Rams ready for next step after wild turnaround under McVay

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jared Goff doesn’t forget how things used to be for the Los Angeles Rams way back in the bad old days of 2016.

The No. 1 pick’s first season with this franchise also was its homecoming season in California. That first year was a prolonged nightmare on the field for the Rams with a 4-12 record, coach Jeff Fisher’s late-season firing, and Goff’s seven winless games as a rookie starter.

And while those dismal times clearly weren’t long ago, it’s simply stunning to compare those hapless Rams with the proficient machine currently carving its way through the regular season toward January.

The Rams are hitting their bye week as a 10-1 Super Bowl contender less than two years after those 2016 Rams endured the franchise’s 13th straight non-winning season and 12th straight non-playoff season. They’ve gone 21-7 — including a playoff loss — in the two seasons since that homecoming flop and the subsequent arrival of coach Sean McVay, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and a string of high-profile players from Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters to Andrew Whitworth and Brandin Cooks.

But Goff, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and many key Rams were around in 2016. Even amid the frenzied excitement of their remarkable 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last Monday night, they still realize how fortunate they are to be on this rocket to the top.

“We’ve learned teams sometimes know how to lose, and some teams know how to win,” Goff said. “And we’re starting to learn how to win, and how to win in different ways, whether it’s on the ground, through the air, defense having a shutout, (punter) Johnny (Hekker) punting one down to the 1 like he did. It really brings the whole team together when we can rely on each other in every phase of the game and be that complete team.”

The Rams’ efforts to recapture the love and attention of the nation’s second-largest city are getting an enormous boost from McVay’s success, as the fanatical Coliseum crowd attested against the Chiefs. When the Rams open their multi-billion-dollar stadium complex in Inglewood in 21 months, they’ll ride a wave of season ticket sales and corporate interest generated by this burgeoning powerhouse.

“You always want to continually do things that make people want to come out and support us, and put out a good product and a team that’s exciting and fun to watch,” McVay said. “I think that’s what these guys are doing. … I think that’s a credit to the fans coming out and supporting us, and obviously the players delivering and making people want to say, ‘That’s pretty fun to watch those guys play, and whenever they’re going at home, let’s go check them out.'”

The 32-year-old coach immediately turned one of the NFL’s worst offenses into one of its best last year, and he has only honed and improved it this season. Gurley is the NFL’s leader in several statistical categories, while Goff has secured his status as an elite quarterback after putting up the second 400-yard game of his career against Kansas City.

The Rams have scored at least 30 points in nine of their 11 games, and they’re coming off the third-highest scoring game in franchise history. McVay’s schemes are an enticing spectacle both for fans in Los Angeles and around the nation.

The Rams’ defense has taken some lumps, as every defense does in the modern NFL. But the unit has playmakers who created five takeaways against the Chiefs and did just enough to win, which is all McVay really asks.

“I know (high scoring) is what everyone wants to see, but as a defender in this league, we get paid to defend touchdowns,” safety Lamarcus Joyner said after the Rams gave up 51 points and still won. “And we just have to do a better job of that, if we want to be honest with ourselves.”

Gurley and Goff are racking up formidable statistics, but Donald’s achievements might be even greater.

He leads the NFL with 14 ½ sacks after dropping Patrick Mahomes twice, forcing fumbles both times. Donald’s impact on opponents’ game plans is remarkable, given that he draws double-team blocking on well more than half of each game’s snaps — and yet he still gets to quarterbacks with incredible regularity.

“I think he was well-deserving of Defensive Player of the Year last year, and I think he’s even playing better this year,” McVay said. “I think he’s truly taken his game to a different level. You feel him every single snap. The impact that he makes on the game (is) in so many different ways that maybe don’t even show up on the stat sheet, even though he is putting up these eye-popping numbers where he’s leading the league in sacks and he’s forcing fumbles.”

Donald is in striking distance of the NFL record of 22 ½ sacks by Michael Strahan in 2001.

The Rams will chase a first-round bye over the final five weeks of the regular season, starting with road trips to Detroit and Chicago. In another sign of this franchise’s incredible progress, the Rams could clinch their first back-to-back NFC West titles since 1978-79 if the Carolina Panthers beat Seattle this weekend.

McVay is using the Rams’ bye week to recharge, but he never gets too far from his job. He plans to spend his Sunday watching football, and he’ll pay particular attention to the game in Charlotte.

“We can only control what we can control,” McVay said. “But I wouldn’t be upset if the Panthers came away with a big win this weekend.”