Column: Don’t write off the ‘Fight for L.A.’
There seems to be a snickering misconception about “The Fight for L.A.”
Folks, it really is a fight.
Everyone seems to believe this mythical battle between two NFL teams for a city’s love is a race that already has been run.
People, the thing starts now.
The Rams will begin with the lead over the Chargers, as expected, but it’s only a slight lead, much smaller than one might imagine, and one that could vanish as quickly as the Coliseum seats emptied last fall.
The Rams are leading not because of football, but because of history. The Rams are leading simply because they returned to town a year before the Chargers. They are leading because, in their previous life, they were here 47 years longer than the Chargers. Their lead is not about achievement, but birthright.
The Chargers are trailing because of their recent history. They showed up here last January when nobody was looking. They fled a longtime loyal fan base down south. They quickly became the team nobody wanted. When their logo was displayed on the Staples Center video board shortly after the move, it was roundly booed. Both of their exhibitions at cozy StubHub Center this summer contained bunches of vacant seats. Hardly a day passes when someone from San Diego isn’t railing on some media platform about their traitorous ways.
The Rams are first simply because they were first, but they did nothing last season to cement that spot. They could have quickly become a Los Angeles cornerstone, but instead the ground beneath them drastically shifted, and is rumbling still.
They won four games. They waited too long to play the kid quarterback. They waited too long to fire the coach. The Coliseum didn’t work well. Longtime allegiances were forgotten. Season tickets were surrendered. They had their moment, and lost it.
The Chargers are second simply because they are still the San Diego Chargers. They still wear the same San Diego uniforms. They still have the same San Diego game traditions, from the racetrack bugler to that blasted cannon. They don’t look or feel like Los Angeles, unlike the Rams of many childhoods. Right now, anyway, they just aren’t connected to Los Angeles.
But that can change. It can change in a hurry. Beginning Sept. 10, when they actually start playing games, the town essentially will be up for grabs.
Maybe this primer will help.
The stadium: The Chargers’ intimate StubHub Center might be the best place to watch an NFL game since helmets were leather. The Rams’ Coliseum home is the exact opposite, giant and ancient and a pain to negotiate. The Coliseum indeed has the history, majesty and sometimes this town’s only roars that can give you chills, but StubHub Center is clearly a better place to watch football. Advantage, Chargers.
The coach: They are both coached by rookies, but while the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn resembles a quiet and tough NFL running back — he used to be one — the Rams’ Sean McVay looks more like a hip young movie star you’d see sitting courtside at Lakers games. Both guys could be great stories, but we have no idea if either one actually can coach. Advantage, nobody.
The quarterback: Philip Rivers is the Chargers’ most recognizable star, the one name most Los Angeles fans know, a likeable leader who is one great game from creating buzz. Jared Goff is the Rams’ most uncertain star, his future flickering both as bright and dark as the peristyle torch on a windy day. While Goff has a higher ceiling, he also has a most rickety floor. The early leader here, and at least until Goff can win his first professional game, is Rivers. Advantage, Chargers.
The offense: The Rams have running back Todd Gurley, the Chargers counter with Melvin Gordon. The Rams have new receiver Sammy Watkins, the Chargers have Keenan Allen. The Rams have a couple of anonymous tight ends, the Chargers have Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. Throw in decent offensive lines, and one might think the buzz factor for these two offenses would be the same. But remember, the Rams scored all of three touchdowns in their first four Coliseum games last year. McVay needs to work some magic before folks will pay attention again. Advantage, Chargers.
The defense: Aaron Donald, the Rams’ star and 2014 NFL defensive rookie of the year, missed all of training camp because of a contract dispute. Meanwhile, Joey Bosa, the Chargers’ star and last year’s NFL defensive rookie of the year, is already strip-sacking quarterbacks like, you know, Goff. Still, the defense has been one of the few things about the Rams that is worth watching, and will remain so until proven otherwise. Advantage, Rams.
The special teams: Johnny Hekker of the Rams might have had the greatest season by a punter in NFL history last year, setting a record for punts downed inside the 20 (51) and breaking his own record for net punting yardage (46.0). He also might have set a Los Angeles NFL record for warm handshakes, big smiles, fan conversations, and just genuine approachability. He’s a great punter and a better neighbor. From the community to the field, Hekker is the Rams MVP, and no matter who the Chargers roll out there on kickoffs or punts, Hekker owns all this buzz. Advantage, Rams.
The fans: The Rams still have plenty of them. They may be feeling a tad disillusioned, but they’re still out there, lots of them still following the tradition of parents and grandparents, and we’ll see more of them if the Rams start winning again. The Chargers fans? Who knows? They have some, but who knows where they come from, and how long they’ll stick around. Some are driving up from San Diego, other are just intrigued by the novelty of it all and, bottom line, nobody really knows yet who is going to be watching. Advantage, Rams.
The verdict: This is the best part. No final judgment can rendered here or now. This question cannot be answered by pundits or prognosticators. It’s all about the scoreboard. Beginning with the season’s first Sunday on Sept. 10, the winner on the field will be the winner in Los Angeles. It’s been proven time and again by everything from the enduring legacy of the Lakers to the eternal frustration of the Clippers. In this town, you win, you own. The buzzworthy team will be the better team. Period.
Until then, observers of “The Fight for L.A.” will have to endure an entirely different force dominating the Los Angeles NFL landscape, a team that can rightfully claim it currently owns the joint, a name that would be such a distraction to the nice narrative of the previous 1,000 words, it will go unmentioned.
(It’s the Raiders.)
Go beyond the scoreboard
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