A terrific debut season by coach Sean McVay and a remade star-studded roster put the Rams in the Super Bowl conversation.
But what if something goes wrong — injury or otherwise — with frontline players?
The preseason offers NFL teams opportunity to assess potential backups, and the Rams’ first game Thursday night did not exactly inspire confidence.
With all but two starters watching safely from the sideline, the Rams lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 33-7, at M&T Bank Stadium.
Preseason results, of course, mean nothing. And Rams coaches will surely find encouraging signs after they review every play of their rookies’ first professional game.
But overall, it was an uninspiring effort by a team that probably cannot count on the unusually good fortune it enjoyed on the injury front last season.
“We expect to play better,” McVay said, “and we will.”
After two joint practices with the Ravens this week, McVay adopted a better-safe-than-injured philosophy for Thursday.
Quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh were among those on the sideline in sweat suits. Offensive guard Jamon Brown and linebacker Samson Ebukam were the only starters who played against the Ravens.
“When we set this practice schedule out a long time ago that was kind of the plan all along,” McVay said of holding out starters.
The Rams play the Oakland Raiders at the Coliseum on Aug. 18, but McVay was noncommittal about playing starters against a team the Rams open the season against on Sept 10 on “Monday Night Football.”
“There’s a lot of different layers to it,” he said.
That might be gamesmanship. With starters league-wide traditionally held out of the fourth preseason game, sitting them in the second game would leave Goff and Co. only one game — against the Houston Texans on Aug. 25 — to establish timing.
Backup quarterback Sean Mannion must take advantage of whatever opportunities come his way.
Going into Thursday’s game, McVay said the fourth-year pro had taken steps in the right direction.
But, without the benefit of frontline players on the field with him, that was not evident against the Ravens. Mannion once again struggled to position himself as a viable backup for a team that is expected to make a deep playoff run.
Mannion completed his first two passes before tight end Temarrick Hemingway dropped a ball and Mannion was sacked, portending the long night ahead.
He completed only three of 13 passes for 16 yards with an interception. Several passes were deflected at the line of scrimmage and he was sacked twice.
“Certainly not my best performance,” Mannion said. “Just wasn’t really able to get in a rhythm early, so obviously disappointed with how the whole game went.”
McVay said others besides Mannion bore responsibility for the offense’s struggles. The Rams produced only 45 yards in the first half, 170 in the game.
“There’s a couple decisions that he’d like back, but then, you know, some guys got to make some plays for him as well,” McVay said.
“I can put him in better spots to be able to have that success.”
The Rams did have few bright spots on offense.
Rookie running back John Kelly rushed for 77 yards in 13 carries, including a 40-yard run. Second-year running back Justin Davis rushed for 41 yards in seven carries.
McVay praised quarterback Brandon Allen, who played the second half and completed 10 of 15 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
But the defense struggled to contain Ravens quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III.
Flacco and Griffin passed for touchdowns and Jackson completed a long pass and ran for a touchdown.
Rookie linebacker Micah Kiser had six tackles and Rams defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks had two sacks.
“I kind of felt like I definitely got to show up and show out when I’m a starter,” Westbrooks said. “Honestly, it was just good to get back on the field.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein