Should The Rams Rest On Sunday?

Michael Salfino
January 2, 2024 3:44 PM

A famous coach once told me he doesn’t think about injuries and neither do his colleagues.

This was in the context of playing starters in games that are essentially decided and also in games that impact playoff seeding either not at all or at least not in an obvious way.

I asked him if it was like how we don’t go through our lives thinking about death.

He agreed that was a good analogy. It’s a part of the game.

It’s not something you can control.

This was a decade ago. Maybe things have changed.

Coaches like Sean McVay of the Rams famously don’t play starters in preseason games, though that was not the case in 2023 because they didn’t know who their starters were.

Now McVay is reportedly considering or maybe even already decided that he’s going to rest his starters in their Week 18 meeting with the 49ers, even though a win guarantees them the No. 6 seed and a visit to Detroit (and discarded Rams QB Jared Goff) while a win subjects them to the distinct possibility that the Packers will pass them in seeding and thus force the Rams, who would have the seventh seed, to visit Dallas.

(Note that the Niners have clinched the No. 1 seed and are DEFINITELY resting starters since nothing for them changes with a loss.)

The thinking is, “Who cares if you play in Detroit or Dallas?

Both teams have similar records and they essentially just played to a standoff.” Well, the most important stat in football says it’s a big deal.

We’ve used yards per pass play for minus allowed here previously, with good results.

And of course, it would perform well as 75% of winners since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger can be determined by who wins that stat by any margin irrespective of any other stat.

The only thing that beats it is turnover differential, which doesn’t exist in many games and when it does exist, is a massive edge vs. the small decimals that can decide the winner of the respective passing games.

Yards Per Pass Play For, Minus Allowed

Here are the updated yards per pass for, minus allowed stats for all 32 teams through Week 17, with the point value I assign to just this stat vs. a league-average team on a neutral field (ignoring everything else).

Also, note that the Rams are listed here for the full season.

If we do it only the six games the Rams have had Kyren Williams, Matthew Stafford, and Cooper Kupp all healthy, they are plus-1.51.

RkTmNY/A For Minus AllowedPoint Value
1San Francisco 49ers3.0518.32
2Baltimore Ravens2.3313.97
3Miami Dolphins1.7810.68
4Kansas City Chiefs1.488.91
5Buffalo Bills1.287.71
6Dallas Cowboys0.824.9
7Cleveland Browns0.754.5
8Los Angeles Rams*0.53*3.18*
9Philadelphia Eagles0.482.9
10Minnesota Vikings0.382.3
11New Orleans Saints0.372.22
12Atlanta Falcons0.291.72
13Seattle Seahawks0.21.22
14Detroit Lions0.150.91
15Green Bay Packers0.120.72
16Jacksonville Jaguars-0.03-0.15
17Tampa Bay Buccaneers-0.07-0.45
18Indianapolis Colts-0.1-0.58
19Houston Texans-0.14-0.82
20Las Vegas Raiders-0.3-1.8
21Pittsburgh Steelers-0.53-3.17
22New England Patriots-0.54-3.24
23Chicago Bears-0.59-3.52
24Los Angeles Chargers-0.71-4.28
25Denver Broncos-0.71-4.28
26Tennessee Titans-0.75-4.49
27New York Jets-0.88-5.3
28Cincinnati Bengals-1.25-7.49
29Washington Commanders-1.57-9.45
30Arizona Cardinals-1.61-9.63
31Carolina Panthers-1.68-10.07
32New York Giants-1.94-11.64

*With their core offensive players healthy the last six weeks, the Rams are plus-1.51, 9.06 points better than a league-average team on a neutral field.

Dallas A Much Tougher Wildcard Matchup

The Cowboys through Week 17 rank sixth in the stat, at plus-0.82, which is worth about 4.9 points over a league-average team on a neutral field.

The Lions are 14th at plus-0.15, which is worth 0.9 points. So when it comes to passing and defending the pass, including sacks, the Cowboys are four points better than the Lions.

Yes, the Lions almost just won at Dallas, but really?

Mike McCarthy gave away 45 seconds by throwing an incomplete pass in the final two minutes and that followed a blown call on a tripping penalty, that was actually against the Lions.

But also it’s one game. For the full season, the Cowboys are better; so why play them?

The Rams are not some long-shot playoff team as their overall record may suggest.

With their key offensive skill players healthy the last six games, their net edge in the passing game of plus-1.51 would rank fourth behind only the Niners, Ravens, and Dolphins.

Its point value vs. a league-average team on a neutral field is nine points.

Pretty massive.

If the Rams have a good day and the Niners have a bad day, the Rams could win. And Brock Purdy is more likely to have a bad day than Matthew Stafford.

No one else in the NFC is close to the Rams (again, not for the full season but just since they got their offensive core four back).

The next best team though is the Cowboys.

So why go out of your way to play them?

What is McVay Really Saying?

There’s a chance that McVay isn’t going to actually rest starters but is merely considering it.

Here’s the full quote from McVay on Monday so you can judge for yourself:

“I think the thing that’s important ideally when we get our players back on Wednesday, that’s when we’ll have that clarity. We’ve still got to take steps in the right direction regardless of if we play everybody or if we have the luxury of a couple of people.

But there’s never a perfect answer because you just don’t have the numbers. We had some similar situations like this before but you still have to stay sharp, you still have to stay crisp.

But if some guys could use the time or that need it based on their injury situation that kind of makes those decisions for you.

But when I talk to you guys on Wednesday, I’ll have some clarity.

I started thinking about this on the flight home last night and there certainly isn’t a perfect answer, but what we will come to is what we think is best as it relates to not just this week, but more importantly the Wild Card weekend.”

Notice how he’s talking about resting injuries and not preventing new ones.

This shows that coaches resist the obvious when it comes to injuries, at least consciously.

If you agree with the passing stats (and why wouldn’t you), Is playing a significantly weaker opponent worth not resting starters/risking new injuries?

McVay stipulates you can’t rest everyone anyway – you don’t have enough players.

Plus a week off does upset the rhythm of playing, as McVay recognizes by saying you “have to stay sharp.” We understand that he can’t come out and say that he wants to play the Lions and not the Cowboys.

But if he sees little difference between the two teams like many NFL observers, he’s mistaken.

Being four points better in the passing game is not a small difference.

Bottom line: It’s well worth risking your starters to beat a 49ers team that will be treating the game as meaningless to play a much weaker opponent on paper in the Lions on Wildcard Weekend.

About the author

Michael Salfino writes about sports and the sport industry. His numbers-driven analysis began with a nationally syndicated newspaper column in 2004. H...

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