The covered bleachers on the periphery of the practice field Thursday were largely empty when Jared Goff unleashed his first pass of training camp.
As relevant as the Rams have made themselves, they haven’t reached the point where responsible citizens feel compelled to ditch work to watch them work out. That’s fine. Not everyone can attract a crowd to a Blaze Pizza on a weekday afternoon, much less a series of converted soccer fields on the UC Irvine campus in the middle of a heatwave.
So Los Angeles hasn’t entirely lost its mind.
What the city has done is invited the Rams to the grownups’ table, with the football-playing prodigal sons now mentioned alongside the Lakers and Dodgers as one of the three major local sports franchises.
The Fight for L.A. might not be over, but the Rams are breaking away from the Chargers like Todd Gurley from a flat-footed linebacker. And the people will come, or at least are expected to come, with the Rams anticipating substantial turnouts for their practices this weekend. The previous two camp openers were on Saturdays and both drew well.
The team’s change in status somehow happened without the Rams winning a single postseason game, which speaks not only to the high quality of the additions they made this offseason, but also to how much the Lakers and Dodgers have disappointed in recent years.
And here I was stupidly thinking the Rams blew an opportunity by whimpering out of the playoffs in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons before Los Angeles had a chance to learn anything about them. Because, you know, Los Angeles doesn’t pay attention to its teams until the playoffs.
The Rams didn’t have a signature moment over the last two seasons, but in a town desperate for a winner, they didn’t need one. They made a few big offseason moves, including the signing of head stomper Ndamukong Suh, and, suddenly, they were considered Super Bowl contenders. Los Angeles was sold. The standards here aren’t what they used to be, but that’s what happens when Jim Buss runs his father’s team into the ground and Andrew Friedman fails to win the big one.
Of course, how the Rams got here really isn’t important. Call it luck, call it timing, call it whatever you want — they now matter in Los Angeles. This is what they wanted. This is what they envisioned.
As underwhelming as the crowd was on Day One of camp, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere as the Rams have transitioned from being a team that aspires to be good to one that expects to be good. There was an understated confidence about them.
“It feels more so picking up where we left off in OTAs,” Goff said.
Goff has proven he is a capable caretaker of the offense. Gurley has reestablished himself as one of the best running backs in football. Sean McVay has shown he can coach.
How much has changed in a year.
When a team is expected to be bad, as was the case with the Rams last year, its news cycle is dominated by negative news. That is why at this time a year ago, the story of Aaron Donald’s absence was treated like a metaphor for the team’s perceived incompetence.
Donald was a no-show again Thursday and the subject was barely mentioned. Part of that had to do with how last year turned out. The defensive tackle eventually ended his holdout and had another monster season.
But this also has to do with how the Rams are perceived — and how they perceive themselves. Their outlook is positive. Players other than Donald have established themselves as stars.
Rather than lament Donald’s absence, Goff playfully spoke of the $60-million extension Gurley signed earlier in the week.
Asked how Gurley looked in practice, Goff joked, “A little more pep in his step. I don’t know why.”
Except the possibility of Donald’s holdout extending into the season feels real this time. The Rams are negotiating from a position of power and the only leverage play Donald might have could be to exercise the nuclear option and withhold his services entirely.
There are other potential obstacles. The schedule is theoretically tougher than it was last season. And as the defending NFC West champions, the Rams won’t be catching anyone by surprise. Plenty could go wrong.
But until they do, the Rams will dream and so will their fans. Two years after the Rams returned to Los Angeles, football really has returned to the Southern California.