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Column: Sean McVay can’t see which way is up after being ‘humbled’ by loss to Cardinals

 Rams head coach Sean McVay watches the final seconds of the Rams' 27-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Rams head coach Sean McVay watches the final seconds of the Rams’ 27-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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It was fun while it lasted.

The reigning Super Bowl champion Rams dropped to the bottom of the NFC West with an ugly thud Sunday, a stunningly swift plunge even for a team that was bound to face the physical and mental challenges that usually follow a title run.

Their lifeless play in a 27-17 loss to Arizona led to their third straight defeat and fifth in the last six, leaving them a sorry 3-6 as they crossed the halfway point of a season that isn’t going to end with another playoff celebration. They were booed off the field at halftime at SoFi Stadium. Their performance deserved it.

How far the mighty have fallen. “It sucks. It really does,” wide receiver Ben Skowronek said.

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Coach Sean McVay, hailed as a boy genius last season for being so creative with the offense while guiding the Rams to a championship at the precocious age of 36, looked and sounded like any other over-stressed, veteran coach who can’t stop the bleeding.

He described himself as “humbled” by being tested and stretched in ways he hadn’t experienced before. Sunday was a prime example.

The Rams already were without quarterback Matthew Stafford and then lost star receiver Cooper Kupp in fourth quarter of 27-17 loss to Cardinals, led by backup Colt McCoy.

Nov. 13, 2022

“Not a lot of positives that you can take away from this. It’s tough. It stinks,” he said. “There’s just a lot of different reasons that we’re in this position.”

He should have known what kind of day it would be when backup quarterback John Wolford, making his second career start because Matthew Stafford remained in concussion protocols, engineered a 14-play drive on the Rams’ first possession but produced only a field goal.

The Rams didn’t score again until four minutes and 24 seconds remained in the third quarter, on a four-yard run by Darrell Henderson Jr. that cut the Cardinals’ lead to 17-10.

The Cardinals responded with a nine-yard touchdown run by running back James Conner early in the fourth for a 27-10 lead after Budda Baker had intercepted a pass intended for Skowronek and took the Cardinals to the Rams’ 25-yard line.

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“There’s no moral victories. We didn’t get the win. But at least we battled,” said Wolford, who occasionally was replaced by third-string quarterback Bryce Perkins as McVay tried to create a spark that never appeared.

Rams quarterback John Wolford (13) scrambles as center Coleman Shelton (65) blocks the Cardinals' J.J. Watt (99).
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams have scored 20 or more points only three times this season. They didn’t score that many in any of their last three games, against the 49ers, Tampa Bay, and Arizona. They’ve been outscored 200-148 overall.

If this is a Super Bowl hangover, no aspirin will cure it.

“I don’t think anything necessarily surprises you in this league,” McVay said. “There’s been a lot of different things that have gone on, none of which gives us a reason to do anything but try to be able to figure it out. Try to get guys to play to their highest potential.

“But there has certainly been a lot of different elements that have led us to this point right here, and we’re going to continue to compete. We’ve got eight games left, for sure, and that’s where our focus and concentration will be.”

Injuries have played a significant part in their struggles, especially on the ever-changing offensive line. Losing wide receiver Cooper Kupp to an injury early in the fourth quarter is another blow to an already thin offense. Stafford’s absence Sunday hurt them, too, though they’ve had trouble scoring when he was in the lineup.

McVay pointed to continuity and execution as key issues that must be improved but acknowledged he hasn’t seen things get better recently. There’s not a lot of time to find the right schemes that might allow the Rams to acquit themselves better offensively and keep them on the most distant fringes of playoff contention, if that’s even possible.

“It’s not a good movie and I’m a part of it right now and we’ve got to be able to figure out how to make it better, how to improve,” he said. “How do we play better, more complementary football? And whatever that means in terms of the results we’ve just got to be able to have a better product out there. Start to see some improvement. And that’s the challenging thing, is there really hasn’t been examples of that occurring.”

Everything that can go wrong seems to be going wrong for them after a season when so much went right.

“Yeah, but I feel like we can turn it around, though,” said wide receiver Van Jefferson, who scored the late touchdown that made the score slightly more respectable. “Of course, winning the Super Bowl was great for us but I feel like we can turn it around and we can get on a win streak here.”

That sounded distinctly like wishful thinking in the somber quiet of the Rams’ locker room.

“I’m never going to run away from the responsibility that I share with our team, our players, our coaches to be right here,” McVay said, “but there’s things I know we can do to be able to get better and I refuse to think anything else other than that. But I also want to see some of those things start to come to life and bear some fruit and we’ve got to be able to do that.”

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Anyway, it was fun while it lasted.

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