Day five of my training camp tour was eventful and packed from start to finish as I arrived in southern California to visit the Los Angeles Rams.
I woke early and with a throbbing pain in my right calf that would not go away. Having already completed flights from London, Jacksonville, Houston and San Francisco, I was a bit worried about what I might be doing to my body, jarred by previous deep vein thrombosis stories of various travelers and felt as if at least one of my legs was about to give up on me.
After knocking out a 7am interview with head coach Sean McVay - more on that in a moment - I headed to the hospital for an ultrasound that had been arranged by the outstanding Rams team doctor, Casey Bartlett. A gratefully-received clear scan was followed by a mad dash back to the Rams' team hotel for sit-downs with Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley at lunchtime.
But it was fascinating to spend time with one of the very best teams in the NFL and one that is not shying away from the fact that last season's Super Bowl loss to New England was a massive disappointment.
McVay told me: "I think there were a lot of instances where I could have done a better job, just within the framework of the game with decision making but even some of the things leading up where we had two weeks to prepare. The biggest thing is let's move on and learn from it. Let's not let that setback be anything other than a set-up for a comeback."
To a man, McVay';s players agreed, as Woods explained: "There are never really losses, only lessons learned. We definitely learned a lot and we definitely gained a lot of experience from that game."
Gurley added: "It's all good. We were one of two teams left standing at the end of the year so there's nothing too much for us to stress about. I feel like other teams should feel more stressed than us. We got the chance to get there and we just didn't finish it off."
As I mentioned above, the Rams are clearly a talented team. But they were a bruised and somewhat tarnished one after that harsh Super Bowl lesson served up by the Patriots. As expected though, McVay has dragged his team out of the rubble and I do maintain they are good enough to be there or thereabouts once more in 2019.
Did the Patriots show the rest of the NFL the way to stop the Rams in the Super Bowl? It won't be easy. Los Angeles like to create the 'illusion of complexity' which basically equates to everything looking the same formation after formation but the Rams can run dozens and dozens of plays that start out similar and finish in multiple different directions. Woods gave just one example when he revealed: "If we're running a fly sweep, there are literally six variations. You can give it to the receiver, the running back or throw it to multiple different receivers downfield. We want to make the defense have to be disciplined with their eyes." The Patriots may have had their way with the Rams in the Super Bowl, but let's not forget that this was a scoring machine up until then.
There was no Todd Gurley on the practice field at the Rams' camp on Tuesday and while the All-Pro runner is undoubtedly going to be managed throughout the 2019 campaign due to his knee worries, it got me thinking about the preseason in general. More and more teams are protecting their key players to make sure they come racing out of the tunnel in September. And that makes sense. But it's not just restricted to preseason games. Already on this tour I have seen DeAndre Hopkins held out in Houston, Antonio Brown sidelined for the Raiders and now Gurley. And news broke today that Julio Jones is not playing any preseason games for the Atlanta Falcons. That is not the wrong stance to take, I just feel it could further strengthen the case for an 18-game regular season because exhibition contests are now more meaningless than ever and that caution is spilling over into camp.
Rams fans will be delighted to know that wide receiver Cooper Kupp is back, appears to be at full strength and made plays throughout Tuesday's practice. The Rams really missed Kupp when he went down at the back end of last season and it is also clear how much Goff likes firing him the football, especially when chains need to be moved or touchdowns are up for grabs in the red zone. With Kupp back alongside Woods and Brandin Cooks, the Rams'passing attack is going to be a challenge to slow down.
One to Watch
McVay has been promising to more prominently feature the tight end position in his attack and this could be the year. And Tyler Higbee could very well be the guy. He certainly caught the eye on Tuesday with a nice grab over the middle from Goff as the quarterback rolled right and gambled correctly with a throw back across his body. The pair also hooked up for a touchdown in team red zone drills. Goff has plenty of weapons at his disposal and Higbee is another to be accounted for in 2019.
Quote of the Day
"It's hard for me to get comfortable. I'm never satisfied. I want to do more. I know I'm going to be a better football player than I was last year so if they think they've seen something, they ain't seen nothing yet." - Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald - who recorded a stunning 20.5 sacks last year - putting the fear of living daylights into the rest of the NFL with his prediction for the 2019 season.
Inside the Game
There is a common theme that has run through the interviews I have done with great players over the years. The great ones do two things better than those who will never reach such a level - they work like dogs even though they possess great natural talent and they refuse to accept they have reached the high point of their career. They never rest on their laurels and they never stop trying to push to be better. With that in mind, consider how scary this will be for the rest of the NFL as Aaron Donald - widely considered the best player in the league today - wants to be even more dominant in 2019. That drive is to be admired.
The Last Word
There will be no training camp postcard tomorrow as I'm taking a break from the tour to visit Around the NFL podcast heroes Dan Hanzus, Chris Wesseling, Gregg Rosenthal and Marc Sessler at NFL Network. I'm very proud and excited to be hosting a special season preview show with the fellas for the NFL Gamepass international audience. It should be a fun morning before I begin the journey back east with a flight to Chicago. Speak to you from Bears camp later this week.