Players wandered in and out of the locker room Sunday at the Rams’ Thousand Oaks training facility, piling the contents from their dressing stalls into large plastic trash bags to haul to their cars.
The Rams’ turnaround season had ended abruptly the night before. Coach Sean McVay and the players were still processing a 26-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC wild-card game.
“Really thought we had a chance to make a run — and it ended prematurely,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “But we’re going to work hard this offseason.
“We’ve got a good core nucleus of guys, and a really driven group, and I don’t expect this to be the end for us by any means.”
Neither does McVay, at 31 the youngest coach in modern NFL history, who took a team that was 4-12 in 2016 and remade it into the NFC West champion and a playoff team for the first time since 2004.
“This organization is going in the right direction,” he said. “I think we've got a good foundation in place that we can build on, but by no means does that mean that you win games automatically next year.”
That thought was repeated by several players, who remained disappointed that they did not perform against the Falcons in the fashion that made them the NFL’s highest-scoring team.
But they sounded confident that more winning was ahead.
“It’s just a start,” said receiver Robert Woods, one of several key free-agent signings before the season. “McVay changed the culture around here, players bought in and believe, and it’s just the start of something great.”
Said running back Todd Gurley: “We put pieces together. … It’s somewhere to build and start, for sure.”
Players on Sunday took exit physicals, met with position coaches and turned in team-issued tablet computers.
They will have their final team meeting Monday.
“We won't have the exact same group of guys back in that locker room [next season], but it was a special group of men that we got a chance to work with this year,” McVay said. “There will be a lot of special people back, but I think it's more about just letting them know how much you appreciate the way they went about their business.”
Now that the season has ended, the business side of the Rams football operation will soon begin to kick into high gear.
Linebacker Alec Ogletree signed a four-year, $42-million extension in October and will be in the plan for 2018.
But nearly every player who spoke to reporters invoked the phrase “it’s a business” when discussing their situations and expected roster turnover.
“There's always changes,” Ogletree said. “People come and go throughout the whole year, so you kind of expect it and you know that's what's going to happen.
“But we've got a solid foundation sitting around here now. Guys that come in, hopefully they'll get on board and do the same thing.”
The Rams have several high-profile players who will become free agents. Others will have their contracts evaluated by the team, which could precipitate moves.
All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who enters the final year of his rookie contract, and safety Lamarcus Joyner, a pending free agent, are regarded as high priorities.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who was paid nearly $17 million this season as a franchise-tagged cornerback, has said he would like to remain with the Rams. So has receiver Sammy Watkins, a pending free agent.
Receiver Tavon Austin, who played only two snaps against the Falcons, is scheduled to receive $8 million in salary and bonuses next season.
Asked about the future of Austin, Watkins and Johnson with the Rams, McVay said, “Very appreciative of the contributions that all three of those guys have made for our team and what they’ve done,” and noted that he would meet soon with general manager Les Snead to discuss the entire roster.
The NFL season will continue until the Super Bowl on Feb. 4. Soon after will be the NFL scouting combine, the start of the free-agency period and the draft.
But for Rams players, time off and vacation is about to begin.
Gurley said he planned to attend the College Football Playoff championship game between Georgia and Alabama in Atlanta on Monday. Others players said they would take some time away from football.
So did McVay.
“I kind of don't know what to do with myself,” he said. “So, we'll get away, get a chance to try to refresh. Get ourselves recharged and then we'll see how long that lasts for me."