There’s something to be said for having experience on football’s biggest stage, which is an area where the New England Patriots dwarf every other team in the NFL, including their upcoming Super Bowl LIII opponent, the Los Angeles Rams.
Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady has played in nine Super Bowls himself, which is almost double the number of appearances by Los Angeles’ current roster combined. For reference, 38 of New England’s 53 players have been the Super Bowl with 27 appearing multiple times. Conversely, only four Rams – C.J. Anderson, Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks and Sam Shields – have made it that far. Cooks’ appearance last year with the Patriots was short-lived as he wound up sidelined with a concussion in the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With international and national media descending upon them this week, as is the case every year when the host city opens its doors for the inevitable frenzy, the Rams look every bit like a team that’s never been there before, because, for the most part, they haven’t. The elder statesmen, particularly Talib and Anderson, have taken on an additional role this week as quasi advisors, helping the younger and / or inexperienced players navigate the overwhelming gauntlet of media coverage and distractions once the team charter touched down in Atlanta on Sunday. That includes everything from daily press briefings to ticket requests from family and friends, which may not seem like much on the surface, but can be
“Me and Aqib, I think we’ve stressed harping on what this week will be like so much and everything is unfolding like we said it would be,” Anderson said.
The fact Anderson and Talib have been able to predict most of what has gone down this week in Atlanta certainly makes it easier for others on the roster to pay attention to what they have to say, but the players who lack that experience still have to figure out for themselves. Asked how he plans on handling the week-long festivities, quarterback Jared Goff said, “Just trying to figure out what to make important how to prepare and how to avoid distractions.”
The players, for the most part, have said all the right things – no outlandish predictions, no unprovoked trash-talking – and this has been a relatively quiet week in terms of storylines with nothing really leaping off the page, but some Rams have acknowledged New England’s edge in terms of experience and how that might play a factor Sunday.
“Throughout the week, it gives them an advantage,” offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. “They kind of know this week. They know when things are a little anxious, or when to turn it on and get ready to play. They probably have a process and plan for the week.”
If and when all else fails, the Rams don’t have to look far for encouragement; the Eagles were equally inexperienced last year, especially quarterback Nick Foles, and managed to make the big plays when they needed to unseat the Patriots last year in Super Bowl LII. Outside the lines, there’s also the fact many of the players on this year’s team absorbed the relocation from St. Louis back to Los Angeles three years ago, so what difference will it make if they have to spend another week outside of their comfort zone?
“Look at what we’ve done in the past few years relocating, makeshift locker rooms, weight rooms, being adaptable. I don’t think anyone is fazed by any trip anywhere,” center John Sullivan said. “I think we’re fine. Everyone is focused on winning.”
Once a Ram, always a Ram
Rams’ wide receivers coach Liam Coen, a South Kingstown, R.I., native, has grown accustomed to his team’s mascot through the years. Coen starred as the quarterback for Providence’s La Salle Academy – also known as the Rams – from 2000 through 2004, leading the program to four consecutive Division I Super Bowl appearances before rewriting the record books at UMass.
Coen grew up a Patriots’ fan and wore No. 12 at UMass because of Brady. On Sunday he gets to coach against the team he watched in person in 2001 at the old Foxboro Stadium for the now infamous “Tuck Rule” game against the Raiders.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Coen said. “I always dreamt of throwing touchdowns in the Super Bowl but I think this is a pretty cool close second and probably a little more rewarding. Coaching is more selfless than selfish, after all.”
In his first year coaching in Los Angeles, Coen helped guide the Rams to top-five finishes in total yards, passing, and scoring while working closely with Goff, who makes his first Super Bowl appearance Sunday in just his third NFL season.
“I have a different appreciation for the quarterback position, and I can tell you that Jared is phenomenal. He’s just unflappable,” Coen said. “He’s in a tough spot and we ask a lot of him, but not every kind of way wins and Jared’s way wins.”
Whatever it takes
Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley, who led the NFL in touchdowns in 2018, has taken a backseat to the resurgent Anderson, who joined the Rams late in the season while Gurley rested his injured knees and has since taken on a bigger role than expected in the running game.
While some players can become divisive forces due to a lack of playing time, Gurley is taking it all in stride and has confirmed this week he’s ready for whatever head coach Sean McVay asks of him Sunday against the Patriots. The way Gurley sees it, a reduced role on a winning team is better than 30 or more touches on a lousy team with nothing to play for.
Gurley would know: The Rams finished 7-9 and 4-12 in his first two NFL seasons before erupting for 11 wins in 2017.
“I've been 4-12, you know what I'm saying? Like, I've been broke,” Gurley said. “I got money. I've done had terrible seasons. I'm in the Super Bowl. It's a blessing.”
Winning would be an even bigger blessing for the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year and in order to do so it only makes sense that Gurley is more involved in the game plan Sunday. He scored 21 touchdowns in the regular season (17 rushing, four receiving) despite missing two games and figures to be a key factor against a New England defense that has struggled with pass-catching running backs from time to time; Gurley, for what it’s worth, has caught 40 or more passes in each of his last three seasons.
“When you've got a player like Todd, you're not limited in any way that you can use him,” McVay said. “Any time that you have somebody that's as versatile as he is that can really play all over the formation.”