Column: Sean McVay’s once-formidable offense has transformed into a predictable mess

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — 

The second-quarter play call was about as telling as any statistic, a quarterback keeper on second and three.

Matthew Stafford moves about as swiftly as Bay Area rush-hour traffic and that was the best option?

Never mind the drive was kept alive by an encroachment penalty on the next down. The Rams were desperate.

Four games into the season and Sean McVay looks as if he still hasn’t recovered from his boozy Super Bowl parade. The offensive revolutionary is suddenly a .500 coach, his once-feared attack now painfully predictable.

That predictability was the undoing of the Rams on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium in a 24-9 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, who finished them off when Talanoa Hufanga leaped in front of a pass intended for Cooper Kupp and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

As if there were any chance of Stafford throwing the ball to anyone else with the game on the line.

The Rams have Kupp, and not much else on offense.

Where was Allen Robinson, who was signed to replace Robert Woods?

Where was Cam Akers or Darrell Henderson or any semblance of a ground game?

Most important, where was McVay, who elevated this once-forlorn franchise to a championship?

“It’s just been a struggle overall,” said McVay, whose team is now 2-2.

The Rams reached the red zone three times and had only three field goals to show for it, making this only the fourth time a McVay-coached team failed to score a touchdown.

“There were some bad play calls,” McVay said. “I put us in some bad spots.”

column: sean mcvay’s once-formidable offense has transformed into a predictable mess
San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga, right, grabs an interception and returns it for a touchdown against the Rams.(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

The absence of imagination wasn’t restricted to plays near the goal line as the Rams didn’t register a single play longer than 20 yards for the first time in 15 years.

The 49ers set their defense to prevent Kupp from making big plays and McVay couldn’t adjust.

Of Stafford’s 48 attempted passes, 33 were to either Kupp or tight end Tyler Higbee.

When Robbie Gould’s 25-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter extended the 49ers’ lead to 17-9, the Rams responded with a three-and-out possession.

On the third-down play, Stafford threw the ball down the left sideline to Kupp, who was double-covered. The pass was incomplete.

The Rams were gifted another chance when Gould missed a 32-yard kick with
8 minutes 38 seconds remaining, only for them to resort to some unsurprising plays.

A short run by Henderson. A short pass to Higbee. Another short pass to Higbee. A pass up the middle to Kupp.

Finally, another pass to Kupp on the right side of the field, this one intercepted by Hufanga.

“To have three good drives and only come away with nine points in a game that was a back-and-forth battle like that, that ends up being the difference,” McVay said.

Stafford was sacked seven times. The injury-ravaged offensive line is a mess — Coleman Shelton, who moved from guard to center, was the latest casualty — but McVay said that shouldn’t count as an excuse.

“We’ve got to play better,” McVay said. “The things we didn’t do to execute … a lot of it was things that guys we were counting on didn’t do what we’re supposed to do. Clearly, that makes me think that I’ve got to do a better job and we’ve got to do a better job as an offensive staff providing clarity to our players for many [missed assignments] that occurred tonight.”

The 49ers have won their last seven regular-season meetings against the Rams, and as familiar as Kyle Shanahan is with McVay, that can’t be used as a defense of the offense either.

The Rams scored only 10 points in their season-opening loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Their victory in Arizona last week was a credit to their defense as they also experienced problems in the red zone in that game with Robinson allowing a certain touchdown to slip through his hands and Akers fumbling at the goal line.

Robinson has caught only nine passes in four games. Akers has rushed for 118 yards and Henderson 118.

Stafford has passed for only four touchdowns. Six of his passes have been intercepted.

Perhaps most disconcerting: They have been outscored by their opponents in the fourth quarter 44-3.

“There’s no other way I know how to fix it other than go back to work,” McVay said. “Everybody needs to be able to look inward.”

The team’s journey to the Super Bowl started with McVay. The return will have to start with him too.

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