The Rams Are Back in Los Angeles: A Voyage of Time

­­The troublesome snare that comes with being a fervent fan of almost anything is, obviously, that your fondest hopes can be rebuked at any point by nasty surprise.

Still more bitter is the gradual dissolution of those hopes.

Pro football is back in Los Angeles. And standing between Rams fans and that discouragement, for now and two games into the season, is a total scoring tally of three field goals.

The believers—the Melonheads, the vintage jersey folks, the sun-blasted tailgaters—are, for the most part, living with that. Snap on the radio an hour before the season opener in San Francisco and you could hear a longtime loyalist exulting that the team he knew as a boy was back on this coast after those dark years, beginning in 1995, that they spent in the flyover zone of St. Louis. Ever since he was a kid, this fan said, he’s been with them: “From the time I saw those helmets with the rams’ horns glistening in the sun.”

Poetically stated, sir. Let’s hope he wasn’t to be found at last week’s home opener brawling in the stands. We must face it: Between the old Raiders era when black-clad fans gave the Coliseum a rep as an al fresco bucket of blood, and even more ignobly when Dodger loyalists beat up a Giants fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, this town has made a name for itself that can make Philly crowds look like masters of etiquette.

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Ah, the whole hopey-changey thing. From the moment the long trucks first unloaded the blocking sleds and robotic tackling dummies and bushels of athletic tape hauled away from St. Louis, optimism reigned. For many, it began with the simple comfort of knowing our QB-in-waiting was the NFL draft’s top pick.

Well. It’s not Jared Goff’s fault that the second guy picked now starts and wins for the Eagles in a state that has hurriedly been rechristened Wentz-sylvania.

So, our Rams. (Just trying that on for size, as a lifelong football Giants fan.)

Things were once so very different for the Rams here in L.A. and beyond. They were, for a goodly slice of the population nationwide, something like America’s team.

They were (lower-case) giants in those days.

Submitted for your inspection, then, and by way of charting the Ram fan’s vicissitudes, you have the career of Terence Malick. His 1973 debut Badlands, with Martin Sheen as roving killer Charles Starkweather and Sissy Spacek as his tag-along girlfriend, has been described by The Guardian as “an unmissable, transcendentally beautiful classic.” Neither we nor Bruce Springsteen (who depicted the saga in the title song of his 1982 Nebraska album, which emerged during the emotional crisis described in his new memoir) could ever forget it.

1973 was also the year the Rams began their unbroken seven-year run atop the NFC West.  They were forming into a dynasty, as new owner Carroll Rosenbloom brought on Chuck Knox to coach; sent QB Roman Gabriel packing; and sacked the wussy white uniforms to restore yellow to the team color scheme, even adding horns to the shoulders.

Those years were golden, magisterial, larded with wins and individual honors. The 12-4 campaign of 1978 was something of a peak. But there would be just one more glory year in the chain. A 1979 win over Tampa Bay by 9-0 (yes, three field goals, just as the Rams deployed to squeak past Seattle last week) set up a Super Bowl tilt with the Steelers. There, a 31-19 loss introduced some years of entropy. Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers had their own dynasty to mount—despite the game efforts of Vince Ferragamo, now analyzing Rams games in sentences seemingly all bound to include the word “football”—and the Rams would not win their division again until 1985, even though Eric Dickerson torpedo’ed through most opponents during that stretch.

At that point in cultural history, the wait for Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven seemed long but turned out to be worth it—he handed us another masterpiece. With due respect to the oddly wafty The Thin Red Line and the at times grisly The New World, there followed a long fallow period for Malick. Now comes Voyage of Time, said to be 90 minutes of evocative, spacey cinematography, which one can only hope is not as sleep inducing as what generally happens when the announcer crisply states “Rams ball, 1st and 10.”

(Pass to Tavon Austin in the flat for minus two yards.)

1978 was the cusp of the Rams’ decline as well. That year, the team went 12-4 and on to the post-season (ultimately losing to Dallas in the conference playoff) and certainly kept hope alive the next year right up through a Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh.

But then. Ah, but then, for both the Rams and Malick came the decline. There were some very lean Rams years until the millennium at long last approached. Finally, in 1999, the turning point came when Kurt Warner, an undrafted aspirant from the Arena League, stepped in for an injured Trent Green and started heaving touchdowns at such a rate he became the league MVP and subject of a Sports Illustrated cover asking, “Who IS This Guy?” It would be the era of Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Isaac Bruce; and a 6-TD, 5 field goal, 57-point fusillade over San Diego. The Super Bowl win in 1999 was stirring for Warner’s long strike to Bruce with 1:54 left, and linebacker Mike Jones’ TD-saving tackle at the end.

And ever since—after a couple Wild Card sorties in 2000 and 2004—it’s been all about curbing our enthusiasm. Which is not to deny that the Rams have already twice this year filled 91,000 seats at the dowager countess that is Memorial Coliseum. They no doubt could do that anytime there or in the planned new stadium, a 300-acre “entertainment district” costing $2.6 billion and seating 80,000. Multi-billionaire owner Stan Kroenke wants to see it open in 2019 and use it to lure the Chargers and Raiders both.

Unlike a roughly parallel Ray Donovan arc, no (forthright, anyhow) gangsters have been harmed in the making of the deal. Kroenke’s chief cheerleader, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones— present in L.A. for the Rams’ preseason tilt with the Cowboys and about to be re-animated by Steve Martin as a character in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—has pronounced himself ravished by the luster this will bring to the league.

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But what about that stuff they’re doing on the field, where 350-pound men who can run like a water buffalo and bench press 600 pounds are trying to annihilate Kroenke’s star investment ($27.9 million for four years, with $18.5 mil bonus), Jared Goff.

The slight problem here is that Fisher (rumored by some to have been more enthusiastic about Wentz) doesn’t feel Goff is quite ready for the NFL and has instead been playing likable, earnest placeholder Case Keenum despite the team’s failure to set foot in the end zone or—last week against the Seahawks—even inside the 20.

The problems ripple out from there. The plodding “horizontal” attack of the Rams in the opener so alienated analyst Steve Young—the third most productive rusher ever among QBs—that he moaned about it all game and cemented his rep as a Rams-hater. (“Boomer” Chris Berman chimed in with the dissing during an embarrassingly dull Monday Night Football season debut.)

Despite Keenum finding wide-out Kenny Britt a few times around 15 yards deep in the tough Seattle secondary, the Ram offense’s screens and flares and hand-offs to last year’s Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley were met early and often by the adversary’s populous front rank. In fairness, Keenum has been without the services of possible pass-catching phenom Pharoh Cooper and preseason revelation Nelson Spruce, both due back shortly, and he’s avoided turnovers. Fisher, who comes off in pressers and throughout the footage of Hard Knocks on HBO as both peeved and avuncular, showed some pique this past Sunday with the media and the endless “Where’s Jared?”

“When he’s under center you’ll know okay? So keep asking that every week if you want. You can ask again, if you want.” With the Rams as the only NFL team not to post a TD yet, with Keenum ranked 35th out of 38 QBs, further futility could create some dissonance with fans and media both.

The good and bad news is the Rams hit the road now for four of the next five games. Standing 28th in the ESPN Power rankings, they will face Tampa Bay (22nd), Arizona (3rd), Buffalo (30th), and the Lions (20th) before facing the Giants in London in Week 7. By then it may be clear if Fisher can back up his insistence to the team, before the HBO cameras, that “I’m not fucking going 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7. We have too much talent here for that…”  This was on the same day he bounced a low-grading wide receiver out of camp for the forbidden sin of hosting a woman in his room.  There are as many ways to be a stern dad figure as there are NFL coaches; Fisher will know by season’s end if his way has worked, and if not, the fan and media howling will commence.

The Rams have their strengths, to be sure. The defensive line is among the league’s best, and the linebackers led by Alec Ogletree (who stripped a Seahawk of the ball to end a late threat) help add up to what hobbled Seahawk Russell Wilson called the best defense he’d face all season. The special teams have gotten over a mortifying season-opening all-the-way kickoff return, and thankfully the much-relied-upon punting and field goal game is in good hands.

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Amidst the brutalities, facemask-jerking, chop-blocking, head-hunting, half-controlled violence that is the NFL, it seems odd to say that the Rams’ problems are as much spiritual as anything, but they (and we) seem to still be unconvinced of what their true worth may be. Both defensive stalwart Aaron Donald and would-be All Pro Gurley had childish tizzy fits in the opener, and they need to let off steam before whistles, not after. When Gurley waved away concerns over his lack of productivity (51 yards on 19 carries vs. the Seahawks) with “[i]t’s whatever, it’s football. You’re not going to have a great game every game,” and Fisher said, “I’ll take a touchdown next week. That would be cool,” you had to wonder—dudes, are we at Burning Man?

One can remember Oklahoma coaching stalwart Barry Switzer telling a slightly abashed network morning show host how he’d describe his players’ work ethic: “We’ll hit you in the mouth every time.”

To save this season, the Rams could use some more of that.

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Fred Schruers is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His football assignments have included then-Giants linebackers coach Bill Belichick, as well as a profile of Bill Parcells, and a feature on Phil Simms beating the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. A longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, Premiere, the Los Angeles Times, and a number of national publications, he is the author of Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography.