The venue was the same, but the Rams’ feeling as they left Lumen Field was markedly different.
Last January, this is where the Rams disastrous 2022 season mercifully ended; where it was closing time for their historic Super Bowl hangover.
On Sunday, the Rams played their first game since — and they showed that oddsmakers’ and pundits’ low expectations might need to be adjusted.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford passed for more than 300 yards, Kyren Williams rushed for two touchdowns and — with star receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve — Tutu Atwell and rookie receiver Puka Nacua broke out with big performances as the Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 30-13, in the season opener before a crowd of 68,683.
It was an impressive start for the Rams, who are short on proven star talent but for one game at least showed they could more than compete.
“There was a grittiness, there was a toughness, there was a resilience on display from this team,” coach Sean McVay said, “And I loved it.”
The Rams have shied from calling their roster construction a rebuild. Or a remodel. They essentially demolished the 2022 roster, trading star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, releasing linebackers Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd and declining to re-sign other key players that helped them win Super Bowl LVI at the end of the 2021 season.
Sunday’s performance was far different than last season’s opener, when the Buffalo Bills routed the Rams and sent them spiraling to a 5-12 record. That qualified as the worst season-after performance by a Super Bowl champion in history.
And the Rams needed this confidence boost.
The opener was just the first of a gauntlet that includes a game next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, a team coming off a rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a fanbase that once again will invade SoFi Stadium. The following Monday, the Rams travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow, the highest-paid player in NFL history.
All of that, however, could wait after the Rams beat the Seahawks, an NFC West rival.
“I couldn't care less what’s said outside,” McVay said. “There might be some change in narratives and that doesn’t affect any way that we’ll go about our business right now.”
"Don't you change at all — don't you change! Love you guys!"
🗣️ Coach McVay's first Victory Speech of the season! pic.twitter.com/NL9oGmWoM4
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 11, 2023
Stafford, playing for the first time since suffering a season-ending spinal injury last November against the New Orleans Saints, completed 24 of 38 passes for 334 yards. The 15th-year pro did not commit a turnover, and showed he still can scramble by rushing for 10 yards.
Stafford’s resume appeared to get lost in the shuffle during preseason discussions about top NFL quarterbacks, all of whom are younger than the 35-year-old Stafford.
Stafford said he was “not really” aware of the talk.
“I don’t really need much motivation,” Stafford said. “I’ve got a lot of motivation inside of me at all times, so I’m just excited to be feeling good and going out there and playing.”
The offensive line of left tackle Alaric Jackson, rookie left guard Steve Avila, center Coleman Shelton, right guard Joe Noteboom and right tackle Rob Havenstein did not give up a sack. That was a major reversal from last season, when the Rams gave up seven sacks against the Bills.
“Our main goal is to keep Matthew clean and keep the run game going,” Noteboom said, “and we did that.”
Williams, a second-year pro, backed up starter Cam Akers and rushed for 52 yards in 15 carries, including touchdown runs of one and seven yards. Akers rushed for 29 yards and a touchdown in 20 carries.
Atwell, a third-year pro on a mission to prove the Rams did not make a mistake by taking him in the second round of the 2021 draft, caught six passes for 119 yards. Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick from Brigham Young, started in place of Kupp and caught 10 passes for 119 yards.
“This is football heaven for me,” Nacua said.
Said McVay: “What a grown man he was today.”
The Rams defense also stepped up, especially a secondary that was ranked before the season by Pro Football Focus as the worst in the NFL.
Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith completed 16 of 26 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice.
“What nobody expected, for real,” cornerback Derion Kendrick said. “We didn’t play the best that we could, but we did well enough.”
The Rams trailed, 13-7, at halftime but they came back and shut out the Seahawks the rest of the way.
On the first possession of the second half, Stafford completed key passes to Nacua, shook off a drop by a wide-open Van Jefferson and found Atwell for a 44-yard gain that set up Williams’ seven-yard touchdown run for a 14-13 lead.
The Rams forced the Seahawks to go three and out, and then launched another scoring drive.
Stafford’s passes to Atwell and Nacua helped set up a 30-yard strike to tight end Tyler Higbee. The drive stalled and the Rams settled for Brett Maher’s 38-yard field goal.
Late in the third quarter, Stafford scrambled for nine yards and then sneaked for a first down to keep alive a drive that caught fire in the fourth quarter. Stafford completed passes of 15, 21 and 14 yards to Atwell to set up Akers’ touchdown run on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line.
The Rams added two more field goals by Maher, and that was enough to complete the comeback victory.
Afterward, the Rams said they wanted to enjoy the moment.
Will the outside narrative change?
“It is just one game,” safety Jordan Fuller said, “so it’s hard to really say. But I know we have a group that works really hard and cares about each other. We just try to go out and ball every week.
“That’s what we’re focused on. But definitely a good start. If feels great.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.