LOS ANGELES -- For all the excitement and hype that surrounds the Los Angeles Rams in this moment, it’s important to remember where they were at this time last year -- sitting at 1-1, coming off 10 consecutive losing seasons and still uncertain about both how good they would be and where they might fit in this vast metropolis.
The struggle, of a relocation, is real.
The Rams ended their first season in L.A. (2016) with seven consecutive losses, then the Los Angeles Chargers began their first season in L.A. (2017) with four consecutive losses. Just how much of an impact uprooting an entire franchise actually had on the win-loss records is impossible to measure, but the challenges are undeniable. And, as the Rams showed in winning their division in 2017, the benefits of Year 2 are easily discernible.
“When you go through the first year, you’re really the franchise you were before in a new city,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said. “You don’t have time to put down roots, to develop an identity, to become something new, to develop your brand. Once you finish a season, you have a chance to build on what you had the prior year and to help build your brand, your identity, and grow.”
The Rams (2-0 after outscoring their opponents 57-0 over the last six quarters) and Chargers (1-1 only because they practically gave away the season opener) look like favorites to win their respective divisions and potentially even advance to the Super Bowl.
After sharing L.A. for about 20 months, the Rams and Chargers will meet at the L.A. Coliseum Sunday in a game that counts.
Here’s how the two franchises stack up in the embryonic stages of this intracity rival.
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon knows the struggle of his franchise very well.
“It’s hard,” Gordon said. “New kid on the block, man. New kid on the block always gotta do a little bit more. The Rams got history here. They’ve been in L.A. before. It’s not as big of an adjustment for them as it is for us. … New kid on the block never get love out the gate, you know?”
The Rams spent nearly 50 years in L.A., from 1946 to 1994. They arrived with deep roots, as evidenced by the initial buzz they created. The eventual disinterest was their own fault, a product of a bad team with a boring offense and a lame-duck coach. And their ineptitude ultimately made life harder for the Chargers, who had no history in this market -- aside from the 1960 expansion season that nobody remembers -- and arrived in an awkward position.
Comedian and actor Taran Killam, a diehard Rams fan, described the Chargers’ situation this way: “It’s like they still haven’t fully broken up with their ex, and their ex still lives next door. It’s like they just moved into the front yard of the duplex, and their ex can still hear them through the wall.”
Their temporary homes lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Coliseum is 95 years old, and you can tell. Before the renovation, it seated more than 90,000. But fans had a hard time gaining access to basic necessities -- water and restrooms -- when the Rams opened it up to that many for their 2016 home opener, prompting them to cut off ticket sales at roughly 20,000 less than that. Now a thorough renovation has created other logistical issues.
The Chargers share StubHub Center with soccer’s L.A. Galaxy in Carson, California, which isn’t L.A. proper but is, indeed, more comfortable. It seats a mere 27,000, making it the NFL’s smallest venue by a wide margin. The Chargers have been ridiculed for their seating capacity and criticized for having high ticket prices to help make up for the loss in revenue. But every seat is a good one, and it’s an easy place to get around. That’s important.
“You don’t hear ‘convenience’ used a lot to describe sporting events, and people said it was a convenient experience to go to StubHub Center last year,” Chargers president of business operations A.G. Spanos said. “It’s just a really unique place to watch an NFL game.”
It doesn’t get much worse than what Anthony Lynn encountered in his first month as an NFL head coach. New city, disinterested market, 0-4 start. Somehow, Lynn guided the Chargers out of the rubble and had them competing for a playoff spot in the final stretch of the 2017 season. They finished 9-7, and they would’ve played on if they just had a reliable kicker. Along the way, Lynn impressed his new boss.
“He never flinched,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “It was a challenge. But he never flinched, never wavered. Our players follow him, and so our players never flinched.”
That’s great and all, but Sean McVay is on another level. From everyone. He’s a 32-year-old wunderkind who guided the Rams to arguably the greatest turnaround in NFL history, as the only team from the Super Bowl era to go from last to first in scoring from one season to the next. He’s an offensive mastermind and a gifted leader, with boyish good looks, a fiery disposition and otherworldly recall.
Said Aaron Donald: “You just want to bust your butt for him.”
The Rams have the consensus No. 1 pick in fantasy football this year in Todd Gurley. They have arguably the greatest defensive player in the NFL in Donald. And in one fell swoop, they added a trio of transcendent talents with combustible personalities to their defense in interior lineman Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.
The concern, from the outside, was that those three would upset the unity in the Rams’ locker room.
McVay believes that has been misconstrued.
“They love football,” McVay said. “Nothing short of great players, but also guys who are coachable, they’re receptive to the things we’re trying to get done, they practice hard, they’re attentive in meetings -- and they’ve really brought a lot of swagger and juice to our team as a whole.”
This one is no longer close.
Running back? The Rams have Gurley, but the Chargers have Gordon. Receivers? The Chargers have Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams, but the Rams have Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Pass-rushers? The Rams have Donald and Suh, but the Chargers have Melvin Ingram and, once he recovers from his foot injury, Joey Bosa.
Secondary? They’re both loaded here, too. The Chargers with Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Desmond King, Jahleel Addae and Derwin James; the Rams with Peters, Talib, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson.
The Rams might have an advantage along their offensive line, but the Chargers might have it at linebacker. The separator might be in scheme, because McVay handles the offense and the legendary Wade Phillips runs the defense for the Rams. But we’re only talking about talent here.
At some point, perhaps real soon, the Chargers are going to have to think long and hard about their next quarterback. Rivers will be 37 this year, in his 15th NFL season. He has been crazy durable, making all 194 of his starts since 2006. But that can’t possibly last much longer.
The Rams have a quarterback they can grow with in Goff, who is only 23. Their other skill-position players are also young, with Woods 26, Kupp 25, and Cooks and Gurley 24. But their salary cap will be very top-heavy real soon.
Donald, Gurley and Cooks will cost nearly $160 million combined against the salary cap over these next three seasons, from 2019 to 2021. Soon, Goff will join that mix with a lucrative contract. Peters might, too.
The Rams like the cost certainty that comes with locking players up long term, but they’ll have to be really good in the draft and very savvy in the free-agent market to supplement the roster and stay competitive beyond these next couple of seasons.
Advantage: Chargers (slightly)
Kobe Bryant gave the Chargers a speech, but he’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Snoop Dogg played halftime of the Rams’ playoff game, but he’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (who once blasted the Rams for denying sideline access to Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson).
The Chargers have Phil Mickelson, Chuck Liddell and Mario Lopez. The Rams have Killam, Ty Burrell and Danny Trejo.
The Rams’ history, early success and sudden national appeal give them a chance to become one of those established L.A. franchises, perhaps close to what the Dodgers and Lakers have become. But this space is still very much open, with all fans.
There are more than 18 million people living in Greater L.A., so there should also be enough to go around.
“I couldn’t stress it more -- I think both of us can be entirely successful,” Demoff said, “and I think the relationship is growing the fan base, not trying to pick and choose from the fan base.”