By Don Wanlass
There won’t be fans in the seats when SoFi Stadium makes its world debut Sept. 13 as the Los Angeles Rams begins the 2020 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys. The game is the national Sunday night game of the week, meaning the nation will be watching the first game to be played in the $5 billion stadium Rams owner Stan Kroenke built.
It seems ironic the Rams will be playing the Cowboys, since SoFi Stadium emulated what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pulled off with AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Jones also was instrumental in working behind the scenes to help Kroenke get enough votes to pull off his move from St. Louis in 2016 when the Chargers and Raiders were also competing to relocate to Los Angeles.
While everyone wants to see what the new stadium looks like on the inside, Rams’ fans are equally anxious to see what the 2020 version of their football team looks like.
A year after playing in the Super Bowl, the Rams found themselves a 9-7 team in 2019, with boy wonder head coach Sean McVay and young quarterback Jared Goff both taking a step sideways if not backward last year. They both need rebound seasons.
McVay is determined to change the Rams’ fortunes this season. After last season he dismissed defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special teams coordinator John Fassel.
Brandon Staley was brought in from the Chicago Bears, where he was the outside linebackers coach last season, and John Bonamego was brought in from the Detroit Lions to serve as special teams coordinator.
Fassel will be on the other sideline in the season opener. He signed with the Cowboys as special teams coordinator and took Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein with him so watch for a fake punt or two from the Cowboys.
Zuirlein is just one of several standout players the Rams let go after last season. Running back Todd Gurley, wide receiver Brandon Cooks, linebackers Cory Littleton and Clay Matthews, defensive end Dante Fowler and defensive backs Nickell Robey-Coleman and Mark Barron are just some of the stalwarts that the Rams allowed to leave in the off-season.
And with no pre-season games this season, McVay and his new staff aren’t sure what they will have as they start the season.
The Rams will have a tough schedule. The Western Division of the National Football Conference includes two playoff teams from last season, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. Both figure to compete for the playoffs again.
The Arizona Cardinals are in the second year of the Kliff Kingsbury era as the head coach with second-year quarterback Kyler Murray and a new top wideout in DeAndre Hopkins.
But the Rams have a jewel of a new stadium to play in and the optimism the start of any new season brings. Considering that two months ago we were looking at a fall without football, it will be good to see the NFL return to action. If there won’t be any fans in the stadium.
LIGHTNING BOLTS: The Chargers don’t make their home debut until Sept. 20, when the Kansas City Chiefs come to town.
The Chargers will be playing with someone other than Philip Rivers at quarterback for the first time since the 2005 season when they open their season in Cincinnati Sept. 13.
Tyrod Taylor will get the call in the season opener. How long he will remain the starter depends on his health and the Chargers won-loss record.
If the Chargers fall out of playoff contention, expect first-round draft pick Justin Herbert, out of the University of Oregon, to crash the starting lineup.
The Chargers had great expectations that came up short last year, when they were besieged by injuries. The injury jinx has continued this year with third-year safety Derwin James out for the season because of knee surgery.
James is as essential to the back end of the defense for the Chargers as Joey Bosa is to the front seven.
Still, the Chargers have talent on both sides of the ball. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are big-time receivers and Austin Ekeler has graduated to the lead running back with the departure of Melvin Gordon.
The Chargers should be better this year outside the confines of Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson where they never seemed to have home-field advantage. An empty SoFi Stadium will be better than having most of the fans in your home stadium rooting against you, which happened most of the time last season.
The Chargers have to contend with the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in their division, but they could contend for a wild card berth with the Las Vegas Raiders and the Denver Broncos not quite up to playoff caliber yet.
Taylor and Herbert can’t throw 20 interceptions like Rivers did last year. Both can move in the pocket, which Rivers couldn’t do, so the Chargers should be able to move the football and score points.
If the defense plays well enough to slow down their opponents, the Chargers could be a playoff contender. But that’s what they thought last season, too.
IN THE BUBBLE: By this time next week, we will know whether the Clippers and Lakers will be meeting in the NBA Western Conference finals. As this is being written, both teams are up 2-1 in the conference semifinals.
Like they did against the Portland Trailblazers in the first round, the Lakers dropped their series opener against the Houston Rockets, 112-97. Of course, the Lakers swept the next four from Portland and look like they can do the same thing against the Rockets.
The Rockets are trying to beat the Lakers with quickness and outside shooting, but basketball is still a game where size matters and the Lakers starting front court of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Javale McGee towers over the Rockets who’s tallest starter is 6-7, an inch shorter than James, who is the Lakers’ shortest big man.
When the Rockets are hitting from long distance, they are hard to beat and will give the Lakers a tough time. But the Lakers have too much size and defensive ability to let the Rockets get too hot from outside.
The Rockets might win a second game in the series but I don’t see the series going seven.
The same thing goes for the Clippers. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are both great NBA players for the Denver Nuggets.
But the Nuggets don’t have enough to keep up with the deep Clippers. Kawhi Leonard is playing like he wants to win another most valuable player in the playoffs award. Paul George still disappears at times, but the Clippers have enough depth to withstand those times.
The Lakers have problems in series openers and the Clippers struggle in the second game.
Mark your calendar for Sept. 18. That will probably be the starting date for the Western Conference finals opener. That should be something to see.
ROLE REVERSAL: The first two years in the league, Los Angeles Football Club dominated the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Not so any more. For the second time in two weeks, the Galaxy defeated LAFC Sept. 6, scoring a 3-0 victory.
Sebastian Lietget scored two second half goals, the second on an exquisite bicycle kick to lead the Galaxy, who are now 4-3-2 on the season and on top of the Major League Soccer Western Conference. LAFC fell to 3-3-3.
The Galaxy now have four wins against LAFC in their three-year-old rivalry, No other team has beat LAFC four times.
Lietget was named Major League Soccer player of the week for his play against LAFC.