It happened so fast, it almost doesn’t seem real. Maybe it isn’t, but right now it almost doesn’t matter.
This is a town of big dreams, and chasing them is part of the fun, and nobody has been sprinting harder and leaping higher than these folks.
The Rams enter the 2018 season with a legitimate chance to play in the Super Bowl.
You read it right. You probably already knew it. None of it is a surprise. All of it is a surprise. Read it again, only louder.
Las Vegas lists the Rams among the second favorites to win Super Bowl LIII.
The hype is serious. The bandwagon is filling. The belief is real. The odds of this even being a topic of discussion are stunning.
A year ago at this time, the Rams were coming off a four-win Los Angeles homecoming dance that ended in weepy heartbreak and entering a new phase filled with the unlikely and unknown.
They had a kid coach nobody knew. They had a kid quarterback nobody trusted. They had a surly running back who forgot how to run. They had so few real fans, their empty Coliseum seats became the weekly butt of national jokes.
“The difference between this year and last year is impossible to quantify in any form,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams chief operating officer.
This year they have a kid coach everybody loves, a kid quarterback on the verge of greatness, a fantasy-favorite running back who was the league’s best offensive player, and fans lining up to fill a stadium that won’t be ready for two years.
This year they are coming off 11 wins, an NFC West championship, and an offseason in which they only got better.
Man, did they get better.
Taking advantage of the favorable contract of third-year quarterback Jared Goff, and capitalizing on the attractive culture created by coach Sean McVay, they spent money and draft picks to bring in four impact stars.
First, they traded for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters. Then, they traded for former Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.
Then they signed five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Finally, they traded for blazing 24-year-old wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Even though the defensive players all have checkered histories of recklessness — it says here they could be “The Legion of Goon” — management nonetheless delivered a four-punch flurry that showed they are serious about winning Hollywood.
“As our owner Stan Kroenke always says, ‘You can’t undershoot Los Angeles,’” Demoff said. “It affects our approach in everything we do.”
They continued that approach by giving big contract extensions that will make Gurley the league’s highest-paid running back, and Cooks very rich, and important tackle Rob Havenstein very happy. They endured another training camp without the league’s best defensive player in Aaron Donald, who finally signed a six-year, $135-million contract extension last week and will once again anchor the defense.
In the same summer the Lakers acquired LeBron James and the Dodgers traded for Manny Machado, the Rams pulled up to that same table, slammed down their fists, and said, “What about us?”
After two seasons in the shadows, this is indeed their best chance to make Los Angeles about them.
“I don’t know what makes for a successful year, but we have to take advantage of the fact that people are engaged and excited,” said Demoff. “I want to make sure we capture those people.”
They don’t own the city, but, led by the smart vision of Los Angeles-raised
Demoff, they certainly get it, and should be applauded for that. No matter what happens, their offense is going to be a blast, their defense should be vicious, their kicking game is the best in football — shouldn’t they just give punter Johnny Hekker a lifetime contract? — and their games should be raucous. This is a team seemingly built for prime-time home dates against Minnesota, Kansas City and Philadelphia, all coming after that Monday night opener in Oakland.
“You can’t be afraid of expectations or pushing the envelope,” Demoff said. “We’re absolutely aware of how Los Angeles works, what is needed to be relevant, you’d be lying if you didn’t take notice what is a successful formula in the city.”
Turns out, even their sidelines will be innovative and interesting. This season the Rams will join the New Orleans Saints as one of the first two NFL teams to have male cheerleaders. The inclusion of Napoleon Jinnies and Quinton Peron is a small but important step in changing an NFL sideline culture that has long been charged with objectifying women.
“Our focus with everything is to be progressive and understand our fan base and our market,” Demoff said. “Quinton and Napoleon tried out, went through the process, emerged as two great candidates, and we’re glad to welcome them to the team.”
So what could go wrong? Oh, only everything. As swiftly as the Rams’ hopes have been trumpeted, their thud can be just as loud, especially given how fast this all came together.
Just as no place buzzes quicker than this town, no place can get quieter, quicker. In the Rams case, the muffling would require only, say, a Week 3 loss in the Coliseum to the Chargers.
Real promise, but real fears.
They play what should be a much tougher schedule than last season. The opponents will be better, and those opponent’s approaches will be different. The Rams won’t catch anyone by surprise. They won’t be anyone’s trap game. The traps will be set for them.
There are adjustments everyone will make. The Rams will be playing defenses that are going to have a much better idea of how to defend child genius McVay. The constantly jabbing Goff will have to throw more counterpunches. The rumbling Gurley will have to do so underneath much more weight.
McVay was so concerned about all this that his starting offense didn’t play one snap together during the preseason. Goff and Gurley didn’t take one snap, period. Most teams at least run their offense for a full half during camp, but McVay isn’t like most coaches. The shutdown looks like a smart move from here — if nothing else, why risk injury? — but it is a move that will be scrutinized if they immediately struggle against Jon Gruden in his Oakland debut.
Then there’s the defensive additions, which look good on the field but could cause distractions everywhere, as all three new veterans have never been shy about throwing around their bodies or their opinions.
“Look, we know you don’t win anything in the summer, we know we have to go out and prove we are worthy of all this,” Demoff said.
But theirs is a worthy endeavor, witness the atmosphere at their Coliseum playoff game last January, a bumbling 26-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in which the Rams felt their floor, but saw their ceiling.
“I think back to that game, 75,000 people in the Coliseum, standing on their feet, waving towels, it reminded everyone of what football in Los Angeles can be,” Demoff said.