Chargers to face Rams with fans in the house Aug. 14

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

SoFi Stadium, Stan Kroenke’s gift to the city of Inglewood, opens its doors to a crowd of football fans for the first time Aug. 14 when the Chargers play the Rams in the opening exhibition game for both teams.

Both teams played their home games in an empty stadium last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rams went 10-6 last season, good enough for second place in the tough NFC Western Division, and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers.

The Chargers finished 7-9 last year, third in the AFC West, but the Chargers may have found their quarterback for the next decade in the process.

Justin Herbert, drafted sixth overall in the 2020 draft out of the University of Oregon, was thrust into a starting role 30 minutes before the second game of the season last September when Tyrod Taylor had an adverse reaction to a pregame pain-killing injection. Against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chief and young quarterback star Patrick Mahomes, Herbert threw for more than 300 yards and a touchdown, and led the Chargers to the go-ahead field goal with 2:27 left in the fourth quarter.

The Chargers lost 23-20 when Mahomes led the Chiefs to a game-tying field goal as time ran out and then guided the team to the winning field goal in overtime, but Herbert convinced the Chargers front office and coaching staff that he was the real deal and started the remainder of the season.

He ended his rookie season throwing for more than 4,300 yards with 31 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. It was good enough be selected the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year but not good enough to save coach Anthony Lynn’s job.

Moving forward, Herbert is the focal point of the Chargers offense, but he has some good weapons surrounding him.

New head coach Brandon Staley, who was the Rams defensive coordinator last season, is hoping to install his defense that won 10 games for the Rams last year with the Chargers without Aaron Donald in the middle of the defensive line.

He has some quality players in Joey Bosa and Derwin James (if he can stay healthy) and Herbert has solid weapons on offense in wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler, but the thing standing in the way of being a playoff contender is the Chiefs, who play in the same division.

The Rams also play in a tough division — maybe the best in the NFL — and they have a new quarterback. Head coach Sean McVay soured on Jared Goff at the end of last season when he saw what a difference a mobile quarterback (backup John Wolford) made in the offense.

The new quarterback, Matt Safford, is no Michael Vick or Lamar Jackson, but he has thrown for more than 45,000 yards and 282 touchdowns in a 12-year career in Detroit.

Stafford hasn’t played with a team this good since he left the University of Georgia in 2008.

The roster got en early jolt when running back Cam Akers went down with a season-ending injury before training camp even started, but the Rams still seem loaded enough to give the Seattle Seahawks a run for the NFC West again.

You won’t see a lot of starters playing for either the Rams or Chargers in their exhibition opener, but you will get to see a bunch of young players playing for jobs and a framework of what each team’s offense and defense will look like once the real games start in September.

Kickoff is at 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on NFL Network.

TRADE BENEFIT: Max Scherzer was the big name in the Dodgers’ trade-deadline deal with the Washington Nationals, but history may look at the trade as the deal that brought Trea Turner to the Dodgers.

Turner is no slouch. In seven years in the Major Leagues he has a .300 lifetime batting average with 93 home runs while playing all-star caliber at shortstop. Scherzer is a free agent after the season. Turner has another year before he can test the free agent waters.

Turner is one of those rare players who is better than his stats indicate. The numbers don’t show how fast Turner is.

His speed and base-running ability — they are two separate things — have already opened eyes in only four games. And he has performed well at second base for the Dodgers after playing nothing but shortstop the last five years in Washington.

Turner has replaced Mookie Betts in the leadoff spot in the lineup, allowing Betts (if he can shake his hip injury) to wreak havoc farther now the lineup and giving the Dodgers as deep a batting order as there is in baseball.

Scherzer has been what was expected in an extremely small sample size. His second start with the Dodgers Aug. 10 was limited to 3 1/3 innings because of a lengthy rain delay.

Still, in 10 1/3 innings of his first two starts, Scherzer has given up two runs while striking out 16 batters and allowing eight hits and one walk.

With Clayton Kershaw now out until at least Sept. 5, Scherzer will have to be the veteran ace, leading Walker Buehler and Julio Urias as the Dodgers try to overhaul the Giants down the stretch.

The Dodgers still have to do something with their bullpen. Corey Knebel returned to the active roster Aug. 10 after being out since April with an injury.

Knebel will be a great addition to the back end of the pen to give Blake Treinen some help, now that Joe Kelly is back on the injured list and Jimmy Nelson is out for the season.

You still don’t know what you are going to get from Kenly Jansen, but manager Dave Roberts still goes to him when he needs a save in the ninth inning.

Last season, Victor Gonzalez was a pleasant surprise out of the bullpen. In 15 games, he allowed only three runs and 13 hits in 20 innings while striking out 23 and posting a 3-0 record.

But Gonzalez has been hittable this year like all of the relief pitchers Roberts keeps parading out there.

The Dodgers have already set a record for the most pitchers used in a season with 33 and they still have 49 games left to play.

As they try to catch the Giants, who currently lead the Western Division by four games, the Dodgers need to figure out their bullpen.

With Will Smith as the regular catcher, Max Muncy at first base, Trea Turner at second, Justin Turner at third and Corey Seager at shortstop and Chris Taylor, A.J. Pollock, Cody Bellinger and Betts sharing the outfield, the Dodgers have the offense to go up against anybody.

With Turner at second, the defense will improve, which will also help the pitching staff. David Price has done a fine job stepping into the fourth slot in the starting rotation, but the Dodgers still need help in the fifth spot until Kershaw returns. That’s why the Dodgers signed veteran left-hander Cole Hamels last week.

The Dodgers may have to go the hard way in the playoffs this year, winning the one-game wild card against San Diego to advance.

But they still have the third best overall record in baseball and figure to be playing as long as their offense can overcome the weak bullpen.

Not exactly the recipe for a championship season, but it is what the Dodgers and their fans are stuck with for now.

OVERLOOKED AGAIN: I spent so much time on the Lakers last week that I overlooked what the Clippers are doing to remodel their roster in the wake of last season’s run to the conference finals.

The good news is that Kawhi Leonard has signed a contract extension for four more years. The bad news is that nobody knows if Leonard, who recently had knee surgery, will play at all next season.

The repair of a torn ACL usually takes six to nine months, so Leonard could return in January if he heals fast or just in time for the playoffs in April if he doesn’t heal fast. Or maybe not at all.

That leaves team president Lawrence Frank and head coach Tyronn Lue in a rough spot as they try to plan for the 2021-22 season.

In addition to Leonard, the Clippers have resigned free agent point guard Reggie Jackson and small forward Nick Batum, who helped guide France to the silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics.

Serge Ibaka, fresh off back surgery, has exercised his contract option for next year, meaning he will be back at center with Ivica Zubac.

The Clippers also have added Justise Winslow, who was a standout one-and-done player at Duke in 2014 but has never reached his potential in six years, five with the Miami Heat and one with the Memphis Grizzlies.

He has only played 37 games in the last two seasons, but he could find a role replacing Leonard. If not, Terance Mann may be ready to step into a more prominent role with the team.

Paul George is a proven commodity at shooting guard and the Clippers have enough young talent to once again be a contender in the Western Conference, depending on how Leonard rebounds from his surgery.

The Clippers have a more balanced roster than the Lakers, who are top-heavy with aging veterans. But their hopes for next season largely depend on how fast Leonard heals.

Check with the San Antonio Spurs. He doesn’t heal fast.

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