THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. â There are two ways, and only two, to watch a football game, according to the Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater.
If a teamâs offensive line is porous, he said, he focuses on the line of scrimmage, wondering from where the defensive pressure will come, because itâs difficult to pay attention to anything else. But if the line is stout, he concentrates instead on the quarterback, then the play as it unfolds.
âWhen Iâve been watching the Rams, Iâve been watching the quarterback a whole lot,â Slater said. âI think most other people are, too. And thatâs what they want to watch. Thatâs what makes the Rams so appealing.â
Across his two decades with the Rams, Slater took pride in compelling people to watch the quarterback. He now marvels at a team that has rushed for the most yards in the N.F.L., passed for the fourth most and scored more points than every other team but the Kansas City Chiefs, all behind a beastly offensive line.
The Ramsâ five players up front synchronize blocks that spring running back Todd Gurley through chasms and ward off blitzers so quarterback Jared Goff can throw to a cadre of dynamic receivers. That has fueled the franchiseâs best start since 1969 â 8-0, heading into Sunday afternoonâs game at New Orleans â and optimized the viewing experience for the best offense in the N.F.C.
âYou see it around the league all the time: All these skill positions can be erased without a good line â they canât get the ball, they canât get rid of the ball, they canât run with it,â Goff said recently, sitting at a picnic table outside the Ramsâ facility here. âWhen I see a pressure thatâs hard to pick up and no one ever gets close to me, I sit back there nice and clean and look good throwing the ball â thatâs all everyoneâs going to see. But I know, and we all know, how hard it is up there.â
The Ramsâ line, graded the most efficient at pass blocking by Pro Football Focus, is a hodgepodge of talent that reflects the teamâs priorities: intelligence and athleticism, savvy centers and powerful tackles who understand the geometry of the sport, and guards who can dominate on the line but also block in space. They are linemen who, as General Manager Les Snead put it, can get in the way and then stay in the way.
The line consists of holdovers acquired through the draft, like left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Rob Havenstein; free-agent splurges like the two-time All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who played his first 11 seasons in Cincinnati, and center John Sullivan, who played for Rams Coach Sean McVay in Washington and has been instrumental in easing Goffâs transition; and a waiver claim, Austin Blythe, who supplanted the suspended Jamon Brown at right guard for the first two games and never relinquished the job.
The same five players have started all eight games this season, and four of those five started the first 15 games of last season, too. That continuity allows the Rams to make dummy calls at the line of scrimmage, drawing defenders offside or, as the NFL Network analyst Shaun OâHara speculated, fooling them into expected the inverse of an actual call, like a run instead of a play-action pass.
The lineâs stability is also revealed by the synchronicity of the linemenâs movements â in the lateral steps they take when run-blocking so that Gurley, the leagueâs leading rusher, can find a crease and zip through it. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams rank first in adjusted line yards, a statistic it developed to measure offensive line performance by isolating its impact on a running play.
âRemember those videos where people did a flash mob?â OâHara, a three-time Pro Bowl center who spent most of his playing career with the Giants, said in a telephone interview. âEverybody starts dancing and wow, all of a sudden, everyoneâs on the same page. They didnât say anything. They just played the music and everybody knew. Nobody was stepping on each otherâs feet. When you look at the Rams, they all have the same footwork, everybodyâs got the same fluid motions.â
The Ramsâ proficiency on first downs diversifies their options: No team averages more yards rushing (5.7) or passing (11.5) on first-and-10 than the Rams do. Their efficiency prevents unfavorable down-and-distance situations, in which defenses can expect a pass.
âSometimes we just explode, and it feels like weâre unstoppable,â Saffold said. âBut thatâs because all 11 guys know what theyâre doing all the time.â
That awareness is a central principle of McVayâs philosophy. Coaches are only as good as what the players know and thus can do. The best-designed plays can implode if a player forgets a detail. Before last season, McVayâs first as coach, the offensive linemen recognized they were not being coached so much as being taught.
In his 13th season, Whitworth said he had yet to encounter a scheme that placed greater responsibilities on an offensive line because of the âmental gymnasticsâ demanded. The personnel in McVayâs offense rarely changes (one running back, one tight end and three receivers are the norm), but the system, aside from an expansive playbook, features loads of tempos, cadences and no-huddle elements, in which just a word or two signifies a play.
There were times when the offensive line coach, Aaron Kromer, who now also coordinates the run game, would walk into the position room during the week and, before installing new plays, preface his remarks with a caveat. He would tell the players to calm down, that there would be a lot to process that day.
But, Kromer said, he went on to explain everything and why it was critical that they understood it. That notion ran counter, players said, to how some other teams seem to approach coaching: ordering a block on a certain player on a certain play, for instance, without conveying the reasoning behind it.
âAny time we have a meeting,â Havenstein said, âitâs why are we doing it. Itâs how we are doing it.â
On Wednesday mornings, when the Rams reconvene after a day off to begin planning for their next opponent, Kromer greets the linemen by discussing defense, not offense. On Fridays, the entire offense gathers to review where, and how, defenders fill the gaps on rushing plays.
Having that foundational knowledge allows the linemen to adjust over the course of a game, as they did in the second half last Sunday against Green Bay.
âIt gives you a lot of confidence to realize Iâm never going to be put in a position where what Iâm being asked to do isnât sound football,â Whitworth said. âYou understand the concepts of what they need to do to make their defense work and how youâre going to counteract that instead of being told what to do.â
Slater observed this phenomenon in person twice, the last two springs, when he and other former Rams stars were invited to attend off-season workouts. Sitting in on an offensive meeting that first year, Slater watched McVay drill every position group â from receivers to running backs, quarterbacks to linemen â on five plays. The next year, McVay did the same thing â only this time, the nuances were deeper, the minutiae more intricate. When McVay quizzed receiver Brandin Cooks, who had been acquired about two months earlier, he knew all the answers.
âEverybody else did, too,â said Slater, who now coaches the offensive line at Azusa Pacific University. âEverybody understood why that particular detail was so important to the play.â
Before joining the Rams, Whitworth said, he was accustomed to telling receivers to block on run plays. Now, receivers like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods initiate conversations with Whitworth and others about why they block the way they do on a particular play.
The Rams have assembled one of the best lines in the league for what amounts to a pittance, investing about $31.4 million this season, 16th among the leagueâs 32 teams, according to Overthecap.com. Itâs no coincidence that the three teams who have spent the least â Buffalo, the Giants and Arizona â are a combined 5-19.
The difference is apparent every time OâHara studies the Ramsâ film. He analyzes the technical aspects, like Sullivanâs combination-blocking or Saffoldâs square hips on running plays or Havensteinâs aptitude at moving the front-side defender. But thereâs something else he has come to realize, too.
âTheyâre a fun group to watch,â OâHara said.