A seemingly endless contract impasse kept Aaron Donald out of training camp before each of the last two seasons.
It did not slow down the Rams defensive tackle.
He won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award in 2017, and after signing a $135-million extension and recording 20½ sacks this season he should win it again.
So will the Rams require Donald to attend training camp before next season?
“He better, with all that money we’re paying him,” coach Sean McVay joked Friday. “Sheesh, maybe he wouldn’t have to wait to really get into a flow.”
Donald might not be making obvious highlight-reel plays in the playoffs, but he is at the top of his game as the Rams prepare to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“This is a big stage,” he said. “This is what we work for.”
Donald had two tackles, one for a loss, against the Cowboys. He had two tackles for losses and three quarterback hits against the Saints. Solid statistics for many defensive linemen, but not the kind that make headlines.
Those of late have been devoted to lineman Ndamukong Suh, the Rams’ high-priced offseason acquisition who played his best two games for the Rams in the playoffs. Edge rushing linebacker Dante Fowler also had a starring role.
Their plays would not be possible without the ultra-strong, ultra-quick Donald because he demands double-teams, freeing teammates to make big plays.
Donald has been “unbelievable” in the playoffs, McVay said.
“Stats can be misleading with regard to the production and the influence that a defensive player is having on a game,” he said.
Donald, for example, repeatedly forced Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott out of the pocket. He made Saints quarterback Drew Brees shift from a favored throwing position. He did that despite offensive linemen sliding to him or forcing him to fight through two of them.
“That’s what happens, you focus on one guy and then you have other opportunities for other guys to get their one-on-ones to win,” Donald said. “And that’s what they’ve been doing.
“As long as somebody’s winning, I’m happy.”
Asked what stood out about Donald, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told New England-area reporters, “Everything.”
“He’s pretty much unblockable,” said Belichick, who has won five Super Bowl titles in eight appearances as head coach.
That’s how Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips sees it as well.
“Whether he gets a sack or not every play, that doesn’t define him,” Phillips said. “Nobody can run the ball on his side.”
The Patriots deploy numerous running backs. Rookie Sony Michel has scored five touchdowns in two playoff games. James White led the Patriots in receptions this season. Rex Burkhead scored his first two touchdowns of the season in the Patriots’ overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game. And, as a wide receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson also is a threat to run.
Quarterback Tom Brady, the four-time Super Bowl MVP, was not sacked in postseason victories over the Chargers and Chiefs, which presents a challenge for the Rams.
“You got a great quarterback back there,” Donald said. “They play good together up front, and they’ve been running the ball real strong in the playoffs.”
Donald’s participation in the last few Super Bowls consisted of on-site television and radio appearances and attending events hosted by his commercial sponsors.
Now he will be playing in the game.
Five months after signing his new deal, Donald and the Rams have an opportunity to win the sport’s biggest prize.
“This is how you picture things and how you want it,” he said.
However, there is still work to be done, Donald said.
“This is what you train for, to play in big games like this and have the opportunity to play in a world championship,” he said. “A lot of hard work we did as a team, a lot of work I did individually, so to be at this stage and be here now is a blessing.
“But still got one more game to do, one more game to finish strong, and we just got to do it.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein