THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The dimmed lights create an intimate setting that soon provides a peek inside the mind of one of the NFL’s most influential figures.
Everything about him — the hooded sweatshirt, the blue baseball cap obscuring a haircut he’s somewhat displeased with, and the syrupy Southern lilt — belies the frenetic pace of his racing thoughts and his never-ending quest to crush the competition.
“We’re not going to be scared. But we’re not going to be reckless,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said with a smile last Friday, as he opened up about his philosophy on building a team.
Those words — uttered near the conclusion of a 45-minute sit-down interview with Yahoo Sports inside the team’s defensive meeting room — proved to be a harbinger of yet another jaw-dropping move orchestrated by Snead. Two weeks before the NFL trade deadline, he reshaped his secondary in a matter of hours, and more importantly, left no doubt about whether or not the Rams still believe they can win it all in 2019.
After acquiring center Austin Corbett from Cleveland, they traded cornerback Marcus Peters to the Baltimore Ravens in order to set the stage for their biggest coup of the calendar year: Bringing Jalen Ramsey to L.A.
The Rams traded two first-round picks (in 2020 and 2021) and a fourth-rounder (in 2021) in exchange for Jacksonville’s disgruntled cornerback — a bold move that sent shock waves across social media and stunned many within NFL circles. While it may seem like the defending NFC champions are a shell of themselves on the field, Snead remains unchanged behind closed doors.
Blockbuster deals and big-money contracts have typified his tenure with the Rams, dating back to his 2012 arrival in St. Louis. And now, with his team mired in a three-game losing streak, “Super Bowl hangover” questions hanging overhead and a new, $5 billion stadium on the horizon, Snead isn't about to stop being aggressive.
“We only live once, so don’t live your life scared,” Snead told Yahoo Sports, only four days before orchestrating the Ramsey trade. “… Any time you make a move, you do try to have protocols in place that can help you make sound decisions. But you’re not playing for the tie. You’re trying to go win.”
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Part executive, part philosopher, part psychologist, the 48-year-old has always been meticulous in his mission of rebuilding the Rams from NFL doormat to proven winner. He’s a voracious reader who spends as much time combing autobiographies and history books for insight he can apply to his daily life as he does studying his football opponents each week. The gluten-free dieter prides himself on being an outside-the-box thinker, a football mind who isn’t afraid to gamble every now and then. And at this pivotal juncture, Snead doesn’t really have a choice.
The L.A. luster has worn off these new-look Rams at the worst possible time.
The high-octane, Todd Gurley-powered offense that propelled them to Super Bowl LIII was instantly vanquished by Bill Belichick’s masterful game plan. Since then, the Rams haven't looked the same.
Talk of Gurley’s arthritic knee, the subpar play of quarterback Jared Goff and questions about Sean McVay’s genius and their disappearing defense are the backdrop to their current three-game skid — the first such losing streak of McVay’s head-coaching tenure. And while they don’t appear to be as desperate for fan support as their soon-to-be stadium roommates, the Los Angeles Chargers, last Sunday’s loss to San Francisco (5-0) provided a depressing glimpse into the Rams’ potential future if they fail to make the playoffs.
Bad teams have a hard time selling PSLs and season tickets. Also, generating buzz in a market like L.A. — where once-proud Rams faithfuls were forgotten about for two decades and later replaced by a transient, fickle fan base nestled next to Hollywood — is far more difficult than it appears.
Snead, however, downplayed the pressure of repaving those inroads.
“Here’s the positive: The Rams had a history here,” he said, completely unaware that, only 48 hours later, his team would be bullied by the 49ers, 20-7, on a day when Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was awash in shades of red. “So there’s an element of, ‘You’re coming home.’ The difficulty is, there’s that gap. …There was this generation that was left out of seeing the Rams live. So I think that would be the challenge. The nice thing is, we have a nice core fan base, but it’s grabbing back that generation when the Rams weren’t here, and grabbing their kids, and saying, ‘Come on back to Mom and Dad’s hometown team.’ ”
The addition of Ramsey, one of the league’s top cornerbacks, won’t assuage concern over Gurley’s dwindling production, nor will it quiet the noise surrounding Goff’s struggles, improve the Rams’ poor offensive line play or help their lack of offensive cohesion. But signing Ramsey to a long-term deal will be key for a franchise looking to make a splash — and draw more fans — in its new stadium.
And all it took was surrendering first-round picks. Again.
The Rams haven’t had a first-round pick in the draft since 2016, the year they traded picks with Tennessee in order to select Goff No. 1 overall.
Snead, as we’ve come to see, is anything but apprehensive.
He kicked off his stint as general manager in dramatic fashion, trading their No. 2 overall pick to Washington in 2012 (which the Redskins would later use to select quarterback Robert Griffin III) in exchange for three first-rounders and a second-rounder. Snead’s wheeling and dealing continued for almost a decade, as he routinely sought ways to transform the Rams into the type of team he had always envisioned — younger, better, tougher, more balanced. It’s the reason defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Gurley and Goff were drafted. It’s the reason Snead executed trades for cornerbacks Aqib Talib (who is expected to go on injured reserve this week) and Peters, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., and signed defensive end Ndamukong Suh to a one-year deal last offseason. It’s the reason Snead made Donald and Gurley the highest-paid players at their respective positions, and in extending Goff gave him $110 million guaranteed, the most in NFL history.
“Ultimately, they performed very well,” Snead said, explaining the thought process behind those hefty contracts. “We believe in our people. They’re as important to this organization as anything. Those three are very important.”
There’s inherent risk in every transaction. It's especially true when Snead’s “abstract” brain and “telescopic” thinking take over.
Building through the draft is a slow, deliberate process that requires a long-term vision and unwavering resolve. Meanwhile, acquiring top-tier talent via free agency or trades can yield faster results for a team that is theoretically a few pieces away. But the future salary-cap implications of current contracts eventually must be addressed.
The margin for error in the NFL is infinitesimal. And with each year that passes, teams find that the window for success stays open for only so long.
“You always feel like you’re being chased,” Snead said, “especially when you’re in the NFL and there are 32 teams.”
He succeeded in rebuilding the Rams from NFL laughingstock to Super Bowl contender. Now, the challenge is repeating as NFC champions and proving that they can be just like Belichick’s Patriots: immune to the so-called “Super Bowl hangover” — a term Snead dismissed out of hand.
But as focused as the Rams GM is on the bigger picture, he insisted he’s not thinking ahead to January or February.
“Each day, each year we’re accumulating young talent. If you can persevere through, I call it ‘the build,’ there will be a breakthrough,” Snead said, recalling the franchise’s transformation from perennial loser to Super Bowl runner-up. “… Let’s just focus on building a core. Have a clear, defined intention of where you’re at in the phase and go dominate that phase.”
He later denied feeling more pressure to win in order to ease the team’s transition into its new home, noting that their objective would be the same whether they were set to play in a new stadium or California Lutheran University across the street.
“It doesn’t necessarily add a new pressure,” Snead said. “I think we’re aware of the phase we’re in: We earned two NFC West championships. We earned an NFC championship. So with that comes an efficacy, a belief that we can win the next game. ... That’s the good thing that alleviates some of the pressure you’re talking about — the new stadium, Super Bowl. We’d rather be in this phase than that phase where we were persevering through ‘the build.’ This one’s more fun.”
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