The relief in Sean McVay’s voice on his way out the door said much more about the Rams’ 30-27 season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers than any of the answers he provided during his postgame news conference.
He had just spent more than six minutes detailing the good and bad of his team’s performance Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
“Man,” McVay shouted as he stepped down from the dais, “I’m glad we won that!”
The Rams traveled across the country with plenty of questions trailing them.
Seven months after their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, would they show signs of an impending letdown that has historically plagued most Super Bowl runners-up? How would they manage the workload of star running back Todd Gurley, who has maintained that his much-scrutinized left knee is fine?
And could quarterback Jared Goff leave behind a poor Super Bowl performance and not feel the pressure that comes with signing the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history?
The Rams, Gurley and Goff answered all of those questions while outlasting Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Gurley rushed for 97 yards, backup running back Malcolm Brown scored two touchdowns, Goff passed for a touchdown and Greg Zuerlein kicked three field goals in a victory that set up the Rams for next week’s home opener against the New Orleans Saints.
Linebacker Cory Littleton forced and recovered a fumble and also intercepted a pass for a defense that mostly neutralized Newton on a day safety Eric Weddle was lost because of a cut to the head and a possible concussion.
“We can be a lot better,” Littleton said.
That was the prevailing message from players on offense, defense and special teams after they endured a 1 p.m. East Coast start on a warm and humid day.
“I’d rather build off what we did wrong off a win than a loss,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said.
Throughout the offseason and preseason, McVay spoke about the “plan” that was in place to manage Gurley’s workload. It included sitting out team drills during offseason workouts, practicing every other day during training camp and remaining safely at home or on the sideline during preseason games.
But McVay gave no indication about the plan for Gurley once games began to count.
Gurley started Sunday and rushed 14 times. Brown played a larger role than in the past, subbing for Gurley — last year’s NFL leader in touchdowns — on multiple series. Brown scored on short runs in the second and third quarters as the Rams built 13-point leads.
“I wasn’t banking on anything,” Brown said of his role. “I was just going to be prepared.”
Gurley started slow — he caught a short pass on the first series and was stopped for no gain on his first carry —but showed flashes of his trademark elusiveness and strength on several runs before McVay put the game in his hands in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers had pulled to within 23-20 on running back Christian McCaffrey’s second touchdown. As the Rams tried to eat up the clock, Gurley carried the ball four times for 41 yards, setting up Goff’s touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Higbee.
“Four-minute situation,” Gurley said. “Get a first down, get out of here.”
The Panthers scored a late touchdown, but the Rams recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Goff, who completed 23 of 39 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown with an interception, was glad to get the first one out of the way.
“Your first game of the year, similar to every year, you come out and you think you know what to expect but kind of really don’t until you get out there and go through a few series,” he said.
McVay was pleased with Goff’s performance.
“In the key moments he made some great decisions,” McVay said.
One thing the Rams don’t have to worry about is Goff’s state of mind. Last week, they gave him a $134-million extension, with a record $110 million guaranteed.
“It’s something that is allowing me to play completely freely and just focus on winning at all times and what I can do to make myself better,” he said.
After sitting out preseason games, the victory Sunday enabled Goff and his teammates to get back onto the field and leave their performance in the Super Bowl behind.
“It’s official now,” Goff joked. “I hope I don’t have to talk about it much more.”