In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams’ 4-12 record marked the 13th straight season they failed to top the .500 mark.
In five of those seasons they won four games or fewer. They were among the worst of the worst.
Yet now, less than two years later, the Rams are the NFL’s only unbeaten team and, according to Bovada.lv, favorites to win the Super Bowl at better than 3-to-1 odds (14-to-5 to be exact).
Contrast that with the Green Bay Packers. While the Rams were putting up the second-worst winning percentage in the NFL (.298) from 2004 through '16, the Packers were fourth-best (.618) with seven NFC North titles and only three seasons at .500 or worse.
Now two years removed from playing in the NFC title game, the Packers haven’t nosedived, but they’re struggling to find themselves (3-2-1) and have only the ninth-best Super Bowl odds (25-to-1).
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There are several reasons the Packers thrived while the Rams flailed for most of the last 15 years, but none are more important than the quarterback position. The Packers went Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, while the Rams failed to find a keeper after Kurt Warner’s departure in ’04.
Several factors also account for the franchises’ current state – the Rams are the most talented team in the NFL, while the Packers continue to be almost wholly reliant on Rodgers to take them as far as they can go. And at the top of that list is an NFL system in which terrible teams make quick turnarounds when they finally hit big on a couple high draft picks, while teams with top quarterbacks watch their talent erode from regularly picking in the bottom of quarter of the first round.
This isn’t to say the Packers are strictly a victim of the system, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Undoubtedly, former general manager Ted Thompson's poor drafting over his last few years, regardless of where he picked, accelerated the depletion of the Packers’ talent base, just as superb drafting early in his tenure built it up.
Also, while a few teams figured out ways to use free agency and trades to incrementally improve their rosters without busting their budgets, Thompson was a no-show in those markets.
But if you contrast the Rams with teams that have had longtime elite quarterbacks – the Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger), New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees) and Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan) – there’s a pattern.
The quarterback-less Rams picked high year after year until they finally hit on a couple players. Then when they found a quarterback, the turnaround came fast. The teams with the quarterbacks won year-in and year-out, and occasionally won it all (Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl wins, Rodgers and Brees one and Ryan none). But their rosters ebbed, flowed and stagnated.
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There’s one anomaly, of course: the New England Patriots.
“It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s kind of the way – it works the way it’s supposed to work,” said a scout for an NFC team last week. “The only exception over the last 30 years is New England.”
How did the Patriots, who have won five Super Bowls and been to three others since 2001, become the exception? Clever minds can find many plausible reasons, but the truth is simple: Their quarterback (Tom Brady) and coach (Bill Belichick) are a cut above the rest of the league.
The Rams, who play the Packers on Sunday, know the NFL’s bottom-to-top cycle well. They’ve been through it twice in the last 30 years.
In the nine seasons from 1990 through ’98 they never won more than seven games. In those first rounds they picked in the top five overall three times, and in the top 10 eight times. Those are prime draft spots. By the time they stumbled onto Warner at quarterback in ’99, and even though they’d swung and missed plenty, they’d accrued enough talent to go from 4-12 to Super Bowl champs in one season and field the most prolific offense (The Greatest Show On Turf) the NFL had seen.
But by ’04, Warner was gone and hard times returned.
From the 2005 through ’17 drafts, the Rams picked in the first half of the first round every year but one. Five of those were top-five picks, and seven were top 10. Again, plenty of big misses along the way: tackle Jason Smith (No. 2 overall in ’09), quarterback Sam Bradford (No. 1 in ’10), receiver Tavon Austin (No. 8 in ’13) and tackle Greg Robinson (No. 2 in ’14).
Finally, they found gems in defensive tackle Aaron Donald (No. 13 in ’14) and running back Todd Gurley (No. 10 in ’15). Today, they’re the best players in the league at their positions.
But that would have taken them only so far if former coach Jeff Fisher hadn’t also hit big with his trade up to draft Jared Goff No. 1 overall in ’16. Goff is an early MVP candidate in this, his third NFL season.
“The quarterback clearly is the key element,” said another scout from an NFC team. “You can be the best coach on the planet, (but) if you don’t have that player then you don’t have a chance.”
To be sure, the Rams have done more than those three moves to build the team they have today. They’ve added several key contributors via aggressive moves in the trade and free-agent markets, too: defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.
They’ve also recently signed Donald (six years, $135 million, $50 million guaranteed) and Gurley (four years, $57.5 million, $21.95 million fully guaranteed) to contract extensions that ensure they’ll have the two difference makers through their primes.
But NFL gravity will catch up with the Rams soon enough. Their days of picking in the top 15 are over, Donald is already 27, and in 2020 they’ll have to sign Goff to a new contract that will pay him $30 million-plus a year, or 4 ½ times more than the $7 million he’s averaging now.
“(The Seattle Seahawks) started paying Russell (Wilson) $20 million a year, and all of a sudden the players around Russell weren’t quite as good,” one of the scouts said. “I’m sure you’ve seen a similar thing at times there (with the Packers).
“Right now (the Rams) are not paying Jared, so they’re paying everyone else. … At some point they’re going to have to pay Mr. Goff. There’s only so much to go around.”
With that in mind, how do the Packers capitalize on the final third of Rodgers’ career? What can they do to be more than the one-title team like they were with Favre, or Indianapolis was with Peyton Manning?
Well, Belichick is unavailable. Same for Brady, though the Packers have the next-best thing.
Their charge is to punch above their weight in the draft and figure out how to work the trade and free-agent markets much better than they have.
Brees’ Saints are an instructive case. After three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-16, they’ve become bona fide Super Bowl contenders with one excellent draft. Their 2017 class yielded a true No. 1 cornerback (Marcus Lattimore in the first round), a difference-making running back (Alvin Kamara, third round), a starting right tackle (Ryan Ramczyk, first round) and a bona fide starting safety (Marcus Williams, second round).
It helped that they already had a pass rusher (Cameron Jordan) on the roster. Still, the Saints showed that when you have the quarterback, one draft can make all the difference in the world. No one’s suggesting it’s easy. But it can be done.
In fact, the Packers’ chance will come next spring. General manager Brian Gutekunst’s draft-day maneuvering last spring leaves him with two first-round picks (his own and New Orleans’) in 2019.
This is as good a chance as he’ll likely to get to draft the Packers out of their rut. Whether he packages the picks for a prospect in the top 10, or take two swings later in the first round, he can set up his team for a strong run with a home run.
It’s that or watch his team pile up the wins but not the hardware.