It’s funny how quickly the narrative changes. Rams defensive tackle and Kaiju, Aaron Donald, is once again wrecking defenses. He became the third player this season to win NFC Defensive player of the week after playing the beleaguered 49ers. His four sacks and eight tackles are the most dominant performance of the season, following an uncharacteristically slow start. It was so slow (by his standards) that some were wondering if Aaron Donald was being hindered by a massive contract. Now that Donald is looking like the reigning defensive player of the year, the pearl clutching was idiotic.
Over the course of the summer, the Rams internet community openly wondered if Aaron Donald was worth the inevitable price he was to be paid. So worried in fact, that many wanted the Rams to trade the leviathan because they had bigger fish to fry, aka the looming Jared Goff extension. The logic being that the NFL is an offensive league so why pay a defensive lineman a king’s ransom? Ironically, one of the cautionary tales is former Dolphin and now Ram Ndamukong Suh. After all, Miami paid Suh a 1/5 of Tony Montana’s estimated net worth and it amounted to one playoff appearance and a locker room that was allegedly more toxic than sunlight to a Gremlin.
That doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Suh’s contract definitely hindered the Dolphins ability to fill out the rest of the team, but what hindered them more was Kirk Van Houten (Simpsons reference) levels of managerial incompetence. Suh did perform reasonably well and wasn’t an Albert Haynesworth level bad signing. In Donald’s case, he was on his second hold out in a row and thus the bed wetting increased. A lot of fans panicked after the Rams extended Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Rob Havenstein, and brought in Suh. The message boards were all over the place with irrationality.
One faction labeled Aaron Donald selfish and another faction would raise their fists in the air at GM Les Snead’s seemingly casual approach to a stand off with their generational defensive tackle. The first hold out had its share of drama but even with missing the opener against the Colts, he racked up 11 sacks and 41 tackles en route to winning defensive player of the year. A third faction trusted the process and saw these signings as setting the parameters for Donald’s eventual $135 million ($87 million guaranteed) contract, briefly making him the highest paid defensive player in the league.
The signing and Donald’s return to camp were greeted with the same level of rejoicing as Stone Cold Steve Austin following a long hiatus. Still, some didn’t like the deal because it rewarded holding out and now they snidely believed he had to live up to it. This group routinely despises players getting what’s rightfully theirs yet doesn’t care that owners can keep making money even if they run their team into the ground. The second faction also believed Donald had a lot to live up to but mostly lived in fear that he couldn’t possibly do so.
Despite forming a King Ghidorah style three headed monster with Suh, Donald, and Michael Brockers, the defense got off to a slow start. Jokes were made about how Donald was weighed down by his massive contract but obviously, that’s not why. Offensive lines weren’t about to allow Donald to eat them and their backfield alive so they would double team and hold Donald excessively, knowing the refs won’t call it every time. The run defense was routinely gashed and Donald had a little bit of trouble adjusting to the new pass rushing rules and in some cases, the refs overreacted to Donald’s brand of chaos.
Once Suh publicly called out himself and the rest of the defense, that unit finally looked like it was coached by Wade Phillips and not Rob Ryan. Donald put up numbers starting with his two sacks against the Vikings and it progressed from there. His now eight sacks and counting is .5 sacks ahead of Von Miller of the Broncos and tied with Danielle Hunter of the Vikings and J.J. Watt of the Texans. Khalil Mack (more on him in a bit), looked like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor (though Bill Belichick would disagree). Mack’s ankle hindered his dominance and now Donald has a shot at repeating as defensive player of the year.
Speaking of Mack, before the ink could dry on Donald’s historic deal, Mack signed a historic deal of his own. His six-year $141 million ($90 million guaranteed and $60 million at signing) extension came with a caveat. Aaron Donald remained with his team but Mack would not. Mack was traded by Raiders coach, and the guy who drops $20 bucks into a jukebox and only plays “Margaritaville,” Jon Gruden. Gruden believed what the first faction believed in that there’s no point in tying that much money to a defensive player. This strategy proved idiotic.
Gruden repeatedly dodged questions about his now anemic pass rush and the more Mack made plays for the Bears the worse that trade became. Not only did he give up the defensive player of the year from two years ago but he gave up a 2nd round pick to do it. Raider Nation’s dream of having one of the premier defenders in the league is gone. They now have to wait for Gruden to strip the roster for parts and rebuild again like he’s Eric and Lindsey Bennett on Desert Flippers. Meanwhile, Donald is thriving on a championship contending team and the Rams are guaranteed to have him through his prime.
Look, it’s okay to have been nervous about the Donald drama. It was the only real speed bump in an otherwise prosperous off-season. Still, while most were individually optimistic the holdout would resolve itself in time, the group acted as like Gotham as the Joker caused more and more chaos until Batman revealed himself to the world. Agent K said in Men in Black, “a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals”. That theory bore out over these last two years and thankfully Aaron Donald is playing at a level that pours water on even the fiercest cynic.
Sunday they play the Packers. A team that is relying on a hobbled Aaron Rodgers to carry them. Yes, they have one of the best linemen in the league in David Bakhtiari but he won’t be enough against Aaron Donald and their monstrous line. With Cory Littleton coming on at linebacker and on special teams, it looks to be another long day for the Packers. It’s the kind of day Rams’ fans can look forward to for many years to come.