LOS ANGELES – It wasn’t a missed opportunity, the Rams insisted, it was a learning opportunity.
And, in a way, they’re right: Sunday’s spread-covering loss to the San Francisco 49ers – 30-23 after the Rams’ Brett Maher hit a 38-yard field goal with time expiring – didn’t feel much like a loss.
Not considering how low expectations were for a Rams team that started the season with 23 players with one or no seasons of NFL experience.
On the other hand, in retrospect, this one’s gonna sting.
When these surprising Rams (1-1) are jockeying for a wild-card berth in a few months, they could be looking back on Sunday’s hard-fought loss to one of the best teams in football and flinch. As forgivable as a defeat as it was, and as necessary as Sunday’s lessons will be, the experience might have the Rams looking back, thinking what if …
Because these Rams are making their fans further recalibrate their already adjusted expectations.
Because these Rams are so much more fun than last year’s team, which limped through a turbulent 5-12 season, historically unsuccessful for a defending Super Bowl champion.
Because these Rams are good.
Naturally, expectations were much lower this season. A bunch of kids surrounding 35-year-old Matthew Stafford? How would they mesh? And then word came that star receiver Cooper Kupp will be sidelined with a hamstring injury until at least Week 5 – how low can hopes go?
Lower still? What if I’d told you, three weeks ago, that Cam Akers would have fallen out of favor again, the running back who was on and off the trade block last season, would be listed as a healthy inactive against the 49ers?
And yet Coach Sean McVay’s team packed a punch Sunday at SoFi Stadium, where they made the 49ers fans who always invade en masse sweat this time. Because the host Rams are playing with pride and physicality while being propelled by a perfectly unexpected star.
Wide receiver Puka Nacua, the 177th overall pick out of BYU, finished with 15 catches today, the most receptions by a rookie in a game in NFL history.
The wavy-haired, 22-year-old now has 25 receptions, the most by a player in his first two career games. He surpassed San Francisco’s Earl Cooper, who had 19 in 1980 – and finished that season with 83, most in the league behind only Kellen Winslow, who had 89.
Nacua hauled down all but five of the passes that came his way for 147 yards. And Tutu Atwell, a third-year receiver seeing action against the 49ers for the first time in his career, served as a fine complement, finishing with seven catches for 77 yards.
And Kyren Williams took over at running back. No, really. The second-year running back took over, present on the field for 74 out of 77 snaps – something that occurred only four times with running backs all of last season, per ESPN’s Mike Clay.
“That was a high-caliber game today,” McVay said, not needing to strain much at all to spot the positives. “I like the spirit, I like the competitiveness, I like the resilience of this group.”
But, yes, he has notes.
Williams’ dropped pass, for instance, when he took his eyes of the ball, which ricocheted off of him and into the arms of San Francisco cornerback Isaiah Oliver early in the third quarter, when the game started to turn.
Or a play in the fourth quarter when, instead of celebrating what might’ve been a touchdown, Stafford was called for intentional grounding after Atwell stopped his route short.
Or the defensive sequence late in the first half that allowed the 49ers to tie the score 17-17 after they hustled 75 yards – benefited by two penalties on Derion Kendrick, a second-year defensive back – in the final 1:45 before halftime.
Even Nacua, as sensational as he was, has things he wants to improve, he said.
“Crossing routes. Making sure I’m aware of how I gotta adjust my hands for those catches across; I have to catch it if it touches my hands,” said the rookie, those hands in his pockets as he aw-shucks’d his way through postgame interview with a scrum of reporters.
Think of it all as a “growth opportunity,” as McVay calls it.
Or think of it as homework, Stafford said.
“Just continue to hone our process and continue to try to get better throughout the week,” said the 15th-year QB. “In baseball, you play games. In basketball, you play games. In hockey, you play games to get better. (In football) we practice to get better, and see what we have on Sundays, so we’ll continue to push ourselves in practice and I like where we’re headed.”
And think about how much better this young team is going to get.
And how, in a few weeks’ time, they’re going to look back on Sunday’s result, at the lessons it bestowed and confidence it built, and think about how they could have or should have won it – if only they would have known going into Week 2 what they know after it.