The Los Angeles Rams team the New England Patriots will face in Super Bowl LIII next Sunday bears little resemblance to the one that visited Gillette Stadium just two years ago.
That 2016 Rams squad, then in its first season in LA and the final days of the Jeff Fisher era, rolled into Foxboro, Mass., having lost six of its previous seven games following a promising 3-1 start.
Their rookie quarterback, Jared Goff, looked like a first-round draft bust; their star running back, Todd Gurley, had shown major signs of regression after taking home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors one year earlier; and their defense, despite boasting one of the NFL’s best players at any position in D-tackle Aaron Donald, had just surrendered 49 points in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints the previous week.
The distance between the Patriots, who’d go on to win Super Bowl LI two months later, and the hapless Rams was made abundantly clear during the lead-up to their Week 13 matchup. While Bill Belichick raved about LA’s punter, Johnny “The Weapon” Hekker, Fisher appeared to forget the names of Patriots running backs James White and Dion Lewis, referring to them, infamously, as “Brandon” and “Danny” during a conference call with New England reporters.
The game itself played out as expected. The Patriots led 17-0 at halftime, and the Rams didn’t reach the end zone until Goff found Kenny Britt — who’d go on to have a cup of coffee with the Pats — for a garbage-time touchdown with 1:15 remaining.
Final score: Patriots 26, Rams 10.
LA managed just 36 yards on the ground and 126 through the air, went a miserable 1-for-12 on third down and reached New England territory on just two of their 13 possessions. The lone memorable highlight from the game was Fisher losing his challenge flag inside his jacket — a moment that was captured in all its NSFW glory on Amazon’s “All Or Nothing.”
Fisher’s half-decade of mediocrity as the Rams’ head coach finally came to an end one week later after a 42-14 spanking at home against the Atlanta Falcons. The team proceeded to drop its final three games, as well, to finish 4-12.
Enter Sean McVay.
After taking over for the 58-year-old Fisher, the NFL’s youngest head coach almost immediately unlocked the potential of the Rams’ offensive stars and morphed LA into a surprise Super Bowl contender practically overnight.
In McVay’s first season, the Rams went 11-5, won the NFC West and hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2003. Goff suddenly became an above-average NFL quarterback after looking like an abject disaster as a rookie. Gurley went from 1,212 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in Fisher’s final season to 2,093 and 19, earning NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors in the process.
Even Donald, a first-team All-Pro under Fisher, elevated his game, becoming the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year. Naturally, McVay was voted Coach of the Year, and after losing at home in the 2017 divisional round, he and general manager Les Snead got back to work improving what already was an impressive roster.
After bringing in the likes of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and wide receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp during the 2017 offseason, the Rams went on an extravagant shopping spree ahead of the 2018 season, adding cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, wideout Brandin Cooks and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Of the 22 players who started on offense or defense in the Rams’ last matchup with the Patriots, just seven (Goff, Gurley, Donald, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, linebacker Mark Barron and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner) still are with the team.
Despite some growing pains this season, the new-look Rams finished 13-3, won two playoff games — including an NFC Championship victory in New Orleans — and are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since Kurt Warner and Co. lost to a young Tom Brady in 2001.
A lot can change in two years.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images