Column: Rams season opener at SoFi Stadium is spectacularly awkward with no fans

Rams players run onto the field at SoFi Stadium before Sunday's 20-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The SoFi spaceship officially landed Sunday with a gentle, giant thud.

Even a new $5-billion football stadium needs fans, yet there were none, the sprawling grandeur startling in its emptiness.

Even a historic game between longtime rivals like the Rams and Dallas Cowboys needs noise, yet there was none, save for a recorded racket that sounded like a freeway.

The Rams won the game 20-17, but strange and somber won the night.

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“Eerie is a great way to describe it,” Rams’ coach Sean McVay said.

The Rams took the field amid smoke, sparklers and silence. The Dallas Cowboys took the field to something even worse than silence, a complete absence of boos.

Referees announced calls to nobody. The cheerleaders rooted from somewhere outside the building. Sam Lagana screamed about the Rams’ house to a vacant house. Those cheering faces behind the end zones were constructed of cardboard.

Standout efforts by newcomers combined with a stellar defensive effort propels the Rams to a 20-17 win over the Cowboys in the first NFL game at SoFi Stadium.

“It just felt more like a Little League game when I was 6, 7 years old playing,” the Rams’ Aaron Donald said. “The only thing I didn’t see was my mom and dad screaming, ‘Aaaaaron! Aaaaron!’’’

The 70,240 seats are beautiful, but on this night they were endlessly sad rows and rows of black. The giant 120-yard Oculus video board is amazing, but, hanging above a vast nothingness, it looked like a blaring big-screen TV in an abandoned living room.

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And it’s too bad, because Sofi deserved better.

The place is beautiful, gorgeous, stupendous. The four-year journey to its inception is compelling. It’s going to host the 2022 Super Bowl, the 2028 Summer Olympics, and could eventually earn a reputation as this country’s premier sporting arena.

“By far the best stadium in the NFL,” the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey said after playing but one official game there.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff slides before being tackled by Cowboys safety Xavier Woods in the fourth quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For all this, Stan Kroenke, the Rams owner who built it, deserved a better moment than one of silence. He deserved the most giant of ribbons and the grandest of cuttings. There should have been fireworks, there should have been ceremonies, there should have been buzz, and there darn sure should have been roars.

Instead, there was only another muffled, sobering reminder of the side effects of COVID-19 pandemic that takes no prisoners. “Stan Canyon” is not immune. What should have been one of the milestone events in this city’s sports history mostly looked and sounded like two teams engaged in a summer workout.

The Rams absorbed the quiet as much as they felt the hits.

“It kind of felt like a scrimmage, a little more intense scrimmage,” Donald said. “You’d make a play and just kind of high-five, you don’t have the crowd to celebrate to, it was definitely different.”

It was the kind of unsettled game a huge crowd would have loved, empowered and enriched. The Rams were up, they were down, they were teetering, and then they won it with two big hits and a horrible Cowboys decision that would have surely worked the house into a lather.

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“You appreciate the ebbs and flows and the big plays and the excitement from the crowd and how much energy they bring,” McVay said.

The first hit occurred when the Rams were on the verge of losing their three-point lead after Dallas drove to the Rams’ 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter. But on fourth and three, new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy inexplicably went for it, and rookie Rams safety Jordan Fuller stopped rookie Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb one yard short.

“Unbelievable play, that flipped the whole momentum of the game,” McVay said.

Then, later, with Dallas facing third down while attempting a score-tying drive in the last six minutes, Amari Cooper caught a first-down pass but the ball was jarred loose after a massive hit from Ramsey, who played like the league’s richest defensive back after signing a $105-million contract.

“It felt great being able to step up in the fourth quarter when my number was called,” Ramsey said.

Rams linebackers Samson Ebukam and Leonard Floyd celebrate their win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Rams linebackers Samson Ebukam, left, and Leonard Floyd celebrate their win over the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the odd atmosphere, they all stepped up. McVay outcoached McCarthy, two-touchdown running back Malcolm Brown outdueled his more famous counterpart Ezekiel Elliott, and Rams rookies like Fuller and receiver Van Jefferson and kicker Samuel Sloman outplayed the Cowboys’ kids.

Then there was Jared Goff, who deftly and calmly ran an offense in a way that the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott did not, and afterward said the lack of a crowd actually brought everything into focus.

“It was very galvanizing, to be only out there by yourselves, knowing that we’re at home but at the same time it’s us and them,” Goff said. “There’s no one else in the building. It’s really mano-a-mano.”

Goff added, “It was really cool to be able to make big plays and hear our guys erupt…I heard Johnny Hekker almost the whole game, yelling in between plays. ... It was a different type of fun without the fans, but it was still fun.”

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The same could not be said for poor SoFi, which today is a stadium in need of a hug after a debut in need of a mulligan.

Wait. They are going to hold another grand opening for the Rams, right? When life returns to normal and fans return to the seats? Really light the place up and take a $5-billion bow? Good.