LOS ANGELES — When you’re undefeated, you need some luck along the way. The Rams’ luck Sunday was Ty Montgomery, two yards deep in the end zone, choosing to run the ball out—instead of giving the ball to one of the best quarterbacks ever at his 25 with two minutes left, needing just a field goal to win. Montgomery fumbled. Rams recovered. Wisconsin threw a brick through its collective TV set. Game over.
But that’s too simple. This game was actually a vivid illustration why the Rams, at 8-0, sit atop the NFL mountain approaching the midpoint of the NFL’s 99th season. They will have contenders to the throne, contenders from New England and Kansas City and rising New Orleans (8-0 Rams at 6-1 Saints, next Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET), and maybe even from Minnesota, Carolina, Washington or down the street; the Chargers seem pesky. It’s a good illustration because of Todd Gurley, the friendly guy with the long dreads and skinny wire-framed glasses, who does everything right and fits in on a team with a smart young coach and unassuming young quarterback and a team that plays complementary football.
One tight game, two exemplary plays.
I always look for the plays that explain precisely why teams are what they are, and I found two in the Rams’ locker room after the 29-27 victory.
One: Todd Gurley’s 30-yard touchdown reception in the middle of the third quarter, which looked so ridiculously easy. How does the best back in football, the legit MVP candidate, go untouched out of the backfield, go untouched on a crossing route, and go untouched running all the way for a touchdown?
Two: The “Rolex Play,” Gurley’s 17-yard run with 65 seconds left, the one when he just stopped running and went down at the 4-yard line, much to the chagrin of Vegas and fantasy fiends alike. You’ve got to hear the Rolex story.
So … were you watching Sunday? What a tremendous game in a tremendous setting, the 95-year-old Coliseum with the classic peristyles, with a quarterback certain to go down in history waiting for one more shot to win that never came. And the atmosphere. When the Packers came out of the ancient tunnel where so many of the greats in football history have entered, it sounded like Lambeau West—truly, maybe louder than if this game had been at Lambeau Field. “I didn’t really expect that in L.A., but that crowd was fantastic,” Aaron Rodgers said. Sometimes, you’re witnessing an event that’s just different—and this was just different, and great. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see another classic Rodgers late drive, but that’s football. The dumb Montgomery play—it happens.
But that should not obscure what else we saw in the 29-27 L.A. victory. Namely this: The Rams are not going anywhere. They survived Sunday, but every great team has to survive on days when it’s not at its best, or when the foe is really good. Look back at every champion, and you’ll see a shaky win or two. There is no shame in edging Aaron Rodgers instead of dominating him.
On Sunday, two plays taught us so much about this team. A touchdown and an oddity. Understand those, and you go a long way toward understanding this team.
As the NFL reaches its midpoint, the 8-0 Rams and 7-1 Chiefs are the headliners. They meet three weeks from tonight, in Mexico City. We’ll have time to blow out that story.
First, two plays. I want you to understand the Los Angeles Rams.
The Gurley Touchdown
The Rams have a jillion weapons in the passing game. Gurley is third in targets. Often, he feels first. He’s so good out of the backfield that coach Sean McVay tries to get him the ball in space three or four times a game, and he uses the legal picks that so many teams use. When they work, they’re things of beauty. When they don’t, the ball might be incomplete, or the back might get waylaid coming out of the backfield.
“The key is Higbee,” Gurley told me at his locker after the game. That’s Tyler Higbee, the Rams’ Bavaro-like 255-pound tight end. “Higbee’s a beast.”
On this play, Gurley is split left in the slot, and he runs out just past the line, then does a crosser to the right. The Packers’ precocious inside linebacker, Blake Martinez, spies Gurley and makes a beeline for him. But here comes Higbee. All he wants to do is “accidentally” knock the Gurley cover guy off his course. Higbee puts an “accidental” shoulder into Martinez, and suddenly, Gurley is wide open. Martinez, who would have been hopelessly behind Gurley, now covers Higbee, hoping one of his mates sees the legal pick play.
Somebody get Gurley!
Nobody got Gurley.
McVay, afterward, didn’t want to give away the store, but he did tell me, “That was by design.” Of course it was. So many things the Rams do are by design, ghost-like maneuvers you don’t see clearly but when they’re over, you wonder, “How’d that happen?”
At his locker, Gurley was almost sheepish about it, like his coach. “Their guy [Martinez] was off me a little bit,” Gurley said. “My job is just be patient and then go across, come underneath him. It was wide open. We were practicing this play for probably a month.”
“A month?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Never called it once. Not in a game. Just in practice. In practice, our guys haven’t been able to pick it up, not one time in practice. We’re like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna work.’ “
“You mean the pick part of it?” I said.
“Yup,” he said. “It’s a natural pick. Higbee’s the best. He’s one of the best shift blockers in the league. He does a lot of great stuff that gets unnoticed on this team. He’s our sixth offensive lineman and he’s always doing great job in play action passes, everything. His work does not go unnoticed by his teammates—tell you that.”
The team, the team, the team.
The Rolex Play
So we shouldn’t go crazy in praising a player for getting down in-bounds and giving up a touchdown for the good of the team, when the clock can be run out. We won’t. But it’s worth pointing out because it illustrates a lot about how symphonic this team is, and how the players and coaches listen and learn.
In training camp, McVay works on special plays. Odd plays, plays that might come up once a year or maybe once in 10 years. Or never. In camp, McVay and the staff worked on the play they christened the “Rolex Play.” Meaning this, as McVay told me: “Time is more important than the points. Time means everything there.”
It’s part of the McVay program. Each week, the special teams coach, John Fassel (the ultra-slim man’s nickname is “Bones”), gathers plays from around the league—either good ideas on weird plays, or plays teams messed up by simply not using common sense. “Bones has a meeting every week where we compile situations, try to educate ourselves as coaches and our players on, If this happens, how do we handle it? Rolex was one of those. In Rolex, if we got a first down there, that was one of those get-down-in-bounds situations. As long as we hang onto the ball, they can’t score. But we score, then they get the ball back.”
In the huddle, on third-and-10 with 65 seconds to play, multiple guys said one of three things: “Rolex,” “Get down,” and “Don’t score.” That, as guard Rodger Saffold told me, is a group of players who understand what’s required there, all thinking in unison. Again: It’s not stunningly smart. It’s just sensible, and shows the how unified and well-drilled the team is.
So McVay called the power sweep, pitched to Gurley. Classic power football. And it worked. From the 21, Gurley broke through the line and sprinted toward the goal line. “I could have walked into the end zone,” Gurley said. “But we talked in the huddle about being situationally aware and just getting down and winning the game.”
It almost looked like the Green Bay defensive back, vet Tramon Williams, tried to lift up Gurley and keep him going. Strange, unless you understand the story.
“They want the ball in 12’s hands, of course,” Gurley said. Aaron Rodgers, he means.
A Jared Goff kneeldown, and game over.
I said to Gurley: “You realize every fantasy player who has you on their team is screaming, “Score! Score!”
Players, many of them, hate the fantasy football pollution on the game. Gurley gave me a little bit of a snide look. He said: “They should be happy about all the performances I gave them in the weeks before. They need to be humbled as well.”
“Lots to like about today,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Honestly, this game showed a lot about how we’re about team and family before it’s about anything. The most special things the Rams have going on offensively is that some of their best players are really some of the most special people. Jared and Todd. Really, two special human beings as far as their humbleness, their attitudes, really just the way they come in every single day to work as hard as anybody else if not harder. We’re in good hands with those guys.”
They’re in good hands, period. “Teams are testing us now, trying to figure out what to do to beat us, and they’ve got a lot of film to do that,” Whitworth said. “It’s a test for us, but …”
He trailed off. I can complete the sentence.
But they’re passing the test.
Read the rest of Peter King’s Football Morning in America here