The verdict on Sean McVay’s controversial decision to virtually shut down the Rams stars during the entire preseason was issued Monday night in a brief as short as their moments of brilliance.
Never again should the Rams have to sweat through an opening-game escape like the one they pulled off in a 33-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
Never again should the Rams have to stumble from the brightness of summer expectations into a very dark place where a very black hole nearly consumed them.
Don’t be fooled by the final score. The score was tied until the final moment of the third quarter and only a 13-point Rams fourth quarter highlighted by a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown by new star cornerback Marcus Peters made it seem lopsided.
“I think the game was a lot closer than the score indicates,” said Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who didn’t throw a completed fifth pass until early in the second half before adjusting to have a decent game. “It was a lot closer than it looked.”
On a night of nasty nostalgia at creaky Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the Raiders were revved while the Rams looked rusty.
With their black-and-silver-clad fans rocking to heavy metal and rapping with MC Hammer, the Raiders came out jamming while the Rams were rarely in rhythm.
Jon Gruden, the smirking Raiders coach returning to Oakland after a 17-year absence, initially looked like the young genius while McVay’s team initially looked lost.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily rust, or we’ve just got to execute a little bit better,” McVay said afterward.
The Raiders outgained them. For more than a half, the Raiders outplayed them. The Raiders led at halftime, hung tough throughout the third quarter, and it wasn’t until the game’s final minutes that the Rams turned a thundering sea of Raiders cheers into the clacking of vacated seats and the anger of boos.
Heck, even the great Greg Zuerlein missed a field-goal attempt, this same guy who missed only twice in 40 tries last season. Of course, he later came back and nailed a 55-yarder.
“For us to be able to go through a little bit of adversity, have to come back from behind going into the half, always a good test of your resolve as a football team,” McVay said.
But as Monday showed, they’re probably not good enough to take an entire summer vacation.
All those stars who had not taken a competitive snap together for eight months? For a while, they pretty much played liked it.
Goff, a Pro Bowl quarterback, missed high, missed low, fumbled on a second-quarter strip sack, completed four passes in the first half and didn’t really find himself until late in the third quarter.
Todd Gurley, the NFL offensive player of the year and newly signed $60-million running back?
He struggled in traffic most of the game, his speed finally showing late against an exhausted Raiders defense.
Aaron Donald, the NFL defensive player of the year and $135-million man?
He ran into the knees of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in the first quarter, and the ensuing personal-foul penalty started the Raiders on a field-goal drive.
The Raiders took the opening kickoff and literally stuck it down the throat of the Rams on a 75-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 10-yard touchdown run during which Marshawn Lynch seemingly carried the entire Rams team with him.
The ancient building shook. The bouncing shirts enveloped the stands in a rolling darkness.
The message was unmistakable. This team may indeed have one foot in Las Vegas, where it is moving in two years.
The team may also have its heart in Los Angeles, where Raiders fans generally rule.
But, for that moment, this team belonged in Oakland.
Then, despite 146 yards of penalties and consistently sloppy play that included three turnovers, the Raiders kept their foot on their visitors’ throat until the Rams’ extraordinary talent finally won out.
“I don’t think we played up to our standards in the first half,” Goff said. “In the second half, we came out and we did.”
It didn’t happen until the final minute of the third quarter, when the Rams took over at their 42-yard line and scored in what felt like 10 seconds.
Gurley up the middle. Quick slant across the middle to Brandin Cooks. Short toss-and-run play to Cooks down the right sideline. Cooper Kupp in the corner of the end zone.
Four plays, 58 yards, only 1:42 required, and that was more like it.
“We had no preseason snaps, but we’ve been doing stuff in practice … to kind of make up for that,” center John Sullivan said. “Both sides of the ball probably would like to play the first half better, but it was a full team win. Ultimately our pace took the game over. On both sides of the ball, they couldn’t keep up.”
No member of the team’s starting offense played a down. The All-Pro core of the defense — Donald, Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh — played seven snaps.
“It might not be for everybody,” McVay told reporters this week, later adding, “I totally respect and understand that people might disagree with that.”
Several smart football people disagreed with McVay, saying that the Rams stars needed at least a few preseason series to stay sharp.
The Rams came within about 15 minutes of proving those smart people right.
So, really, never again, OK?
The standings will show the Rams as the only team in the NFC West with a first-week win, with a good chance to be 3-0 when they host the Minnesota Vikings in the season’s first showdown later this month.
But the first-week reality will read, whew.