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Column: John Wolford hopes to defy the odds and etch his name in backup QB lore

Rams quarterback John Wolford warms up before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 6.
Rams quarterback John Wolford warms up before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 6. Wolford will start for the Rams in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Cardinals.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The Rams will call his number, climb on his back, trust his arm, use his legs, ride his shoulders.

Now, if they could only pronounce his name.

“Wall-ford,” said Sean McVay.

“Wool-ford,” corrected John Wolford.

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The Rams are putting their biggest game since the Super Bowl in the hands of a quarterback who has earned their highest praise for athleticism and smarts and savvy.

Now, if only he wasn’t still apparently looking for a job as a private equity analyst.

That title is right there on his active profile on a professional networking site, just underneath “Professional Athlete.” Yes, meet the rare NFL starting quarterback who is still on LinkedIn.

Rams QB Jared Goff had surgery on his right thumb and will not play Sunday. John Wolford, who has never taken an NFL regular-season snap, will start.

“If this Sunday goes well, maybe I’ll just delete it,” Wolford said.

If Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals goes well, you can find him instead on TMZ. This is Hollywood. This is Hallmark. This is rich.

The Rams are really trying to save their season in the playoff-deciding finale by starting a quarterback who has never set foot in a regular-season NFL game.

The finger injury suffered by the durable Jared Goff has forced them to rely on an undrafted, undersized 25-year-old from Wake Forest who hasn’t played in a big game since the Belk Bowl three years ago.

And, oh yeah, the 6-foot-1 newbie will be operating without the services of the team’s best receiver and at least one of its top running backs.

This is terrible? This is great. This is the coolest Rams story since “Heaven Can Wait.” This is the most unvarnished pro football fun anyone has had in this town in forever.

“The first night I found out, I slept a little bit less than normal,” Wolford admitted.

You think?

According to Elias Sports Bureau, since 1990 only two teams have started a quarterback with no experience in a season finale with the playoffs on the line. Wolford will also be the first quarterback to make his first start for a team in a Week 17 playoff-implications game since Kyle Orton did it for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013.

“We’ll see what he brings,” receiver Robert Woods said. “I know one thing, it will be exciting on Sunday for sure.”

So true. So perfect an ending to a pandemic-dulled regular season. Some might criticize the Rams for having such an inexperienced backup, but, what, Wolford is going to be worse than Goff? By filling the important backup position with an untested scrub known mostly for his brains and composure — the kind of insurance few contenders would buy — the Rams are going full Rams.

Rams quarterback John Wolford throws in front of starting quarterback Jared Goff.
Rams quarterback John Wolford throws in front of starting quarterback Jared Goff before a game against the New York Giants on Oct. 4.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

They tease. They take risks. They entertain. They continually say, “We’re smarter than you and we don’t care what you think.”

They made McVay the youngest coach in NFL history. Even though they play in a market where the local NFL teams are not wildly popular, their owner built the most expensive stadium in sports history. They continually make their stars the highest-paid players at their respective positions.

The Rams go for it. By finding themselves in a position where an unused, mispronounced, Wall Street-detoured player must rescue their season, they’re really, really going for it.

“I’m confident in John Wolford. ... I’m also confident in the other 10 players around him and understanding what guys need to do to step up,” McVay said excitedly. “We gotta go do it, we got to go do it collectively and together ... but man, what a great opportunity to respond, let’s go lay the chips out there and see what the heck happens.”

He’s here instead of a veteran backup or Colin Kaepernick because, according to general manager Les Snead, in Wolford’s two seasons with the team he won its trust.

“He earned the job ... with his ability to process quickly, his quarterback savvy, ability to make unscheduled plays, elite preparation ... and earning the respect of our team,” Snead said.

That’s important stuff, but who knows if Wolford is any good? That’s the fun of it, right? He played well a couple of springs ago for a cool team in the short-lived Alliance of American Football — he was an Arizona Hotshot! — but what does that really mean?

The Rams announce Tuesday that leading receiver Cooper Kupp has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

To be honest, if you look at ancient tapes, Wolford plays like McVay when the coach was once a quarterback. With his reddish hair and beard stubble, he even looks a bit like McVay. Could it be a case of the coach wanting to coach himself?

McVay laughed and said, “The competitor, the focus, the concentration, the way he goes about his business, that’s what you like as a coach.”

During his first videoconference interview as a starting quarterback Wednesday, Wolford demonstrated an added trait of escapability. He was asked if he offers anything different than Goff, and, well …

“I don’t want to knock Jared’s athleticism, he’s a great athlete. ... I think I’m a little bit faster than him and can make a few more plays with my legs,” he said, before quickly juking and adding, “But he’s been amazing to me ... utmost respect for how he’s treated me ... nothing but grateful for his camaraderie and friendship.”

Confidence? Check. “I know I can spin, I know I can make the throws. ... I’m glad the team is rallying around me, it’s going to be fun.”

Understanding his role? Check. “You can’t make critical errors, I’ve got to put us in a position to win. ... I understand they have a good rush, I’ve got to make those plays and not take sacks.”

Dreams coming true? Oh yeah. “I always thought I could make it, and maybe that was a little outlandish consider the percentages, but I did. ... I’m here now and I’ve dreamed of this since I was a 5-year-old when I first put on a helmet. ... It’s cool to see it come to fruition. ... I’ve got to perform on Sunday, that’s my next step.”

As for the team’s continued mangling of his name, he shrugged and said, “I don’t even correct them, it doesn’t bother me.”

Win the game. Make it simple. Call him Rudy.


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