The Rams and Chargers are in a battle for the hearts and minds of Southland football fans, for the ticket-, merchandise- and luxury suite-buying public, as they attempt to gain the upper hand in a once-barren professional football landscape.
The on-field fight for supremacy begins Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Coliseum, where players will drop the gloves in the first regular-season meeting between the teams since they relocated to Los Angeles.
“It will probably get heated,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said before Thursday’s practice in Costa Mesa. “We’re all professionals, so it shouldn’t go overboard, but we’re definitely trying to take each other’s heads off.”
There should be no shortage of big hits and plays in a marquee matchup of predicted playoff contenders. There is star power on both sides and standout quarterbacks, one near the end of a renowned career, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, and one just getting warmed up, the Rams’ Jared Goff.
But few expect Sunday’s game to be the start of a classic NFL rivalry, the second coming of Packers vs. Bears or Chiefs vs. Raiders.
The teams share a city, and beginning in 2020 they will share a palatial new stadium in Inglewood, but with the Rams in the NFC and the Chargers in the AFC, they will play each other in the regular season only once every four years.
That makes it difficult for players to become familiar enough to generate the kind of contempt required to fuel football’s most bitter rivalries.
“Yeah, it’s not a rivalry,” Rams cornerback Aqib Talib said after Thursday’s practice in Thousand Oaks. “It’s just a quick little hometown bowl game, but that’s it. You have to play somebody twice a year and sometimes three times a year, in the playoffs, for it to be a rivalry.”
Could Rams vs. Chargers develop into a rivalry?
“We’re in two different conferences, two different divisions. They’re in Orange County, we’re all the way up here, so we never see them. So there’s just no conflict. It’s just the next opponent.”
There was plenty of conflict between the teams in the summer of 2017, when a joint practice at UC Irvine produced three fights, one in which Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson slugged Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman in the head and another that led to Chargers defensive end Chris McCain getting kicked out of practice by his own coach, Anthony Lynn.
“That was pretty intense,” said Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, a 16-year NFL veteran. “That lets you know that it already has the makings of a rivalry, because you have two teams that migrated to L.A., and as soon as we started practicing we got into a couple of fights.”
But of the seven players involved in altercations that day, only two remain: Chargers receiver Keenan Allen and Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.
Tempers could flare Sunday, but with the average NFL career spanning a little more than three years and rosters constantly turning over, what are the chances the same combatants will square off in the same uniforms four years from now?
“That’s what creates rivalries more than anything else, when you see each other and play each other so much,” said Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a 13-year veteran. “It’s like practice, where we all know each other so well that it gets really competitive. You know every good and bad thing about a guy, you know each other’s traits, so you know how to exploit him, and it turns into a big war.”
Trades and free-agent movement can stir up some of that bad blood. Rivers will gaze across the line Sunday and see old AFC West nemeses Marcus Peters, the former Kansas City cornerback who has intercepted him four times, and Talib, the former Denver standout who picked off Rivers once.
“It’s hard to have a true rivalry with a team when you play once every four years,” Rivers said. “As players, we see this as a fight for game No. 3. You know, find a way to get to 2-1.
“Both teams are getting used to being in the same area, but I don’t sense that they’re becoming a huge rivalry because you’re not going to see them twice a year. You’re not going to see them every year.”
Chargers vs. Rams likely will mirror another AFC-NFC rivalry, the New York Giants vs. New York Jets. Those teams have shared a New Jersey stadium since 1984 and play every year in the preseason, but they’ve played only 13 regular-season games since the NFL-AFL merger in 1966.
As a comparison, the Giants have faced NFC East-rival Washington 170 times, Philadelphia 168 times and Dallas 112 times.
“If there’s a rivalry, it’s for jersey sales and tabloid back-page attention, that kind of stuff,” said Dan Graziano, an ESPN NFL Insider who grew up in New Jersey.
“The fans get fired up [for the preseason games]. The stadium has a neat feel to it, and it’s a fun night for fan rivalry. But in terms of players, the guys on the Giants are a lot more interested in beating the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins.”
The broader dynamics could be similar, too.
The Giants are an NFL blue blood, winners of four Super Bowls and perceived as the superior team in the market. The often woebegone Jets have reached the playoffs 13 times since Joe Namath led them to their only Super Bowl win after the 1968 season.
The Rams are the more established team in Los Angeles, having played 49 seasons here from 1946-1994 before bolting for St. Louis, where they won the franchise’s only Super Bowl after the 1999 season.
The Chargers never have won a Super Bowl and, like the Jets, have reached the playoffs 13 times since 1968. They’re viewed here more as interlopers, having jumped back to Los Angeles after 56 years in San Diego, where they failed to work out a new stadium deal.
Unlike the Giants and Jets, who were joint partners in the building of MetLife Stadium, which opened in 2010, the Chargers will be tenants in the new $3-billion Inglewood stadium. Their landlord? Rams owner Stan Kroenke.
It was the Chargers who launched a “Fight for L.A.” campaign in an effort to embrace and endear themselves to their new hometown, not the Rams, who have much deeper roots in the region. The rivalry is more between the teams’ ownership groups and marketing departments, not the players.
“The Chargers are gonna have that little-brother thing because they were the second team in, and their stadium deal has them basically as tenants,” Graziano said. “For me, I think it’s going to be which one wins first and which one sustains it. If the Chargers win the Super Bowl this year, maybe they become the more popular team.
“Having been to both training camps this year, I know it’s a huge topic for the ownership groups. How do we get this foothold and how do we keep it? How do we grab fans now, and then build something so it’s a generational thing, where kids grow up Rams or Chargers fans?”
In the eyes of at least one rather large participant, the so-called Fight for L.A. does not need to have a clear-cut winner. There are more than 13 million people in the greater Los Angeles area, the second-largest media market in the country, more than enough to support two NFL teams.
“The more success both of us have, the better the rivalry will be,” the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Whitworth said. “You want the Chargers to be good. You want the Rams to be good. You want them to represent L.A.
“That only builds the popularity and the fan base for both teams. If both teams go out there and are successful, that creates an energy in the city for football and a special place to play.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna