumpstart the Rams’ league-worst rushing attack and add a proven dimension to a passing game that already features star receiver Cooper Kupp.
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was a member of the Atlanta Falcons staff in 2019, when McCaffrey rushed for more than 1,300 yards, amassed more than 1,000 yards receiving and scored 19 touchdowns.
“He was a possible MVP, and I haven’t seen much change when you watch him play right now, to be honest,” Morris said. “He’s the Cooper Kupp of running backs.”
Rams running back Darrell Henderson is in the final year of his contract, and Akers has one year left on his rookie deal. So McCaffrey’s high salary — he is due to earn $11.8 million in 2023 — probably would not dissuade the Rams, who time and again have shown financial creativity to make that kind of deal happen.
Regardless, the Rams must find a way to avoid going into their open date with a 2-4 record.
It probably won’t happen unless the offensive line plays better.
Two weeks ago, the 49ers sacked Matthew Stafford seven times, matching the Buffalo Bills’ carnage against the Rams in the season opener. On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys sacked Stafford five times and hit him 11 times.
In those losses, Stafford had five passes intercepted and he lost three fumbles.
The Rams have scored only one touchdown in the last nine quarters. This season, they have scored only three points in the fourth quarter.
“I can’t put my finger on that,” Stafford said when asked why the Rams have struggled to score in the fourth quarter, adding, “I don’t think it’s been happening in any quarter enough, to be honest with you. We’ve got to do a better job of putting points up early and often.”
The Rams defense has not played poorly, but they are in the midst of a turnover drought. In their last three games, the Rams failed to intercept a pass or recover a fumble.
How can they create more?
“You just capitalize on the ones that come to you,” said linebacker Bobby Wagner, who dropped a potential interception against the Cowboys. “The people that have been the best at it, whenever you … ask them how they do it, you think it’s going to be some crazy thing that they practice, but really, they’re just mindful.
“I think you could just be more mindful of trying to get the ball away.”
The Rams also are struggling to consistently pressure quarterbacks from the edges. Morris has deployed Aaron Donald from the edge several times, and the three-time NFL defensive player of the year has a team-best four sacks. But outside linebacker Leonard Floyd has no sacks, while Terrell Lewis and Justin Hollins each have one.
Donald said there is good and bad, ups and downs to every season, but noted that this is the first time the Rams have experienced this much under McVay this early in a season.
McVay has said he was “excited” about the challenge of working through adversity.
“I don’t want us to be in this spot,” he said, “but we’re going to do everything we can to fight out of it, I know that much.”