Rams, Raiders, Chargers aim to remain focused with LA looming
When there is more buzz about the future than present entering the season, it usually indicates low expectations are surrounding a team in rebuilding mode.
This isn’t the case with the San Diego Chargers, who have finished with winning records each of the past two seasons and remain a legitimate AFC West title contender. Yet the club was still forced to deal with the issue when training camp opened in late July.
"I get more questions about 2016 than anything about this team right now," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said at the time.
Telesco is facing the same challenge as the coaches and front-office staffs in Oakland and St. Louis — trying to keep players concentrating on the task at hand with a potential franchise move looming after this season.
The latest developments in the race to Los Angeles came Tuesday when the NFL held a special owners meeting. The stadium outlook in San Diego and Oakland is so dire that the Chargers and Raiders — two long-time division rivals with no love lost between the fan bases — have teamed to pitch a joint facility in Carson, California. Rams owner Stan Kroenke also is poised to relocate, having bought land in nearby Inglewood that is ready for immediate development.
Although no decision on which franchises — if any — will be allowed to relocate is expected until later this year at the earliest, the NFL has solicited bids from Southern California sports facilities interested in serving as temporary hosts for games next season.
How this ultimately plays out is anyone’s guess, but the fallout already is being felt. Anyone from the three franchises looking for living quarters knows they had better rent instead of buy. The Chargers went so far as to say in a recent job listing that applicants must be "willing to relocate to the Los Angeles area if necessary."
There are some players who won’t be fazed by any of this process, especially those who aren’t under long-term contracts. And as Rams general manager Les Snead points out, a sizeable number of players are transient anyway.
"They usually are not living in the team’s hometown (during the offseason)," Snead said. "This generation of player lives somewhere else."
Even so, the notion of pulling up stakes can play head games with those who can’t keep their imaginations from running wild. While the media fuel conversation about the topic, friends and family members also pepper players with questions they truly aren’t equipped to answer. That can fester and cause concentration to stray away from football.
"When you’re a football player, you have to have a really short list of priorities," said Rams defensive end Chris Long, who has played all eight of his NFL seasons in St. Louis. "(A possible move) is way down the list.
"You can’t think past this year. That’s something we really can’t control."
This was the message stressed by all three franchises at the start of the preseason. It was especially emphasized in San Diego, where the local furor had escalated as the Chargers publicly squabbled with city officials about stadium plans that would potentially keep the club in town.
"When we got to camp, I said as far as publicly commenting on 2016 that we’re done talking about it," Telesco said. "We have to get the focus back on the field in 2015. It just started to stray too far away."
The Raiders and Rams didn’t have that same problem to such an extent, but that may be because those franchises are more accustomed to speculation about their long-term locales because of ongoing stadium issues.
"It’s not a theme here," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "I’ve handled it very simply. I told players, ‘Look, I grew up here (in Hayward, California). I grew up a Raider fan. I am privileged to be back leading this team. Our focus is on what we’re doing. We don’t have a say in (stadium negotiations). That’s that.’"
Del Rio said he did ask Raiders owner Mark Davis what his plans were for the franchise last January when interviewing for the head-coaching job.
"He said it was to keep the team in Oakland," Del Rio said. "I’ve taken him at his word and haven’t had to do anything but coach this team and (emphasize) let’s worry about football."
Rams coach Jeff Fisher knows better than anyone else involved the negative effect that franchise relocation can have on the on-field product. Twenty years ago, Fisher was coach of the Houston Oilers when late team owner Bud Adams struck a deal with city officials in Nashville.
While one can speculate whether the 1996 Oilers were truly good enough talent-wise to make the postseason, the abandonment of the fan base certainly didn’t help as Houston slid from 6-4 to 8-8 down the stretch playing inside an empty Astrodome. The renamed Tennessee Titans missed the playoffs again when forced to play the next season in Memphis, followed by another in a dilapidated college stadium in Nashville (Vanderbilt) as LP Field was being completed. After the Titans finally moved into their new digs for the 1999 season, the franchise reached its first Super Bowl.
Fisher doesn’t plan on providing regular updates to his players about Los Angeles conjecture. Fisher also provided players with a detailed calendar that runs through February 2016, which is the date for Super Bowl 50. There is no mention of Los Angeles.
"As I mentioned to our owner Stan, when I want to know, I’ll ask," Fisher said. "Up to this point, I haven’t asked, so I can tell the truth and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ other than we’re building a good team and we’re going to play this season here (in St. Louis)."
It also helps when a locker room has veteran leaders who can make sure their peers are living in the here and now. Long fits the bill for the Rams.
"This is the simplest way I can say it — there are two stories in this building," Long said. "The coaches and some of the scouts are upstairs. The players are downstairs. The (potential LA move) is a third-story decision, which is above all of our heads.
"It’s hard enough to just get lined up and do your job and be competitive as an NFL player. If I’m worried about where the hell the team is going to be in the future, I’m not doing my job."
Although the possibility of a move hovers like a dark cloud over all three franchises, there actually may be a silver lining when it comes to the 2015 season. That’s the motivation provided by the desire to leave on a high note if this truly is the end.
"It’s hard for everybody involved," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who has spent all 12 of his NFL seasons in San Diego. "But then again, I think as players when it’s something like this that is so out of our control we don’t put a lot of thought into it and let it play heavily on us.
"It’s like, ‘Let’s go play. If this is our last season in San Diego and Qualcomm (Stadium), let’s make it the best one.’ That’s our mindset."
The next challenge for the Chargers, Raiders and Rams is keeping it as new developments unfold in the LA saga.
All quotes come from interviews conducted by Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio.