INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Super Bowl LVI was shaping up to be a huge disappointment for the Los Angeles Rams.
They had lost their lead during a disastrous start to the second half. They had lost one of their best players in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a knee injury. They were set to lose the MVP-caliber performances of Aaron Donald and Von Miller, not to mention what might be their best shot at a championship for the foreseeable future.
Then, as they have done so many times during the Rams’ championship season, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp came to the rescue.
In a drive that will go down in NFL tradition, Kupp converted a fourth down with an end around, fired three straight penalties and caught four passes from Stafford, the last of which produced a 1-yard touchdown with 1:25 to go, capping a 79-yard drive that started with 6:13 remaining.
Donald then shut the door with another push from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, fourth and first of the Rams’ 49 with 39 seconds left.
The Rams’ return to the top of the NFL world is the perfect ending to a story that reads like a Hollywood script.
They mortgaged their future, trading high draft picks in an all-out effort to win Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium — in the first season with fans at owner Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion venue — and that has paid off with a 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. It was the Rams’ second Super Bowl championship and first title in Los Angeles since 1951.
“It’s exceptional. You talk about a resilient team, coaches, players. I’m so proud of this group, just proud to be associated with it,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “We talk all the time about the greatness of the competition, about being at your best when you have to do your best. For the offense to find a way and Aaron to finish it, it’s poetic, man .”
They returned to Los Angeles in 2016, a homecoming that followed a 21-year run in St. Louis that was highlighted by a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. They fell hard in Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots after the 2018 season, setting the stage for eventual redemption.
They got it through a series of bold moves.
Hiring McVay, 30, as head coach in 2017, making him the youngest head coach in modern league history.
Traded two first-round picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in October 2019.
Trade quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Stafford in January 2020.
Trade a second- and third-round pick to the Denver Broncos for Miller on Nov. 1.
Signing Beckham Jr. to a one-year contract on November 11.
Kroenke brought his team back to a highly saturated sports market long held by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers and their combined 24 world championships, a relocation that came with the promise of a new stadium and then led to a St. Louis lawsuit settled for $790 million.
The Rams also took a chance on McVay after a poor and boring 4-12 campaign under coach Jeff Fisher in the team’s first season at LA McVay, who openly pondered his future as trying to balance his professional and personal life, is now the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at 36.
“A lot of people had been dancing around Los Angeles,” Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said earlier this month. “No one had wanted to say, ‘I’m going to buy land, build a stadium, bring my team and really plant my flag without knowing the outcome. That first risk followed by Sean McVay, those two risks got us to where we are today.”
There was a lot of risk in how the Rams built their championship roster. They continually gave up high-end draft capital while trading one marquee player after another – Ramsey, Miller, receivers Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks and cornerback Marcus Peters, to name a few. one. They believed this approach was necessary to capture the attention of a city that loves its stars and to build up what remains a lukewarm fanbase.
But their biggest trade was the blockbuster Stafford, which gave them a much-needed upgrade from Goff – whom they drafted No. 1 in 2016 after trading 15 places – and, as they had hoped , the missing piece of a Super Bowl. Course. It was well worth the risk.
“I’m really thrilled to be associated with a group that isn’t afraid to shoot, to take risks on things that we believe are in the best interests of the football team,” McVay said. “There are a lot of eyes rolled at us, but we believe in these things and we’re going to do things that we think are in the best interest, whether it’s myself, Les, Kevin Demoff, [VP of football and business administration]Tony Pastoors and it all starts with Mr. Kroenke and his confidence and will and then the players are able to get the guys on board in the right way. It is soft. Really happy for these guys.”
Stafford told ESPN after the trade he wanted to play in big games after going winless in his three playoff appearances in 12 seasons with the Lions. He got that chance after leading the Rams to a 12-5 record and the NFC West title. He proved himself worthy of the big stage by leading winning runs in the Divisional Round, the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
Not that it was an entirely smooth run for the Rams or their quarterback.
Stafford looked like an early-season MVP candidate as the Rams got off to a 7-1 start, but then committed six turnovers as they lost three straight games in November to possible playoff teams. They also lost wide receiver Robert Woods to a season-ending knee injury during that slip-up, immediately turning their addition of Beckham from a luxury to a necessity as a No. 2 behind Kupp, the player NFL Offensive of the Year.
The Rams won their next five games despite continuing Stafford’s turnover issues and a surge of COVID-19 hitting their locker room, leading the NFL to postpone its Week 15 game with the Seattle Seahawks to a Tuesday. .
They had a chance to knock the San Francisco 49ers out of the playoffs in Week 18, but lost a 17-0 lead at home – in front of a sea of red-clad Niners fans who had invaded SoFi – in road to a sixth straight defeat against their divisional rivals.
The signings of Beckham and Miller further signaled their overall approach for 2021. In 11 games, including the playoffs, Beckham caught seven touchdown passes while Miller recorded nine sacks.
“They had a lot of impact down the stretch,” general manager Les Snead said earlier this week, “and it was the intention to bring them in.”
Miller and Beckham were the latest stars to join a cast that included Kupp (who won the NFL’s triple receiving crown during the regular season), Ramsey (who led the team with four interceptions) and Donald (who had another Defensive Player of the Year -season worthy). All three were named first-team All-Pro.
Still, the Rams might not have made it to Super Bowl LVI without some of their lesser-known players who made big plays in the playoffs. There was backup safety Nick Scott knocking out Tom Brady in the divisional round and linebacker Travin Howard sealing the NFC Championship Game by going down with an errant pitch from Jimmy Garoppolo that Donald’s pressure had forced. And there was Matt Gay, who threw the winning field goal against Tampa Bay and then did it again against the 49ers, capping the Rams’ rally after a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit.
“Coming back, knocking down your biggest rival in the biggest game in your new stadium for the right to play a Super Bowl, that’s Hollywood history,” Demoff said. “I don’t want to have to write the sequel where we disappoint at the end of the first version and come back and have to try to climb the mountain again.”
It would have been especially difficult given the questions about the long-term viability of a roster that was built to win now. The Rams aren’t expected to pick in the first round until 2024 – which would mark seven years without making it – after dropping their 2022 and 2023 No. 1s in the Stafford trade. They split rounds two and three this year for Miller, which leaves them with no top-100 picks.
They are also nearly $14 million above the 2022 salary cap, which will make it difficult to re-sign pending free agents such as Beckham and Miller, and keep high-priced starters like the left tackle. Andrew Whitworth, who could retire anyway.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Demoff said of the Rams’ approach to putting together their roster. “It’s not for the weak of pocketbooks. We have to prove that it’s going to work… We have to go and prove that it can work and we can keep doing it.”
But the Rams don’t have to worry about pulling off the sequel now after pulling off the perfect ending to Super Bowl LVI.
“There are so many hard workers, so many talented guys, so many guys on my team that deserved this moment, man, and it feels good to give it to them,” Miller said. “Feels good to give it to Aaron Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Jalen Ramsey, all those guys who have worked their whole careers to get this far.”