By Don Wanlass
The NFL season could not have got off to a better start in Los Angeles.
The Chargers opened the 2021 season with a win at Washington while the Rams got to show off their brand new quarterback Matthew Stafford to the whole county on Sunday Night Football.
Stafford made the most of his prime-time appearance, completing more than 80% of his passes and throwing three touchdown passes in the Rams 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears in the first regular season game at SoFi Stadium that had fans in attendance.
The former Detroit Lions quarterback was everything head coach Sean McVay envisioned and more.
He completed 21 of 26 passes for 321 with no interceptions. Two of his three touchdown passes came on long passes that gained 67 and 56 yards, respectively.
“I thought [Stafford] did a really good job,” McVay said after the game. “We only threw it 26 times but he certainly made the most of those plays.”
Stafford, too, was pleased with the results.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was a complete team win. … Sean dialed it up great and our guys went out and executed.”
The Rams intercepted a pass off Bears quarterback Andy Dalton five plays into the game, surviving a 41-yard run by running back David Montgomery on the second play of the game.
It took Stafford three plays to find the end zone.
He teamed up on a 67-yard scoring play with Van Jefferson, a 2020 rookie who could have a break-out year with Stafford this season.
Jefferson beat his coverage on the play, but had to go to the ground to secure the catch. When no defender touched him, he got up near the Bears 30 yard line and raced those last 30 yards into the end zone for the score.
The Rams led 13-0 in the second quarter but the Bears scored with 40 seconds before halftime to make the halftime score a close 13-7.
The Rams took four plays to extend that lead in the second half with Stafford finding Kupp between two defenders who he outran for a 56-yard scoring play.
The Bears, in obvious contrast to the quick-strike Rams, methodically moved down the field to score at the end of a 16-play, 81-yard drive that lasted nine and a half minutes. Rookie quarterback Justin Fields scored from three yards out to make it 20-14.
But Stafford guided the Rams right back down the field, going 75 yards in eight plays with running back Darrell Henderson scoring from a yard out.
The Rams added a final touchdown on a 2-yard scoring pass from Stafford to Robert Woods and let their defense do the rest.
The defense, under new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, bent often, surrendering 322 total yards, but stopped the Bears all but twice. Bears quarterbacks were sacked three times and the Rams intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble.
Week two sees the Rams traveling to Indianapolis for a game that starts at 10 a.m. Sept. 19. The Rams can’t spent too much time patting themselves on the back for a week one win because the other three teams in the NFC Western Division also won their games.
It’s liable to be that kind of year, but at least the Rams know their quarterback can throw deep.
A CLOSE WIN: Maybe the best thing you can say about the Chargers’ opening win over Washington is that they won a close game on the road.
Five of the Chargers’ nine losses last year game by five or fewer points, so being able to pull out a close win on the road was key.
Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert looks like he is ready to pick up where he left off last year. He completed 31 of 47 passes for 337 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams did most of the heavy lifting catching the ball, with Allen grabbing nine passes and Williams eight. Williams last catch was a 3-yard touchdown pass from Herbert with 45 seconds left to win the game.
Washington won the NFC East last season, but they did it with a 7-9 record and started the season with veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.
He completed only three of six passes for 13 yards before leaving with a hip injuury. His replacement, Tyler Heinicke, completed 11 of 15 passes for 122 yards but Washington converted only three of 10 third downs and the Chargers had the ball for 13 more minutes than Washington did.
This week’s game against Dallas will give the Chargers a bunch better chance to tell what kind of team they have this year.
Like the Rams, the Chargers saw all of their division rivals win in the first week. The western divisions will be tough to play in this season.
TIME TO GO: In the past, I have been quick to defend Clay Helton, the USC football coach who was fired Sept. 13 after a disappointing loss to Stanford Sept. 11.
USC football fans have high and unrealistic expectations for their teams almost every year and booing Helton is as easy to do as booing Kenley Jansen coming out of the Dodgers bullpen.
But when you look up at the end of the year, the Trojans —and Jansen — are just about where they are supposed to be. Coaches like John McKay and Pete Carroll come along every 40 years or so, which means USC has a 30-year wait for the return of greatness.
That said, Helton had to go after the Trojans uninspired performance against Stanford. It was the Pac 12 Conference opener against a team that was defeated by Kansas State in the season opener the week before.
Stanford head coach David Shaw outcoached Helton again. He started a new quarterback, Tanner McKee, and brought his team ready to play.
The Trojans, on the other hand, acted like all they had to do was to take the field and victory was assured.
They let running back Nathaniel Peat get loose for an 87-yard scoring run seven minutes into the game and the Trojans were playing catch-up the rest of the night.
Stanford led at halftime 21-10, expanded that lead to 35-13 after three quarters and watched USC rally for two meaningless touchdowns in the last six minutes of the game that made the final score much closer than it really was.
USC committed nine penalties for 109 yards and generally played like an undisciplined team that is poorly coached, a trademark of too many of their losses under Helton.
Defensive backs coach Donte Williams, who is from Culver City, will handle the team for the rest of the season while USC conducts a search for the next McKay or Carroll.
It should be noted that McKay was a no-name assistant coach from Oregon when he was promoted to head coach in 1959 and Carroll was at least fourth on the list of potential coaches in 2000 after two unsuccessful head coaching stints in the NFL.
USC doesn’t need to go out and find a “star,” just a coach who can motivate the quality athletes that USC recruits every year to play hard every down every game.
Helton was never able to do that.
NASCAR IN L.A.? The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has hosted all kinds of events in the nearly 100 years it has been around.
In has hosted visits from the pope, political party conventions (JFK accepted the Democratic nomination there in 1960), rock concerts, boxing matches, two Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl and thousands of other events.
Next Febuary you can add NASCAR racing to the list.
NASCAR announced Sept. 15 that it would open the 2022 season Feb. 6 with a Clash exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The race will be held on a quarter-mile asphalt oval track that will be built around the Coliseum’s football field. It will be the first time the preseason, nonpoints race will be held outside of Daytona International Speedway. where it has been held annually since 1979.
Talks with Coliseum officials began two years ago after NASCAR executives went to the Coliseum’s website, found their contact page and reached out to stadium executives, NASCAR executive Ben Kennedy said.
Construction of the track will begin New Year’s Day. NASCAR has conducted iRacing computer simulations to determine the track’s profile, including how much banking there will be in the turns, Kennedy said.
“You can only go so high, just because of the sight lines and the temporary construction, but we’ve played with a few different ones,” Kennedy said.
The format and eligibility for the race will also be announced later, Kennedy said.
The Coliseum has been the site of supercross and speedway motorcycle and off-road truck races along with rallycross events, including the X Games.
Tickets go on sale Sept. 16 through Ticketmaster.
HANGING ON: The Dodgers clinched their ninth consecutive playoff berth with an 8-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks Sept. 14. But the Dodgers have a lot more heavy lifting to do if they are going to overtake the San Francisco Giants and win their ninth consecutive National League Western Division title.
With 16 games to play (the Giants have 17), the Dodgers would have to go 12-4 the rest of the way to tie the Giants if the Giants win nine of their final 17 games.
And the way the Giants are playing, there is nothing that suggests they will become a .500 teams down the stretch.
There is room for optimism among Dodgers fans. A wild card team has won the World Series six times since the wild card was added to the Major League playoffs.
The Washington Nationals have done it as recently as 2019. The Giants did it themselves in 2014, after the Dodgers edged them for the National League West title.
That year, the Kansas City Royals also made it to the World Series as a wild card team.
Having to play the wild card game puts additional stress on the starting rotation, but the Dodgers are one of the few teams that can shoulder the strain. It is something worth keeping in mind watching the last two weeks of the baseball season.