Beneath the glitz, a franchise regains its Southern California foothold in fits and starts.
By Steve Wyche | Published Nov. 29, 2016
During the same mid-November week in which the Rams finally broke ground on their state-of-the-art stadium in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was named the team's starting quarterback. Both projects got started later than expected -- the shovels were supposed to be in the ground over the summer, while Goff had to wait until Los Angeles' 10th game of the regular season before getting the reins -- but the process of establishing these franchise pillars was finally set in motion.
There was an odd sense of pride from head coach Jeff Fisher the day he finally made the move to Goff. He was happy, smiling and extremely confident. It was a move a fervent fan base had wanted for weeks, but one Fisher refused to make -- even though veteran quarterback Case Keenum and the Rams' offense consistently underwhelmed.
Fisher's glow, as it was, might've served as an indication that he's confident he'll get to see things through with Goff, despite the delayed decision to put him into the starting lineup and yet another mediocre record for the Rams.
Though there has been no official word that Fisher, whose contract is expiring, has signed an extension, it certainly sounds like he isn't going anywhere.
"Everybody will want to judge Jeff through the prism of just the record, but that's totally unfair when you look at the set of circumstances he was handed this year," chief operating officer Kevin Demoff told me. "It was different than any team in the NFL.
"We moved halfway across the country, then had OTAs in Oxnard. Training camp was in Irvine, now we're in Thousand Oaks. We moved coaches and players and families. To provide leadership and consistency, he's done a model job."
I pressed Demoff to nail down whether Fisher has signed an extension or if he would definitely be back. He would not say. He would not budge. Still, everything he said seemed to hint that Fisher is staying put. And while Demoff's remarks did come before the Rams were whipped, 49-21, by the Saints on Sunday, the sentiment was pretty strong.
"He's a terrific leader of men," Demoff said. "Players, coaches and staff -- he has their complete respect in the way he runs the franchise. It's easy to talk about the record, but you have to take a snapshot of everything this year and give him the credit that he's due.
"The past two years, he's had to deal with the specter of relocation. This year, the actual relocation. A couple of coaches have had to deal with the specter of relocation. No coach has had to deal with an actual relocation. You have try to understand what this team has been through and the success he has had."
In other words, Fisher's entire body of work is more valuable than his body of work as the actual football coach, when it comes to wins and losses. Since taking over the Rams in 2012, he's gone 31-43-1, including a 4-7 mark so far this season.
A lot of coaches have been cut loose before getting to this point. Yet, with the relocation being a huge part of the criteria, Fisher has done more than any coach in the NFL, so giving him a break is fair in that regard.
Fisher has experience with this sort of thing, having been head coach of the Houston Oilers when they moved to Tennessee in 1997 (they were eventually rechristened the Titans). And as part of the relocation to Southern California, he's been asked to be more than a coach. He was asked to be the ambassador to Los Angeles, showing up at civic and business events that are typically outside of the norm, among other things. Sometimes, players and other coaches had to join him. There wasn't much downtime.
Fisher always could have said no, but besides team owner Stan Kroenke needing Fisher's cachet to forge an image and base in L.A., the NFL needed Fisher to help kick-start a franchise in a market where long-term viability is a must.
The league also made the Rams take some lumps as part of getting out of St. Louis, in terms of all the travel they endured -- in addition to getting situated in a practice facility (and nearby housing) about 40 miles from the Coliseum, where they're playing their home games, the Rams also had to travel to London and will have had to play four games in the Eastern time zone. That's part of the price of doing business on the West Coast.
There also seems to be a welcoming of the Hollywood lifestyle by the Rams. Musicians and celebrities attended training camp workouts. LeBron James stood on the sideline for a preseason game. It's typically a Who's Who -- Snoop Dogg, Regina King, The Game, the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- on game day.
Heck, the day Goff was announced as the starter, pop star Britney Spears showed up at practice with her kids. Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson also was there. This wasn't training camp or a pregame sideline. This was heading into Week 11, and the rookie was getting his first real day of game planning.
Can't quite see something like that happening in Green Bay or New England.
The Rams feel one way about Fisher, but multiple NFL coaches -- most of them assistants -- as well as personnel employees from around the league privately question whether Fisher deserves more time. Fans have increasingly joined that chorus. Fisher has a desirable job. There's the location, a young QB, a talented defense and money to spend.
Fisher, though, seems entrenched for now.
To the Rams and league owners, there's a greater point beyond Fisher's job status: The NFL is back in Los Angeles.
Is it a Rams city? There certainly is a diehard base that existed from the days before the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995 after 49 years in Southern California. There also is a new legion of fans that never had an opportunity in 21 years to call a team its home team.
What is clear is that this supposedly fickle sports market is an NFL city.
There have been more than 83,000 at every Rams home game at the Coliseum, where the team played from 1946 to 1979 (the franchise was based in Anaheim from 1980 to 1994). And usually, there are thousands -- if not tens of thousands -- of fans wearing opposing team colors. In a 14-10 loss to Miami in Goff's first start, Dolphins fans drowned out the remaining Rams fans in the final moments.
That was not unexpected by the Rams' brass, knowing that, for more than two decades, locals bought into the 49ers, Raiders, Chargers, Cowboys, Seahawks or whomever actually had an NFL club.
"One year back and playing one year of football is not going to get a groundswell of fans yet," Demoff said. "But people are wearing Rams gear and talking about the Rams. Kids are wearing Rams gear to school."
Although every NFL team has players, staffers and coaches involved in community work, the Rams have saturated youth programs and elementary schools in every demographic realm in the metro area. The rationale was to make future fans' first experience with the NFL come via face-to-face relationships with the Rams.
That has been a success, Demoff said.
Retaining those potential fans could come down to wins and losses -- and style points. Sure, a 9-6 win over the Jets in Week 10 was better than a 9-6 loss, but this is a region used to Magic, Kobe, Kershaw, CP3, Blake Griffin, Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen.
The Rams' supposed star, running back Todd Gurley, has yet to really feature in anything more than some local commercials. The 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year doesn't have a 100-yard rushing game in 11 games thus far this season. His futility is part of the offensive struggles as a whole.
The offensive line isn't consistent. When plays are made, penalty flags are thrown. Left tackle Greg Robinson, a former No. 2 overall pick, was a healthy scratch from the Saints game due to ineffective play. There is no passing-game threat in terms of receivers. Keenum, a hell of a teammate in the Jake Delhomme mold, simply didn't cause opposing defensive coordinators to work overtime.
So now, it's on to Goff. Although his debut featured a loss and a game plan that was more color-by-numbers than Xs and Os, he is the greatest carrot of hope the Rams have to offer right now. He threw three touchdown passes in Sunday's loss to the Saints, looking much more in control than he did in his debut. Then again, the Rams matched their worst loss of the season.
Goff is the player for whom the Rams mortgaged their future draft picks in the hopes of securing a better future overall. Before his second start, at New Orleans, Fisher was even more giddy than he was the day Goff was named the starter: "He's got a really good feel for it. Last week, was his first week as our starter and against that good [Dolphins] defense. But man, this week, so far after two days of practice, he's putting it down the field and doing some good things. He's in complete control of what we are doing."
This was short-term praise, confidence, evaluation and hope.
The foray to Los Angeles is a slow burn. Other than the historic move back West, this season is projected as a footnote in the grand scheme of things.
"You hope it all comes together quickly. It will all be in place by 2019," Demoff said, referring to the year when the new stadium is set to open. "This is an expansion team with roots.
"When we look at it, this is a long-term process, not short-term. We could have gone out and signed a bunch of free agents and loaded up this year and do all that, but we wanted to build this the right way. That's Stan Kroenke's vision and that's what we're committed to."
When the bells-and-whistles stadium hosts its first game in three years, will we remember that the Rams were smoked 28-0 by the 49ers in this season's opener? Or (of course) that they didn't score a touchdown in their home-opening victory over Seattle? Or even that there was an incredibly rare Southern California rainstorm in Goff's debut at the Coliseum?
What we could be asking then, though, are the same questions we're asking now -- the questions that ultimately will decide if Fisher's still around when the new stadium opens up:
Is there more to this team than its defense? Was Jared Goff worth it?