The following appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 48-page special section on Sunday previewing Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
The Rams used to be Hollywood’s team. Bob Waterfield, one of their great quarterbacks of the post-WWII era, was married to the actress Jane Russell. (The other great quarterback was Norm Van Brocklin, who went on to coach the Falcons.) Seventy-five percent of their fearsome foursome – Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones – became actors. So did a receiver named Elroy Hirsch, who was better known as Crazylegs. This was a big-time franchise in one of our biggest cities.
In 1980, the Los Angeles Rams moved to Anaheim, which is part of Greater L.A. but also not, if you get my drift. Anaheim is Disneyland, as opposed to Hollywood, and the Rams were sharing a baseball stadium with the Angels, who’d gotten to Orange County first. They were still known as the L.A. Rams, but their civic profile began to dim. They fell behind the Dodgers and the Lakers in the pecking order, and eventually they did as unloved teams sometimes do. They moved.
The Rams moved two time zones to St. Louis, where they became, albeit briefly, the Greatest Show on Turf. Kurt Warner and his many-splendored receivers won a Super Bowl in Atlanta and should have won another in, of all places, New Orleans, but the second trip was undone by, of all teams, the Patriots when nobody outside New England knew much about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Then the Rams got mediocre. (Their coach, Jeff Fisher, was known as “Mr. 7-9.”) St. Louis didn’t really respond to such mediocrity, and owner Stan Kroenke began looking, as owners will, for a place that would, ahem, better appreciate his club, an appreciate invariably demonstrated by offering more money and a new stadium. Thus did the prodigal Rams move back to Los Angeles, not that L.A. was exactly starving for an NFL club, and they finally dumped Mr. 7-9 after his team lost 42-14 to the Super-bound Falcons.
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By then the Rams had made Jared Goff, whom they’d drafted No. 1 overall, their starting quarterback, and he was faring as rookie quarterbacks often do. Playing for a demonstrably terrible team, he was himself looking terrible. (He threw two interceptions and took three sacks in that Falcons game.) Of the seven games he started, the Rams won none.
Then the Rams hired Sean McVay. The former Marist option quarterback had spent three seasons as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, but he was two weeks shy of his 31st birthday. The Rams said, “The heck with calendars,” making him the youngest head coach in NFL history. It seemed an intriguing idea; then again, most ideas do until reality intervenes. The man who McVay supplanted as Youngest Ever was Lane Kiffin, who lasted 20 games with Oakland.
McVay, however, started off winning and kept going. He molded Goff into something more polished, and the threat of a passing game rendered Todd Gurley, the Georgia tailback who’d been the Rams’ top pick in 2015, a greater asset. In Aaron Donald, a defensive tackle who’d been a first-rounder in 2014, they had a defensive anchor. The Rams went 11-5 and drew the NFC’s No. 3. They played host to the Falcons in Round 1 of the playoffs and proved they weren’t quite ready. They scored one touchdown and lost 26-13.
Undeterred, the Rams spent the offseason augmenting their young core. They traded for receiver Brandin Cooks, who gave Goff a deep threat, and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. They signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as a complement to Donald. After the Rams upset the Saints in overtime to win the NFC Championship, general manager Les Snead told reporters: “Those moves were to help you continue contending, and to help you, when you’re in the tournament, win games like this.”
Snead spent 14 years working for the Falcons, first as a scout and then as director of pro personnel under GM Thomas Dimitroff. McVay, who turned 33 three days after his team won in New Orleans, grew up in Atlanta and attended the Super Bowl in January 2000 at the Georgia Dome as a fan. His grandfather John, who’d been the director of football operations with the 49ers when they were winning four Super Bowls, had gotten him tickets as a 14th birthday present.
Those two men have led the Rams back to the promised. At issue is how many folks in L.A. will notice. The team finished 10th in attendance, averaging 72,429 per home date, but they filled the rented Coliseum only for games against the Chiefs and the Cowboys, and on the latter occasion Dallas fans made up nearly half the crowd. (The Rams’ new stadium, being built near Hollywood Park race track, is set to open in 2020. They’ll share it with the similarly relocated Chargers.)
A study in “brand equity” showed that the Rams ranked 31st among 32 NFL teams, leading only the Titans, which brings us to this: If a team makes the Super Bowl and few in its city notice, is it the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest? Once a glamourous franchise, the Rams, with their young coach and young quarterback and glitzy offense and many stars, should be Hollywood’s idea of a dream team. But L.A. stopped caring about the Rams when they left for St. Louis. Now they’re back and they’re good, but they’re not yet the toast of Tinseltown.