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Rams’ road to Super Bowl was paved with many course-changing directions

Rams’ road to Super Bowl was paved with many course-changing directions
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlin is hugged by Justin Lawler as Johhny Hekker celebrates a game-winning field goal in overtime against the Saints in the NFC championship in New Orleans on Jan. 20, 2019. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Their journey to Atlanta began three years ago with a resounding cry to ship them back where they came from.

“The Rams formally returned to Los Angeles on Monday night by stumbling through the door and tracking mud on the floor before flopping aimlessly on the couch … hey, St. Louis, you want them back?’’

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Their road to Atlanta ended two weeks ago with a resounding cry, period.

Meanwhile, back home, the Southland screamed … The Rams are going to the Super Bowl!

What a short, strange trip it’s been, from embarrassment to enlightenment to the end zone of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Rams name will be plastered Sunday for their Super Bowl LIII matchup against the New England Patriots.

It’s been three years filled with drama and decisions and potentially deadly curves at every stretch. Yet every time, just when it seemed they could tumble over the guard rail, something happened to keep them straight.

Three years, a dozen road signs, all potentially directing them to the destination of a lifetime.

Jared Goff, left, after being selected by the Rams as their No. 1 overall pick, and Carson Wentz, after being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles as their top pick and No. 2 in the first round, at the 2016 NFL football draft in Chicago.
Jared Goff, left, after being selected by the Rams as their No. 1 overall pick, and Carson Wentz, after being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles as their top pick and No. 2 in the first round, at the 2016 NFL football draft in Chicago. (Matt Marton / Associated Press)

The drafting of Jared Goff

Everyone remembers the Rams’ savvy in trading up from the 15th spot to the first spot in the 2016 draft –-- the biggest jump in NFL history — but some are already forgetting what made that trade work.

Amid criticism that lasted for more than an entire season afterward, general manager Les Snead took Goff instead of the more popular Carson Wentz, yet look where they are now.

Wentz is being questioned for his durability and leadership while Goff has passed him in terms of both perception and reality. Wentz has to work his way back to respectability, while Goff is working his way to the verge of becoming one of the game’s great young quarterbacks.

Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson is seen during the game between the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks at the Coliseum in 2017.
Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson is seen during the game between the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks at the Coliseum in 2017. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The snubbing of Eric Dickerson

Midway through the Rams’ awful debut season, their most recognizable local icon got into a spat with coach Jeff Fisher, and guess who won?

Eric Dickerson claimed Fisher had banned him from the sidelines because of Dickerson’s public criticism of the lousy team. Dickerson then said he was banning Fisher from his life.

“I won’t be at the Coliseum as long as Fisher is coaching,’’ Dickerson said.

For a coach who never should have accompanied the team from St. Louis in the first place, it was the beginning of the end.

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And, oh yeah, Dickerson was back at the Coliseum before you knew it.

Jeff Fisher was a holdover from the Rams' time in St. Louis, but he lasted less than one season in Los Angeles.
Jeff Fisher was a holdover from the Rams' time in St. Louis, but he lasted less than one season in Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The angering of Todd Gurley

After the Rams’ 42-14 loss to the Falcons in the Coliseum, running back Gurley applied the dagger to Fisher’s future.

“We looked like a middle-school offense out there,’’ he said.

The next day Fisher was fired, and the stage was set for the hiring of a brilliant football mind who would make certain Gurley never would have those complaints again.

A guy, incidentally, who looked like a middle-schooler.

Sean McVay, center, the youngest coach in NFL history, poses with Rams COO Kevin Demoff, left, and GM Les Snead after being introduced at team headquarters in Thousand Oaks on Jan. 13, 2017.
Sean McVay, center, the youngest coach in NFL history, poses with Rams COO Kevin Demoff, left, and GM Les Snead after being introduced at team headquarters in Thousand Oaks on Jan. 13, 2017. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The selling by Sean McVay

The brilliance of the hiring of the youngest coach in NFL history certainly belongs to the Rams front office, with Kevin Demoff and Snead deserving full credit for their prescience.

But they really didn’t know exactly what they had until McVay showed up for his first press conference and sold the room and the team and the town on his energy and leadership.

He talked fast and excitedly and humbly. He talked with passion, precision and smarts.

“If you can’t tell, I’m a little wired, a little high strung,’’ he told the media.

He flew his parents and brother into town from Atlanta and sat them in the second row. He joked about not being recognized the previous night by Wolfgang Puck, who interrupted McVay’s dinner with Rams officials to wonder if they had found a head coach.

“To me, the final check mark of age is not a factor here,’’ Demoff said at the time of his 30-year-old hire. “This is really about Sean’s talents, his ability to lead and communicate.’’

From the start, McVay was all that.

The signing of Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan

In the spring of 2017, the Rams added three veterans who were more solid than flashy, setting the tone for a team that would not succumb to the lure of going Hollywood.

Woods was a beloved local kid and former USC star, but he wasn’t known as a game-breaker. Whitworth and Sullivan were offensive linemen who were acclaimed at their positions, but most locals had never heard of them.

Yet as the Rams kept building, these three blah signings turned out to be three cornerstone signings. Woods has become Goff’s safety net, Whitworth is a locker room leader, and Sullivan runs the impressive offensive line.

Now, not only have most fans heard of of them, but also the players listen to them.

The beatdown of Seattle

It was Week 15 of the 2017 season, McVay’s debut team had lost two of its previous four games, was fresh off a home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and questions were everywhere.

Then a 42-7 win against the Seahawks in hostile Seattle provided immediate answers.

Yes, these Rams could be tough. Yes, these Rams could ride the backs of that offensive line and Gurley, who gained 152 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Yes, they started to believe.

The beatdown by Atlanta

Just as they needed that win over Seattle to realize their potential, the Rams also needed a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons to understand that their ascent was far from complete.

In a 26-13 defeat in the wild-card playoff game at the Coliseum, the Rams lost two fumbles. Goff struggled, the defense collapsed, and the agenda was set.

They needed to get even tougher, even smarter, even better, and they needed to do it now.

The acquiring of the Legion of Goon

This spring, out of nowhere it seemed, the Rams brought in troubled veteran defenders Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh.

In this column space, I questioned the wisdom of adding such tempestuous players to a stable locker room environment, especially since McVay only had the credibility of one season.

Turns out, it was pretty smart. Talib has been mostly terrific, Suh has been lately terrific, and Peters, while inconsistent, hasn’t caused much trouble.

By adapting to these previously unsettled characters, the Rams became stronger not only defensively, but also discovered the strength of their culture.

The benching of everyone

I wrote that McVay was foolish for resting his entire starting offense for the entire preseason while playing his biggest defensive stars for all of seven snaps.

What can I say? I was an idiot. The rested and healthy bunch began the season with eight straight victories. End of story.

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The handling of tragedies

In early November, the Rams’ Thousand Oaks community was wracked by a mass shooting and fire.

The Rams responded by honoring the city throughout their Nov. 19 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, a Monday night showcase that was held at the Coliseum only because the field in Mexico City was deemed unplayable.

They won the game, they endeared themselves to the city, and were included in conversations about the Super Bowl.

The addition of C.J.

In the final two weeks of the regular season, while Gurley was resting an injured left knee, the Rams didn’t just tread water until his return.

In perhaps his savviest move of the year, Snead picked up running back C.J. Anderson off the street, McVay inserted him into the lineup, and the veteran has basically carried the Rams running attack for the last four games.

At the beginning of this three-year journey, it seemed as if Snead, a St. Louis holdover, would not survive it. Yet the Anderson acquisition reminded everyone how the Rams could not have survived it without him.

Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman seems to deliver an early hit to Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential game-clinching drive in the NFC championship game in New Orleans.
Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman seems to deliver an early hit to Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential game-clinching drive in the NFC championship game in New Orleans. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The swallowing of the whistle

Every great season needs a little luck, right? For all their greatness in the NFC championship overtime win against the New Orleans Saints, let’s face it, the Rams benefited from that luck.

Obviously, this is about the missed pass interference and helmet-to-helmet call that officials should have levied again Nickell Robey-Coleman in the final two minutes of regulation.

Yes, the Saints had chances to win the game after the call. They could have stopped the Rams on their game-tying drive. They could have scored a touchdown on the first overtime drive. The Saints had their opportunities and they blew them by making at least as many errors as the officials.

But make no mistake, if that penalty was called, the Saints could have drained the clock to four seconds and kicked a game-winning chip-shot field goal. With that penalty, the Saints would have almost certainly won the game.

So, OK, they had little luck, maybe even a big chunk of luck. The Rams will take it. Just from all of their swerving and skidding over the last three years, it seems like they’ve earned it.

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