By Don Wanlass
When the Rams take the field Feb. 13 for Super Bowl LVI in SoFi Stadium, the vision Rams owner Stan Kroenke had six years ago when he announced he was moving the team back home from St. Louis will almost be complete.
Kroenke had a goal of building a state-of-the-art football stadium and a championship football team to play in it. The Rams are a win over the Cincinnati Bengals away from making that dream come true.
His vision stretches back to 1995 when, as a St.Louis-based businessman, he bought 30% of the Rams franchise from then-owner Georgia Frontiere to help the team’s transition from Anaheim to St. Louis.
After Frontiere died in 2008, Kroenke exercised an option in his agreement with Frontiere to buy the team from Frontiere’s estate in 2010.
Less than six years later, he angered Rams’ fans in St. Louis while pleasing Rams fans here by announcing he was moving the Rams back to Los Angeles
The Rams would play in their home from 1950 to 1979, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, while a new stadium was being built in Inglewood at the site of the former Hollywood Park Race Track.
Seeking to build the team around a rookie quarterback, the Rams traded six draft choices to the Tennessee Titans to get the first overall pick in the NFL 2016 Draft and selected Jared Goff out of Cal Berkeley. Goff was inserted into the starting lineup midway through his rookie season and lost his first seven starts as the Rams finished 4-12 and fired head coach Jeff Fisher with three games remaining in the season.
In the off-season, the Rams hired Sean McVay, the 30-year-old offensive coordinator for Washington, to replace Fisher. With Goff as his quarterback, McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, retooled the offense and the Rams went from the lowest scoring team in the NFL in 2016 to the highest-scoring team in 2017, going 11-5 and winning the NFC West in the process.
The Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the wild card round of the playoffs, but improved to 12-4 the next season and advanced to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the New England Patriots, 13-3.
After a 9-7 season in 2019 that saw the Rams miss the playoffs, the Rams bounced back in 2020 with a 10-6 record. But after defeating Seattle in the first round of the playoffs, the Rams lost to the Green Bay Packers and McVay and general manager Les Snead decided the Rams had gone as far as they could with Goff at quarterback.
They sent him, two first-round draft picks and a third-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford, the first player chosen in the 2009 NFL Draft who never won a playoff game in 12 years with the Lions.
With Stafford leading the offense this season, the Rams again won the NFC West with a 12-5 record. After playoff wins over the Arizona Cardinals, the Tama Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams find themselves back in the Super Bowl, playing in their home stadium.
Under Kroenke’s ownership, though, the Rams haven’t just traded for quarterbacks.
In 2019, Snead traded two first-round draft picks and a fourth-round pick for Jalen Ramsey, considered to be the best cornerback in the NFL.
During this season, he traded for linebacker Von Miller, the most valuable player in the 2016 Super Bowl, and later signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had been released by the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was a Super-Bowl-or-bust season, all designed to showcase the Rams and their new stadium in what will be the first of many Super Bowls in SoFi Stadium.
Whether Kroenke’s dream has a happy ending — a Rams victory in the Super Bowl — remains to be seen.
But, so far, Kroenke has delivered on his promise when he brought the Rams back home six years ago.
NOW FOR THE GAME: The Super Bowl will come down to how well the Rams defense plays against the Bengals second-year quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Rams have the best defensive player in the game in tackle Aaron Donald, the best cover corner back in Ramsey and Miller, still a top edge rusher at 32.
The Rams had 50 sacks this season, the third most in the league. The Bengals gave up 51 sacks, the most in the league.
At first glance, that gives the Rams a big advantage going into the game. But the Bengals gave up nine sacks to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs and the Bengals still knocked off the top-seeded team in the AFC Conference, 19-16. Burrow threw for 348 yards in that game.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs the following week, he overcame a 21-3 first-half deficit to win in overtime, 27-24. Burrow took the Bengals 30 yards in eight plays following an interception to set up the winning field goal.
Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship at LSU in 2019, is another one of the fine young quarterbacks in the NFL and will give the Rams fits, if they let him.
When the Bengals get into scoring range, rookie place kicker Evan McPherson has been deadly in the post-season. After making 28 of 33 field goals during the regular season, McPherson is 12 for 12 in the playoffs, silencing critics who questioned the Bengals using a fifth-round draft pick for him in last year’s draft.
When the Rams have the ball they will rely on Stafford, who has thrown for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns this season. Cooper Kupp, who led the league in receptions, yards receiving and receiving touchdowns this season, is Stafford’s favorite target, but Stafford uses all of his receivers and Beckham is always available if the Bengals try to double cover Kupp. Tight end Tyler Higbee hurt his knee against San Francisco and may not be able to go in the Super Bowl.
The game could come down to whoever runs the ball the best. Joe Mixon is the Bengals leading ball carrier with 1,205 yards this year and 13 touchdowns this season.
The Rams have gone from Darrell Henderson to Sony Michel to Cam Akers this year and still haven’t found a consistent running game.
Michel has been the most consistent and he has Super Bowl experience. He scored the only touchdown for the Patriots against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, gaining 94 yards on 18 carries in the process.
This will be the Bengals’ third trip to the Super Bowl. They lost to the 49ers, 26-21, in Super Bowl XXIII in 1981 and lost to the 49ers again eight years, 20-16.
The Rams are 1-3 in Super Bowls, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in 1980 (they led 19-17 after three quarters), the Patriots, 20-17 in the 2002 game and 13-3 in 2019.
Their only win came when they played in St. Louis, a 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans in the 2000 game.
I expect a high-scoring game with both Burrow and Stafford making their share of good plays. But the Rams’ overall strength on defense will prevail in the end, 34-28.