Whitworth, Rams: Match made in Super Bowl heaven

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ATLANTA -- For years, the Rams couldn't field a successful offensive line, churning through iteration after iteration, only to watch their blockers get destroyed and quarterbacks blown up. After finally conceding the Greg Robinson-experiment failed, L.A. needed a new left tackle.

For years, Andrew Whitworth manned the blind side in Cincinnati as one of the best -- yet often underrated -- blockers in the NFL, but never tasted postseason success. Hitting the free agent market in 2017, the sturdy veteran had a chance to change his NFL biography.

The team needed the right player. The player needed the right team. When Whitworth signed a three-year, $33.75 million contract with the L.A. Rams on March 9, 2017, it vaulted both onto a path to the Super Bowl.

A bald fortress of a man with a greying beard, the 37-year-old's play belies his age as he stuns pass-rushers more than a decade his junior with rock-heavy hands, bulls over defenders to open gaping holes for Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, and shields flailing bodies from Jared Goff's visage. The oldest lineman in the NFL in 2018 ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 overall tackle, a testament to his work ethic, consistency and often dominating performances.

Whitworth's importance to the Rams goes beyond the field. He's the lifeblood leader of the team. The experience the left tackle brought to a greenhorn L.A. locker room helped sprout a championship contender.

Outside the hiring of Sean McVay, Whitworth was the single biggest addition to the Rams success the past two seasons. McVay said so.

"I think when you really look at it, specific to a free agent acquisition, with what Andrew Whitworth has meant to this football team, what he's meant to me as a coach and just watching the way he's consistently leading, he has such an intricate understanding of how to deal with people and reach their potential and the way that he competes raises the level of competition with the guys around him," the coach gushed this week.

Ever the humble behemoth, the 6-foot-7 Whitworth passed the praise towards the entire team.

"That's a testament to the confidence I have in him and our coaching staff, and also just our guys," Whitworth said when asked about McVay's praise. "To say I'm the most influential, I don't know that I agree. I think that I try my best to create an environment, and be the kind of person that inspires people to be the best version they can be. Try not to create anything where it's a judgmental thing, it's more of a 'hey man, how can I help you be the best you can be.' And I think we have a lot of guys that are going to be those kinds of leaders one day, they just might not have had the experience that I've had."

Whitworth points to the coaching staff, and the rest of the lineman as pivotal reasons the Rams went from a perennially struggling offensive line to one of the best in short order. The five-man combination of Whitworth, left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan, right guard Austin Blythe, and right tackle Rob Havenstein create an amalgam of experience and youth.

"There is different guys where it's a mix of, me and John, who are older, who understand the game from a very extensive knowledge and can explain what we're looking at every play," Whitworth said. "And then you've got Rob and Blythe who are young lineman, who are getting better every day and growing. So it's a good blend of some talent, young guys that are growing in the game and some guys that have been around and seen it all. So I think our ability to stay healthy and have our five guys really puts us in a situation where there is no front or a defense you can show us that we don't understand and know what to do."

Adding Sullivan -- also in the spring of 2017 -- helped bring stability to the pivot, giving the Rams three veterans to lean on after too many seasons of youth failing.

"Obviously, we added some key pieces," Havenstein, who was part of some of the previously struggling Rams lines, told NFL.com of the turnaround. "When you add a guy like Andrew Whitworth you're going to get better automatically. He's a Hall of Fame player for sure. He's one of the best left tackles to ever do it. Still doing it. He brings a lot, whether it's just on the field or teaching young guys. Especially myself, I've picked up a lot from him just in terms of everyday life, how to go about being a pro. And then a guy like John brings a lot to it too. He's 11 years, so that's a ton of years as a center in the NFL."

According to Football Outsiders' metrics, in the three years prior to adding Whitworth and Sullivan, the Rams averaged a ranking of 24th in run blocking and 18th in pass protection. In 2016, L.A. ranked 29th in both categories. In 2017 those ranks jumped to third in run blocking and ninth in pass pro. In 2018, the Rams finished first in run blocking and sixth in pass protection. Additionally, the Rams run blocking set a new Football Outsiders' record with 5.49 adjusted line yards per carry this season.

McVay's offensive scheme deserves credit for aiding the O-line by helping get rid of defenders in the box. Run-game coordinator Aaron Kromer also received heavy praise from linemen this week for preparing them to face a variety of defenses. Lesser equipped players, however, could still shrink with such advantages.

One often overlooked quality that goes beyond talent or Xs and Os that facilitated the Rams' success: Health. None of the five starters missed a single game in 2018, and each played at least 94 percent of the offensive snaps, per Next Gen Stats.

The health factor, along with the emergence of first-year starter Blythe, solidified the Rams unit, allowing a mind-meld to occur between each blocker necessary to orchestrate the hard-rock symphony that defines O-line play.

"A lot of the times it's not like you're analyzing what the other guy is thinking, it's just a pure reaction, and it becomes instinctual," Sullivan told me. "The more time you spend playing next to each other, the easier that is, and the more that develops. I mean, look, we still have to talk to each other in games about adjustments, what we're seeing, maybe certain footsteps, guys' footwork gets in the way of other people. There are always little things to work out, that's just part of the game, it's imperfect. But when it comes down to it, that process is very streamlined because we are so familiar with each other and we have such great continuity."

The continuity started with Whitworth's signing. And while the veteran deferred praise, his line-mates were eager to cluck about the worth of their leader.

"Game-changing football has been a dream, and having him on the team just the leader that he is," Saffold said. "Thirteen seasons is a long time, that's a lot of knowledge, and he's been trying to pass it to everybody he possibly can."

"He's a consummate professional," Sullivan added. "Takes care of himself on and off the field. An amazing player. Great leader in the locker room. Guys are able to look at Whit as an example of the right way to do things, and that's very powerful."

"He's a lead-by-example kind of guy," Blythe beamed. "The way he plays is just so controlled, so, I don't want to say laid back, but he just doesn't panic at all, just reacts to what's in front of him, and I've tried to implement that in my game."

With his career peeking towards the sunset, Whitworth has already helped provide a baseline work ethic and knowledge to leave the Rams a solid foundation whenever he decides to mosey into his next stage.

After years of playoff disappointment in Cincinnati, Whitworth could become the oldest left tackle to start and win a Super Bowl if the Rams take down the New England Patriots on Sunday. A Lombardi victory would be the sweetest cherry on top of a career already sprinkled with a heaping of corporeal and intangible accomplishments.

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