February 23, 2024

The Rams won a bunch of games this season by using sheer toughness to force unsuspecting foes into brutal submission.

But their most overpowering win was against, well, me.

The quarterback is creaky. The running game is questionable. The receiving corps is inconsistent. The offensive line is uncertain. The defense is untested.

The Rams will head to Detroit to face the lovable Lions Sunday in an inspirational playoff appearance that nobody saw coming.

By “nobody,” I mean, me.

The most important Rams race this season might not be a climb to the top, but a sprint toward the bottom. Can they be bad enough to finish with the league’s worst record and the opportunity to draft the most NFL-ready quarterback in a decade?

Few critics liked the Rams chances, but only here, in a Sept. 5 preview column, did you read that they were going to be so bad they should lose on purpose.

That’s right, your brilliant wordsmith wrote that they should tank.

[Sean] McVay can coach himself even more hoarse, and it still might not matter. [Les] Snead can spend all season patching holes, and it could still mean nothing. [Kevin] Demoff can sell himself silly, and it might not produce wins. No matter how hard they try, no matter how hard their diehards root for them, the Rams don’t seem to have enough talent to be consistently competitive, which means one thing: Every loss could be viewed like an ultimate win.

Few critics thought they could make the playoffs, but only this correspondent wanted them to give up before the season even started, lose at least a dozen games and put themselves in a position to draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

A journalistic masterpiece, this.

Could they really be bad enough to acquire the very best? Las Vegas predicts they will win around six games. That could be generous. Going into their off week they could reasonably be 2-6 … in the second half of the season they have just one seemingly certain win …

Three victories. That was my prediction. While I was an embarrassing seven wins short, I inadvertently nailed the theme of the Rams season.

Nobody believed. Nobody but the Rams.

When I fessed up my prediction to McVay this week, he claimed he didn’t pay any attention to all the preseason noise. At the very least, here’s guessing he didn’t read a word of my column and here’s guessing his team didn’t get much past the headline.

For rebuilding Rams in race to draft Caleb Williams, each loss could be a win

“I think our players are probably a lot more in tune just because of them being on social media, things like that,” McVay said this week of his team’s reaction to the preseason criticism. “I’m aware of it because of the questions that you guys ask, but I try to stay pretty blind to it. We try to be as inside-out as possible.”

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford passes the ball against the Saints at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 21.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford passes the ball against the Saints at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 21.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It was precisely this inside-out approach that has led the Rams to within four wins of a Super Bowl. They focused on themselves, not the critics, and one by one, they blew holes in all those preconceived notions.

The quarterback is creaky?

Matthew Stafford proved that wrong, storming back from a thumb injury to lead a 3-6 team to six wins in his seven starts after their blessed bye week. During that time, he passed for 16 touchdowns, four interceptions and proved that the 35-year-old is not getting older, he’s getting stronger.

It’s about coming together at the right time and continuing to gel as a group,” said McVay of their second-half surge. “I think our veteran leaders really elevated everybody around them.”

Rams running back Kyren Williams runs for a touchdown against the Giants.

Rams running back Kyren Williams (23) runs in a touchdown against the New York Giants on Dec. 31 in East Rutherford, N.J.

(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

The running game is questionable?

On Sept. 21, the Rams traded Cam Akers and found their running back answer, a spark plug named Kyren Williams. In his last nine games, Williams rushed for nine touchdowns while gaining at least 100 yards six times.

This guy was born tough. One of the spectacular sights of the season was his mother, Taryn, wrestling a football from a New York Giants fan after Williams had tossed a touchdown ball to her in the stands.

“Then you get some guys that are able to contribute a lot faster than what is normally expected based on, ‘Hey, you’ve got to, we’re counting on you,’” McVay said, “and these guys matured faster than I think a lot of people outside of this building would’ve thought.”

The receiving corps is inconsistent?

Two words. Puka Nacua.

With 1,486 receiving yards, Nacua broke a rookie record that had stood for 63 years. The fifth-round pick not only compensated for an injured and less-than-great season from Cooper Kupp, but he also helped in the emergence of another surprise receiver who caught touchdown passes in four consecutive games.

Two more words. Demarcus Robinson

“The consistency that this group, the energy, the vibe that they’ve brought, it’s been really fun,” McVay said. “And it’s a great mix of guys that have been in a lot of big-time games and then a heck of a lot of young players that have really watched these guys do their thing and then been able to accelerate their learning and maturation process a lot faster than anybody anticipated.”

The offensive line is uncertain?

Not anymore it’s not, considering this combination of free agents, rookies, and trade products have stayed healthy and together for most of the season. One of the keys was the late summer trade for Pittsburgh’s Kevin Dotson, who has been a cornerstone at right guard, another Les Snead special.

Rams lineman Aaron Donald celebrates tackling Browns running back Jerome Ford for a loss at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 3.

Rams lineman Aaron Donald celebrates tackling Browns running back Jerome Ford for a loss at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 3.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The defense is untested?

They spectacularly passed. Aaron Donald was complemented by rookie revelations Kobie Turner and Byron Young and the veteran emergence of Ernest Jones IV.

They are still suspect in the secondary, but Ahkello Witherspoon has been a bit of an eye-opener and John Johnson III has proven to be another great veteran-minimum signing.

“What I’m proud of is that I think this team has an identity and they’ve really created their own culture,” McVay said.

The special teams are still a mess. There is still a fear that they could lose a playoff game with a missed extra point or botched punt.

But no matter what happens, they’ve already won, this team that has famously quieted the critics behind a strong culture, savvy roster building, and arguably the best coaching job of McVay’s life.

That Sept. 5 column?

Forget you ever read it. Your creaky, questionable, inconsistent, uncertain, untested columnist thanks you.

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