On their way to the Super Bowl, the Rams collected souvenirs and other trinkets. Commemorative T-shirts and caps for winning a second consecutive division title. A shiny trophy for defeating the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game.
In a joyous locker room after the victory over the Saints, general manager Les Snead was as happy as anyone to have checked off another box on the way to the NFL’s showcase event.
A few days later, after the elation subsided, Snead looked at the run-up pragmatically.
“All that’s done now is put you in a spot where you’ve got an opportunity to go get a bigger trophy,” Snead said Wednesday. “And that’s the focus.
“I’m sure there will be reflection time after this. But you quickly turn to the New England Patriots and the rewards that follow.”
Snead grew up in Alabama about 2 ½ hours from Atlanta. He is looking forward to returning to the city where he cut his teeth as an NFL executive for the Atlanta Falcons before the Rams hired him as general manager in 2012.
Snead is coming back as the architect of a team that was built for a Super Bowl run.
After the Rams were eliminated from the 2017 playoffs under first-year coach Sean McVay, they sensed opportunity.
Quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, was under control salary-wise for several more years. They had a core of young stars, led by running back Todd Gurley and defensive lineman Aaron Donald. And McVay, at 31 the youngest coach in NFL history, had turned a perennial loser into a playoff team with such key additions as receiver Robert Woods, offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, and a productive draft class.
The proverbial window was open, and the Rams decided to fly through it.
“When you’re in this position you’re never irrational enough to think you’re one or two players away,” Snead said. “After winning the division last year, after contending last year, we sat back and said we definitely feel like we can do this.
“And we could do this consistently for a little while.”
Snead, McVay and Tony Pastoors, vice president of football and business administration, worked out a flurry of deals that received the blessing of chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and, ultimately, owner Stan Kroenke.
All of the moves paid dividends.
“At some points in the season they’ve all been a part of making a play,” Snead said. “A big play.”
Peters returned an interception for a touchdown in the season-opening victory over the Oakland Raiders and also picked off a pass to help defeat the Kansas City Chiefs at the Coliseum. He navigated through rough stretches to play better late in the season and in the playoffs.
“I give him credit, coming in and adjusting to our defense,” Snead said. “And the … second part of the season and he’s been really, really, productive in keeping people from completing passes on a consistent basis.”
Talib was sidelined for eight games because of an ankle injury but returned to solidify the defense in the latter part of the season.
Suh signed a one-year, $14-million contract that included $1 million in bonuses if the Rams won two playoff games. The ninth-year pro collected with dominant performances against the Dallas Cowboys and the Saints.
Has his performance justified the investment?
“The short answer to that would be yes,” Snead said, citing Suh’s role in shutting down Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Saints running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
The Rams signed Cooks to an $80-million extension before he played a down for them. He eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving for the fourth time in five NFL seasons, and made clutch receptions in both playoff victories.
“Take production and skill-set off,” Snead said. “Hey, you want a Brandin Cooks in your locker room.”
The same went for Shields, a Pro Bowl player for the Green Bay Packers who had been sidelined for nearly all of the last two seasons because of concussions. Shields has made several huge special teams plays, including catching a pass for a first down on a fake punt against the Saints.
During the season, Snead made a trade-deadline deal for edge-rushing linebacker Dante Fowler, who made several game-turning plays. In overtime against the Saints, he hit quarterback Drew Brees to help force an interception that gave kicker Greg Zuerlein the opportunity to win the game with a 57-yard field goal.
After Gurley suffered a knee injury against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 9, Snead signed running back C.J. Anderson, who had been released by three teams since the end of the 2017 season. Anderson rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games, and carried the load in place of a struggling Gurley against the Saints.
“Those are the little things that go on with the team where Sean and Les are really intentional about it,” Demoff said in the locker room after the victory over the Saints.
Said Snead: “It’s the guys that were here that maybe weren’t the sexy new toys, they spent this off-season wanting to get better and improve to get us to this point.”
The Rams have arrived without the locker room tension that appeared to be a possibility after they acquired Peters, Talib and Suh, all of who came with histories of suspensions, fines and controversy. Snead said the players were vetted, and the culture that McVay installed in his first season appears to be even stronger in the Rams’ locker room at their temporary Thousand Oaks facility.
“It’s not the largest, so it’s a tight-knit neighborhood — there’s not a lot of landscape between the houses there,” Snead said. “I like to say you can’t bring someone in that’s going to be a toothache.
“And at the end of a 16-, 20-game season you can handle a toothache, but for 20 straight weeks that thing starts bothering you, like, ‘OK I’m tired of this.’ ”
Moves made by the Snead-McVay tandem are not solely responsible for the Rams’ ascent to the NFL’s upper echelon.
Many key players, including Goff, Gurley, Donald, Zuerlein, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, linebackers Mark Barron and Cory Littleton, safety Lamarcus Joyner and punter Johnny Hekker, were on the roster, drafted or acquired during former coach Jeff Fisher’s tenure, which ended with his firing near the end of the 2016 season.
“In the era of where Jeff was the head coach, there’s a lot of key moves,” Snead said, adding, “There’s decisions along the way that you’re farming and they’re coming to fruition, so I think that era definitely played a role in building a foundation here.”
Trading up 14 spots to select Goff at No. 1 was the first major move Snead made when the Rams returned to Los Angeles. Nearly every move since — including the hiring of McVay — was made to gain a return on that investment.
Was it worth it?
“Quarterbacks are judged on winning games and winning playoff games and getting to this moment,” Snead said. “So, you’d have to say, yes.
“But you can also say none of us are there yet. We haven’t finished this off yet.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein