Jeff Fisher's return to Los Angeles as coach of the Rams, hailed as a homecoming for the Southern California native, ended abruptly Monday when he was fired with three games left in a disappointing season.
"Making a decision such as this — especially during the season — is one of the most difficult in sports," Rams owner Stan Kroenke said in a statement. "I have great respect for Jeff as a coach, person, father and friend."
John Fassel, the Rams' special teams coordinator, was named interim coach.
Fisher, who attended Woodland Hills Taft High and played at USC, was fired the day after the Rams suffered an embarrassing 42-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Coliseum, a result that dropped the team's record to 4-9 and was Fisher's 165th defeat as an NFL coach, equaling a league record.
After the game, running back Todd Gurley said the Rams had run "a middle-school offense" and suggested some players were not giving full effort.
The Rams have lost eight of their last nine games and rank last in the NFL in offense and scoring heading into Thursday night's game at Seattle.
Fisher was not available for comment.
Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer and vice president for football operations, said the decision to fire Fisher was "solely a performance-related issue."
During a 40-minute news conference at the team's training facility in Thousand Oaks, Demoff described the situation as an "organizational failure" and said the move was "more about direction and hope."
It was the Rams' performance the last few weeks, he said, "that really changed the barometer."
Demoff said he spoke at length with Kroenke on Sunday night and then revisited the discussion Monday morning before they informed Fisher.
"I don't think he was certainly expecting it," Demoff said of Fisher's reaction, which he described as professional.
Fisher spoke to assistant coaches and players before Demoff addressed the team and, later, organizational staffers.
Players universally blamed themselves for Fisher's firing.
"We didn't do enough for him," said rookie quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. "That's what it comes down to."
Middle linebacker Alec Ogletree lamented, "It's a production business — they want to see wins on the table, and everybody needs somebody to blame."
Aaron Donald, the 2014 defensive rookie of the year, said he was "shocked" by the news and was emotional when Fisher addressed players.
"He pretty much talked to us from the heart," Donald said. "You know it hurt him a lot, but he stood up there and he stood strong and talked to us like a man.
"But any time you lose a leader like that, a guy that drafted you and you've been with for three years and he's up and gone, you're going to be down about it."
Demoff said the Rams would consider coaching candidates from all ranges of experience. The position, he said, "is going to be a very attractive opening."
"The biggest mistake we can make is narrowing our search before it begins," he said.
General Manager Les Snead's future will be determined at the end of the season after the Rams evaluate all parts of their operation, Demoff said.
Fisher, 58, was in the fifth and final year of a contract that paid him about $7 million a year. He received a two-year contract extension before or early in the season and is expected to receive a buyout.
Fisher and Snead were hired by the St. Louis Rams before the 2012 season. The Rams went 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10 and 7-9 in the four seasons preceding the team's move back to Southern California.
Fisher coached the Houston Oilers in the mid-1990s and helped move the franchise to Tennessee, where it became the Tennessee Titans. He has a career record of 173-165-1 and is tied with Dan Reeves for the most losses by a coach in NFL history.
The Rams' return to Southern California after a more than two-decade absence was filled with hope when they traded six draft picks to the Titans to move up 14 spots and select Goff with the top pick.
But Fisher started journeyman quarterback Case Keenum and the Rams got off to a 3-1 start. They were 4-5 when Fisher finally inserted Goff into the lineup, and have lost all four games since.
Fisher had said throughout the season that he did not look over his shoulder and that Kroenke understood the challenges faced by an organization that moved operations from St. Louis to Oxnard to Irvine and to Thousand Oaks.
But the losing — including three consecutive routs — forced Kroenke's hand after he watched his team's embarrassing loss to the Falcons at the Coliseum, and the fans' reaction to it.
Fisher's cause was not helped by several controversies the last few weeks.
Former Rams running back Eric Dickerson, a pro football Hall of Famer who had been openly critical of the organization, said Fisher called him and told him to stay away from the team because he made players uncomfortable. Fisher said he was fine with Dickerson's criticizing the team, but he could not also request extra sideline passes for games.
Dickerson ultimately met with Demoff, but said he would not attend a Rams game as long as Fisher was the coach.
Dickerson said Monday that he would return to the sideline in the wake of Fisher's dismissal.
"I'll come back to a game, yes. I'll come back," he said in a phone interview. "I'm a Rams fan. I played for them, and I'm a fan."
Dickerson said he did not feel bad for Fisher.
"Jeff Fisher made $35 million," he said. "I don't feel sorry for him."
A few hours before the Rams' Dec. 4 loss at New England, news leaked that Fisher and Snead had received extensions. Fisher said he did not know where the information came from but he confirmed he had signed an extension.
The Rams did not publicly acknowledge the deals until Monday when Demoff confirmed that they had been agreed to before the season.
A few days after the loss to the Patriots, when asked about Snead, Fisher said he was "unaware" that Snead had been extended. He also said "we need to a do a better job from a personnel standpoint."
Two days later, a story on Sports Illustrated's "Monday Morning Quarterback" website described a rift between Fisher and Snead and, citing unnamed sources, described their relationship as toxic.
Fisher and Snead spent last week refuting the description.
Then came Sunday's humiliating loss to the Falcons, ending Fisher's tenure.
With a staff that includes two men who have experience as NFL head coaches — Dave McGinnis and Gregg Williams — Fassel said he was surprised he was chosen to lead the team the rest of the season.
Fassel, the son of former NFL coach Jim Fassel, said he would "do my best to be great" in the interim post.
"Whether I'm ready for it or not, I'm going to kick … and do what I have to do to help the team," he said.
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report