The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wondering why the Rams gave Jeff Fisher an extension? Here’s one good reason.

Jeff Fisher is just two defeats away from setting the record for most career losses by an NFL coach. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Placeholder while article actions load

Despite yet another season at or below .500, the Los Angeles Rams signed Head Coach Jeff Fisher to a two-year extension through 2018. The deal was agreed to in the preseason and signed during the season.

The news left everyone in a state of confusion. Before the season began, Fisher hadn’t coached a football team with a winning record since 2008 and led the Rams to records of 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10, and 7-9 from 2012 to 2015. This year they are 4-8. According to Louis Bien of SB Nation, no NFL coach since the merger has ever had a losing record through his first four seasons and remained employed by the team. Fisher is also just two defeats away from setting the record for most career losses by an NFL coach, held by Dan Reeves (165).

Eric Dickerson wonders about naked pictures and Jeff Fisher’s contract extension

“Everybody will want to judge Jeff through the prism of just the record, but that’s totally unfair when you look at the set of circumstances he was handed this year,” Rams Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff told NFL Network’s Steve Wyche in November. “It was different than any team in the NFL.

“We moved halfway across the country, then had OTAs in Oxnard. Training camp was in Irvine, now we’re in Thousand Oaks. We moved coaches and players and families. To provide leadership and consistency, he’s done a model job.”

The easy joke is to say Demoff is right: Fisher has been consistent — consistently bad. The common reaction has been to wonder what the heck the Rams are thinking by giving Fisher an extension given his track record. But perhaps a better question is to ask “how” they’re thinking. And in that context, perhaps Fisher deserves more credit for what he has done for Los Angeles/St. Louis.

Demoff has been quick to point to extenuating circumstances and mitigating factors through Fisher’s tenure. And one of the biggest factors outside of Fisher’s control has been the Rams’ schedule, which has been unusually hard. In 2012, Fisher’s first year with the Rams, he won seven games. That was five more than the previous year despite playing the second-hardest strength of schedule in the NFL per Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (9.6 percent average DVOA) — which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. The Arizona Cardinals won five games against the toughest schedule that year, which was only slightly harder (10.8 percent average DVOA) than the one the Rams faced.

In 2013 the Rams again won seven games under Fisher despite having the third-toughest schedule. Their six-win season in 2014 (ninth-toughest), seven wins in 2015 (third-toughest) and five wins this year (fifth-hardest) also don’t seem terrible when looked at in that context. Only the division rival San Francisco 49ers have played a tougher schedule over the last five seasons combined.

There is a pattern here: the NFC West has been a tough division during Fisher’s tenure. In 2012, the 49ers won 11 games and made it to the Super Bowl. San Francisco made it to the NFC championship game in 2013 only to lose to the divisional rival Seattle Seahawks, who were NFL champions that year. The Seahawks would make an appearance in the Super Bowl in 2014, too, and last season the Cardinals won 13 games and played in the NFC championship game.

The challenge has been particularly daunting for the Rams offensively. Since 2012, the Rams have faced the first, fourth, fourth, 14th and 10th best collection of defensive talent during the season. That’s roughly the equivalent of having to play this year’s Minnesota Vikings defense — which ranks sixth in DVOA in 2016, including standing in the top five for yards, first downs and points per drive against — every game for five years straight.

But that doesn’t absolve Fisher completely. The last time a Fisher-led team ranked in the top 15 for offensive yards gained was 2009. The last time his team ranked in the top 15 for points scored was 2008. Both occurred when he was with the Tennessee Titans. The Rams rank dead last in each category this season and have never been higher than No. 21 under Fisher. Perhaps No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff can help once he gets some experience as an NFL quarterback, but Fisher hasn’t been able to develop a passer into a contributing starter since joining the Rams.

There have been six quarterbacks who have made at least 100 passes in a season for the team under Fisher. The highest Total Quarterback Rating — an opponent adjusted metric that values a quarterback on all play types using a 0-to-100 scale, where higher is better — achieved in a season by one of those quarterbacks was by Sam Bradford, who produced a 58.2 QBR in 2013 over seven games before suffering an injury. That’s the high point. And before you give Fisher an excuse and say Bradford would have gotten better had it not been for a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in Week 7 that year, consider the game charters at Pro Football Focus had Bradford ranked 21st out of 30 qualified passers through Week 6 of the 2013 season.

The next best performance by a Rams passer under Fisher is Austin Davis, who produced a 50.3 QBR in 2014 over 10 games. To put this in perspective, a QBR of 50 would rank No. 29 out of 31 qualified quarterbacks in 2016. And it just gets worse from there.

Given the lack of production from the game’s most important position, it’s actually surprising the Rams have been as close to average as they’ve been. The reason: Fisher has been a good defensive coach. During his tenure the Rams defense has ranked No. 7, No. 11, No. 9, No. 7 and No. 15 in DVOA from 2012 to 2016. And their schedule hasn’t done them any favors here, either — this is the first season where their opponents have averaged an offensive DVOA outside of the upper half of the league. And unlike on offense, Fisher has developed some high-end defensive talent.

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, middle linebacker Alec Ogletree and strong safety T.J. McDonald have all been key contributors, but defensive tackle Aaron Donald has blossomed into one of the best defensive players in the game.

Donald was the 2014 defensive rookie of the year and finished 2015 as a first time All-Pro with 11 sacks. He’s the top-ranked interior defenseman this season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, demanding that opponents account for him whenever he’s on the field.

One reason the defense looks worse than usual despite facing softer competition is due to poor performance in the red-zone, allowing 71.4 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line to end in a touchdown. Only the Atlanta Falcons (75 percent) are worse in a league where the average is 56.6 percent. But don’t get out your pitchforks just yet. Bill Barnwell of ESPN found that how a defense performs in the red zone is “almost entirely random,” perhaps giving Fisher another excuse for mediocre performance.

Is Fisher deserving of a coach of the year award? Of course not. And the answer to “what” Fisher has done during his tenure with the Rams — that unpalatable win-loss record — is impossible to overlook. But if you examine the question of “how” he’s done it, you might be able to see why Demoff finds Fisher worthy of an extension.