IRVINE, California — It’s a spectacle made for Southern California.
Tommy Lasorda is driven across a pristine practice field in a golf cart. At the age of 90, the legendary Dodgers manager, who has in his life kept the company of Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali and Ronald Reagan, is 22 years removed from managing a major league game and 30 from leading the Dodgers to their last championship.
But here, when Lasorda moves, heads turn. Fingers point.
Here, he carries fame to be envied by professional athletes and Hollywood celebrities alike.
And here, at Rams camp, he has come to see the stars.
Look at the quarterback in the red No. 16 jersey. He was the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft, and he played like it last year.
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Over there is the running back who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season and was named Offensive Player of the Year.
And check out those new guys on defense. One of them has a Super Bowl ring. One of them has five more interceptions than any other player in the NFL over the last three seasons. One of them may be the most intimidating interior rusher in the NFL.
Then there is the blond-haired, blue-eyed coach. The 2017 Coach of the Year. With the energy of a 32-year-old and the insight of a 72-year-old, he may be the biggest star of all.
He’s caught Lasorda’s eye.
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“I’m impressed by that coach,” Lasorda says. “I think that guy is going to bring this team to high, high success. And I like the guy that runs with that ball all the time. I think he’s good. I think they’ll do well for the next 10 years.”
He’s not alone in his high expectations. Bleacher Report has the Rams second to only the Vikings in its preseason power rankings. OddsShark shows them among the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl. There’s a reason this team has become a Southern California spectacle.
Lasorda knows this about expectations from experience: It is one thing for there to be many stars. It is another for the stars to align.
But aligned or not, right now this team is something to see.
Eleven players on the Rams roster have been selected to the Pro Bowl a combined 30 times. Newcomers Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh and Aqib Talib account for a dozen of them.
Another newcomer, Brandin Cooks, hasn’t played in a Pro Bowl, but he’s one of only two wide receivers in the NFL—the other is Pittsburgh‘s Antonio Brown—to have at least 1,000 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. And with a contract he signed in July worth $81 million, he is one of the four highest-paid receivers in football.
When the offseason began, it wasn’t general manager Les Snead’s intent to layer star over star in a real-life game of fantasy football. It just kind of worked out that way during a wild 37-day stretch.
Snead wanted to solidify the defensive backfield. The Chiefs were shopping Peters, a Pro Bowl cornerback who has 19 interceptions over the last three years. So on February 26, Snead agreed to a trade: a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder for Peters and a sixth-rounder. Then 11 days later, he sent a fifth-round pick to the Broncos for another Pro Bowl cornerback, Talib, who was available because the Broncos were trying to clear cap space.
After the Rams struggled getting the Falcons offense off the field in a postseason loss, Snead thought they also needed more muscle on their defensive line. In Miami, the Dolphins were looking to clear cap space, so on March 14, they cut Suh, perhaps the most powerful tackle in the game. Two weeks later, he signed a one-year contract with the Rams worth $14 million, making him the highest-paid player on the roster.
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Finally, Snead wanted a replacement for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who left as a free agent to sign with the Chiefs. Cooks’ contract was up after the 2018 season, and the Patriots didn’t want to pay for him. On April 3, Snead sent first- and sixth-round picks to New England for the receiver and a fourth-round pick.
“It seemed like every day we had a new player,” says Jared Goff, the quarterback who Snead determined in 2016 was worth trading two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks to get. “It was exciting.”
Suh and Talib had a say in what team they would play for, as did Cooks to an extent (the Rams traded for him knowing he was open to a long-term contract). All of them wanted to be Rams, in part because of all the other Rams.
Cooks simply says, “The talent is awesome.”
“From the outside looking in, this was one of the best teams in the league in my opinion,” he says. “Amazing talent, amazing roster, top to bottom.
“It’s probably the deepest secondary that I’ve been a part of, as far as corners and safeties. The talent on offense—you got three guys (Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) who can have 1,000 receiving yards and the best running back in the league. They have a great quarterback throwing them the ball. Our front seven, it’s crazy. The roster is full of talent.”
After he was released, Suh visited the Saints, Titans and Rams. He had a comfort level with the Rams because he is close with strength coach Ted Rath from their time together in Detroit and Miami. And there was more, including the chance to pair his forceful lunges with the knifing, unpredictable steps of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, whenever last season’s Defensive Player of the Year finally ends his contract holdout.
“Talent is a big piece,” Suh says. “It’s the ultimate team game. You can’t play by yourself.”
A pyramid on the wall of head coach Sean McVay’s office echoes Suh’s words. It sets the standards for McVay’s Rams.
At the center of the pyramid: “We, Not Me.”
“That’s what guides our everyday approach,” McVay says. “When everyone knows what the standard is and what to expect, it allows them to be the best players, it allows us to be the best team and it allows us to come together as a team.”
The pyramid concept was inspired by John Wooden’s 70-year-old Pyramid of Success, but when McVay explains his version, it somehow feels fresh and lively—and you can hear how he’s able to sell classical team-building ideas to a team born into Hollywood spectacle.
McVay’s grandfather, John McVay, is best known as a Bill Walsh confidant and one of the primary architects of the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and ’90s. Sean idolized him. The Rams head coach, subsequently, has a reverence of history as well as a rare ability to relate to today’s players.
Offensive tackle and team co-captain Andrew Whitworth is four years older and has three more years of NFL experience than his head coach. And Whitworth could not respect him more.
“He will come to me and ask, ‘What do you think the right way to do this is?'” Whitworth says. “He’s going to do what he thinks is best, but he will get a chance to hear what a player thinks, and it would be harder for an older coach to have that kind of relationship with a player.”
His players don’t call him “Coach,” or “Coach McVay.” It’s usually just “Sean.”
Suh says McVay reminds him of one of his favorite coaches ever—former Lions head coach Jim Caldwell—because he is straightforward, honest, transparent and open-minded. “A lot of coaches in this league, it’s their way or the highway,” Suh says. “Sean doesn’t see it that way. He has a certain structure of the way he wants things to be, but he’s very flexible within the parameters.”
He has street cred in the locker room, too. Before a recent game, he ran striders with his players. After a recent practice, he stepped into the players’ workout area to ride the stationary bike. He lifts, too, and McVay is more rocked up than some of his players. In 2003, he quarterbacked Marist School to a state championship and was named Georgia’s Player of the Year, beating out Calvin Johnson for the award. He still looks like he would be a handful to tackle.
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He gets respect, too, for the company he keeps. His girlfriend, Veronika Khomyn, is a Ukranian-born model who has more than 16,000 Instagram followers and often inspires TMZ posts.
“She is a good balance for me, always so supportive but very patient with me,” McVay says of Khomyn, who he met through mutual friends when he was an assistant with the Redskins. “She is considerate and sweet, and I’m lucky to be with her.”
McVay jokes that she gets recognized more than he does. “People will be looking at her and say, ‘Look who she’s with,'” he says.
McVay’s other partner is Wade Phillips. The pair didn’t know each other well when McVay was looking to hire a defensive coordinator, and it would have been understandable if the youngest head coach in NFL history—he was 30 when he was hired in 2017—had been leery of a former head coach nearly four decades older who he really didn’t know. But McVay embraced Phillips’ wisdom and Phillips embraced McVay’s vision. Now, they are as dynamic a leadership team as there is on any sideline.
Phillips gives the Rams a father figure, balancing out the fact that the head coach is a contemporary of his players.
Known for his homespun style and ability to crack up a room, Phillips is a true players’ coach, as his father Bum Phillips was before him. He has been particularly effective coaching stars such as Curley Culp, Elvin Bethea, Robert Brazile, Rickey Jackson, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Talib, who wanted badly to play for him again.
McVay has tried to empower his stars and his assistants the way Phillips empowers his. Phillips advised McVay to hold team meetings every day in the offseason during his first year as head coach, and McVay subsequently felt his relationships with defensive players thrived.
Phillips is laid-back. McVay can get anxious. McVay is a smooth speaker. Phillips understands the art of listening.
The Rams chemistry begins with this relationship.
It was a good thing the Rams had going last season. They stunned the NFL with 11 wins and didn’t lose two in a row all regular season. Touchdowns and hugs came in bunches, as the players fit together on multiple levels.
On the surface, it did not appear they needed to be shaken or stirred.
But Snead saw it differently.
“We talked about not being deceived by having more W’s,” he says. “We still need to improve. The key is to have the same hunger you had last year because you got more in your stomach this year. You’re a little fuller from success.”
So the Rams bade farewell to cornerback Trumaine Johnson, linebacker Alec Ogletree, linebacker Connor Barwin, defensive end Robert Quinn and Watkins. All were starters, and Barwin, Johnson and Ogletree even more: captains, voted by teammates, along with running back Todd Gurley, the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Whitworth and punter Johnny Hekker.
The Rams still have veteran leadership from Whitworth and Hekker. They have youthful leadership from Gurley and Goff. And they have emerging leadership from Talib.
Before Snead began swapping out parts, he gave careful consideration to chemistry and leadership. He studied The Captain Class and discussed the book with its author, Sam Walker.
“I loved the book, and it gives you a different view of the captain,” Snead says. “A lot of times when you think of a captain, you think of a buttoned-up, cookie-cutter-mold, all-American type. But those aren’t the only kinds of leaders. And there can be many leaders who have different qualities and different roles.”
Snead and McVay are comfortable with their leadership, even in its transitional state. Whitworth is that buttoned-up, cookie-cutter-mold, all-American type of leader. A well-spoken, accomplished 36-year-old, 6’7″, 330-pounder who can back up his words with blocks, he is respected by all.
And the belief is Goff will lead as ably as he throws.
“I’ve played this position for 17 years now,” Goff says. “I have an idea of how to be a leader at the position. I have my own style and try to get better at it every day. But I think every year you try to become more of a leader. Going into my third year, I do feel more like a veteran with an ability to assert myself confidently. Taking those steps is natural. It’s just being yourself every day, learning your style of leadership.”
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Goff can be seen conferring with the two new corners on the practice field when a play doesn’t develop the way he thinks it should. He shows deference to Suh’s veteran status and asks him about his experiences and his longevity.
While leadership is assumed from Goff, it may not have been from Talib. The cornerback hasn’t always behaved the way people think a leader is supposed to act. Last season, he was ejected from a game for fighting and subsequently suspended for another game. Two years ago, he shot himself in the leg outside a Dallas strip club.
But here, he has been a voice of experience and a steadying influence on the mercurial Peters. “If I feel some kind of way, I’m going to say it,” Talib says. “I’m going to work hard, study the playbook and make sure I know it—then make sure the guys I work with, the guys in the secondary and linebackers, make sure they all know it. All I can do is be myself.”
There is risk with Peters, who has had some self-control issues in the past. Last season he threw a penalty flag into the stands, left the field before the game ended and got into an argument with a coach, prompting the Chiefs to suspend him for a game.
There is less risk with Suh, even though he has been accused of putting himself ahead of the team. Almost anyone who’s never known him considers him a heel based on his ruthlessness with quarterbacks and blockers in vulnerable positions. To the Rams, he will be a face if he can draw an extra blocker off Donald and enable him to plaster a quarterback. Or if he can harass a passer into a throw that Peters or Talib can intercept.
It was Bill Belichick who showed us a strong culture can absorb a wayward soul. But so far, there has been no waywardness here.
“I haven’t seen any of that,” Goff says of the reputations of his new mates. “You hear things about them, but they have been nothing but great for us.”
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
These Rams are dusted with glitter. But the things that make football teams great don’t sparkle and shine. These players have to bring out the best in one another for this team to meet expectations.
These days, there is nothing but promise.
“The chemistry here is dope,” Talib says. “It’s great. Already it’s great. You go in the lunchroom, you see DBs sitting with O-line. You see linebackers sitting with running backs. It’s not cliquish. It’s a great vibe. A bunch of laughs. It’s perfect.”
It is one thing to glide above the National Football League. It is another to glide above Los Angeles, the city of Kardashians.
If the Rams weren’t star-studded and successful, their following could thin quickly, in part because they still are in a limbo home: the Coliseum. Their new $4 billion-plus stadium isn’t scheduled to be ready for occupancy until 2020.
Despite their success in 2017, their average attendance of 63,392 ranked 26th in the NFL, and they filled the cavernous Coliseum to only 67.7 percent of its capacity for the season.
Ticket sales are up about 10 percent over last year and Rams merchandise has nearly doubled, in part because the new Rams are a reflection of the town, with big names everywhere. “We fit right in with the city,” Talib says. “Now we just have to make sure we put up the W’s.”
When LeBron James came to town in July, it meant the Lakers, not the Rams, probably will have the star of stars on the L.A. sports scene. “Bron is my favorite,” Talib says. “I’m working on getting me a suite over there [at Staples Center] right now—12 tickets. We’ll have some great DB nights, real chemistry checking out Bron 12 at a time.”
But the Rams will have their own version of Showtime. Even Tommy Lasorda will be watching.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.