Discover more from The Sports Column
PRESSED TO VALIDATE THEIR WORTH, RAMS ARE REAL CHAMPIONS
With every reason to fold, a superteam was rescued by great players making defining plays — Stafford and Kupp performing a pass-and-catch clinic, followed by Donald’s Burrow-wrecking finish
They couldn’t just scrape away the pressure, shed the burden as if it didn’t exist. It was time, in the final minutes of a Super Bowl they were losing, for three central figures in another riveting NFL masterpiece to rise to the extravagance of their $6 billion surroundings and the massive expectations of their superteam narrative.
If Matthew Stafford was in Los Angeles to prove he could win, after too much losing in Detroit, it was time to lead an epic, career-propping, game-winning drive even if he was stripped of his weapons.
If Cooper Kupp was truly the most feared offensive weapon in the sport, after a life of being dismissed as too small and too slow (and too white) to be a gamebreaking receiver, it was time to get open on every snap, play pitch-and-catch with Stafford on the conclusive 79-yard drive and win the balloting for game MVP.
And if Aaron Donald was the best football player on the planet, not just the most destructive defensive force of his era, it was time to wreck Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals with successive game-ending stops so thunderous that he can retire right now if he prefers.
Say what you will about the most talented team, the all-in creation built for a mega-stadium and a mega-occasion, simply doing what it was supposed to do Sunday night in a 23-20 victory. But also say this: The Rams had every reason to lose and, instead, made memorable plays that define the greats and bolster reputations, especially in a town that wants drama from its champions. Sports is filled with examples of star-bloated superteams falling short, victims of clashing egos and failed chemistry. But despite circumstances that could have doomed them, such as the demands and distractions of L.A., it seems the Rams loved each other too much to let each other down in the frenzied end.
“Every guy wanted it more for everyone else than himself,’’ said coach Sean McVay, whose maniacal tendencies finally have resulted in a Vince Lombardi Trophy at the doddering age of 36. “In crunch-time moments, the best thing this team does is be totally and completely present. Be in the moment, don’t worry about what the (game) momentum is. These guys are too mentally tough, and they stayed the course again. We’ve talked about competitive greatness all year — being your best when your best is required.’’
“We knew it was going to take one drive late in the night. Coop made some unbelievable plays, and then Aaron Donald wrecked the game,’’ said Stafford, at last a champion after 13 years as a battered loser. “We have too much faith that we’ll get it done when we have to.’’
In a home stadium occupied by loud, upset-dreaming Cincinnati fans, the Rams had many reasons to fold if they weren’t worthy. They could have cried when the officials, making another rotten call in a high-profile game, didn’t see Tee Higgins grabbing Jalen Ramsey by the face mask, allowing a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals a 17-13 lead not long after Eminem kneeled on the SoFi Stadium stage — a tribute to Colin Kaepernick, permitted by the league? They could have sulked when Odell Beckham Jr., who finally was finding peace and high production in L.A., exited during a productive first half with a knee injury. The Rams couldn’t run the football, couldn’t stop the run, and even after Stafford and Kupp connected with 1:25 left for their 22nd scoring pass as a tandem — only Tom Brady and Randy Moss have had more in a season — there was enough time for Burrow to follow the trail of two other Super Joes, Namath and Montana, and cement himself as the biggest story in American sports.
He’ll have to wait, Donald decided. With the Bengals closing in for at least a field-goal shot for kicker Evan McPherson, who is so cool that he watched Dr. Dre’s halftime hip-hop show from the team bench, Burrow had two chances to extend a drive on 3rd-and-1 from the Rams 49 in the final minute. Unusually subdued for much of the game, Donald awakened like a monster in a horror movie. On third down, he stopped a rushing attempt. On fourth down, he swallowed Burrow and forced an incompletion, then ran off the field pointing at his ring finger. A few minutes later, he was shedding tears on a confetti-covered field.
“I wanted it so bad. I dreamed this. It’s surreal,’’ Donald said. “It feels amazing. God is great. So many guys have been telling me, ‘You have to get there. You have to feel it.’ You’ve got to be relentless. You want something bad enough, you’ve got to go get it. You work hard for this one game, and, you know, we’ll be the last team standing.’’
Unlike McVay, who shot down reports that he might pursue a network TV position, Donald might retire on top. That might not be a good idea. Now that personal loads have been lifted for so many, you wonder how many titles the Rams might win. Packers management says it will meet all of Aaron Rodgers’ demands, including paying favorite weapon Davante Adams, but there’s no assurance he’ll re-sign in Green Bay. Tom Brady may or may not un-retire, but would he join the San Francisco 49ers when his wife wants warm weather? The Rams might not be finished. Vegas already has them listed as NFC favorites.
“As far as building this stadium, I think it turned out all right.’’ said owner Stan Kroenke, in a subtle shot at league owners who’ve turned on him over stadium and relocation issues.
If no other titles await, we’ll be thrilled to witness the partnership of a quarterback and his pass-catcher. Stafford was a hotshot out of the womb, setting passing records at Georgia and becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Kupp was overlooked by major programs and wound up at Eastern Washington, where he devoured eggs to develop muscle mass. They’d never met until McVay pushed for the Stafford upgrade, in a deal with the Lions for erratic Jared Goff. Since then, their 6 a.m. skull sessions have become legend in Thousand Oaks, a work commitment reflected in the final drive, as if Eminem was shouting at his former Detroit QB: “Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity. To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it, or just let it slip? Yo.”
“It was pretty simple: Get him the ball on every down,’’ Stafford said. “He kept making plays; that’s what he does. He just took over the game when everyone knew we were throwing it on every play. That’s hard work, that’s hours together. I just thank coach (McVay) for putting it … ‘Hey, Matthew, you and Coop go get this thing done.’ He kept calling plays for him, kept finding ways to get him the ball. He made unbelievable plays. That’s what he does.’’
Naturally, keeping in tune with the “we-not-me’’ theme, Kupp said he didn’t feel worthy of the MVP award. The dream scene would have had Stafford, with his wife and kids, hoisting the trophy. The voters got it right; Kupp was the one who had to get open while stalked by two or three defenders. “I just thank the guys. They deserve this, not me,’’ Kupp said. “I just don’t have the words. I’m so thankful for everyone who has been in my life, my support systems. The guys on this team challenged me, pushed me, made it so much fun to come to work.’’
But Kupp did acknowledge that he visualized such an ending three years ago, when he missed the Super Bowl loss to New England with a knee injury. “I wasn’t able to be part of that,’’ he said. “I don’t know what it was, but there was this vision from God that we were going to come back, we were going to be part of a Super Bowl, we were going to win it, and somehow I was going to walk off the field as the MVP of the game.’’
It isn’t common these days when glowing tributes are spoken about sports workplaces. In the NBA, togetherness is a rarity. But it’s no lie at SoFi. “We pull for each work and care for each other,’’ Stafford said. “That’s from the top down. Sean does an unbelievable job of connecting. We follow his lead.’’
And now that McVay apparently is staying — the right call, because he has much more to offer the coaching craft than the media racket — the Rams can enjoy the benefits of continuity. When a superteam wins a title, why break it up? Down the hall, Burrow already was speaking of getting back to the Big Game, saying, “I was disappointed in my performance overall. … We’re not satisfied with what we did this year. We’ll take this and let it fuel you for the rest of our careers.”
After all the adversity, all the criticism, the Rams should be enjoying the high times and weighing how to extend them. “My job is easy. It’s the guys who climbed the mountain and got to the top,’’ said general manager Les Snead, who put together the Pro Bowl-loaded roster. “We can talk about culture all you want; there are signs on the walls. But it’s about the people in that room. If you’re considered a superstar in football, to win a Super Bowl, you’ve got to collaborate.’’
The symbol of the collaboration is Stafford, who didn’t have to fit in … who didn’t even have to come at all. Detroit is where he enjoyed special individual seasons and where he and his wife were treated warmly by the community, such as when Kelly survived a 12-hour surgery for a rare non-cancerous brain tumor. But he wanted to show he was more than the guy who made $3 million per victory in his 12 Lions seasons — $227 million, a 74-90-1 record — and failed a win a playoff game or division title. Now, Captain Pick-Six is a Super Bowl champion.
“We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude,” McVay said. “What he’s done, he’s elevated everybody around him. He’s made me a better coach. He’s made his teammates better.”
The notion of real-life fairy tales, in Hollywood, usually is met with smirks. Like so many projects created by transplants, these Rams we’re about to be exposed as show-business phonies. Instead, like kids in the backyard, the best players just made plays. They are real champions, a superteam confirmed as super, refusing to throw up Mom’s spaghetti.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.