IRVINE – When last we saw the Rams on the field – those of us, anyway, with enough seniority to bypass OTAs and mini-camps – Aaron Donald was running around SoFi Stadium pointing to his ring finger, signifying the championship adornment he had just earned.
I hope he’s got a secure enough vault for that thing. Championship rings keep getting bigger and more complex, and by all accounts the ones that Rams personnel received a few days before Sunday’s start of training camp are the size of a small condo and almost as expensive.
The ring banquet was the appropriate closure to 2021. As training camp workouts began at UC Irvine Sunday, the idea of turning the page may seem like a cliché but it’s also the only way the champs can operate if they’re serious about repeating. And it’s only fair to those who missed out – like Tyler Higbee and Jordan Fuller, who missed the Super Bowl because of injury, or newcomers like Allen Robinson II and Bobby Wagner, who would like their own shot at that ring.
It starts with individuals. Players might act like they take it for granted that everyone in the locker room will put 2021 on the shelf and focus squarely on 2022, but don’t some guys need to be reminded occasionally?
“I hope not,” Donald said after Sunday’s first training camp session. “I think we’ve got great leadership on this team, great coaches, and guys tend to feed off what their leaders are doing, how they’re moving. (When) we’ve got a bunch of guys like we got on this team, you don’t have to worry about that. We’re focused on what we need to focus on this year.”
But the veterans and leaders are instrumental in making sure that message resonates. Coach Sean McVay remembered asking his grandfather, John, who was one of the architects of the 49ers’ 1980s dynasty, what one of the keys was.
“He said, ‘When your best players are the standard, that’s kind of what everybody falls in line with,’ ” McVay said Sunday. “And I feel like that’s very similar to what we have going right now.”
It starts with the leaders on each side of the ball, Donald for the defense and Matthew Stafford for the offense.
“Those guys that have done it at a high level for a long period of time, they know that every year is a new year,” McVay said. “There’s so many changes from year to year. And to stay at the top, you can never let complacency set in. And so I think it’s a huge deal to be able to have that kind of leadership. I thought that was one of the things that was right about last year. And then you add some other guys into the mix. You expect some guys to be able to step up. But when you talk about Matthew and Aaron in particular, those are great examples of guys that just go to work, (who) don’t let complacency set in.”
Stafford’s answer to the question Sunday might have been not only a variant of the message he spreads in the locker room, but one that could be applicable to any team on any level with championship aspirations, repeater or not.
“Those opportunities that we got to play in those (postseason) games last year were earned,” he said. “Ask yourself, what kind of opportunities are you willing to earn? It comes with sacrifice and hard work and being a great teammate and all that kind of stuff. You ask yourself that before you step out onto the field (and that) motivates you, gets you ready to go … Everything that we achieved as a team was earned last year. We’re going to have to go out there and earn it again this year.”
Or, as Donald put it in simpler terms: “It motivates you that much more because you got to experience that. You know how it feels. So, my thing, I want to do everything in my ability to try to relive that all over again.”
Any chance of being able to “run it back,” the chant in which Donald led the crowd at the Super Bowl celebration at the Coliseum – the one he specifically directed at McVay, in fact – likely hinged on the return of both. Remember, in the days immediately after the Super Bowl, neither possibility was 100 percent certain if the insiders and the rumor-chasers were to be believed, but Donald got his contract extension and McVay’s is said to be coming.
How did the coach respond when it became apparent No. 99 would return?
“Pure joy?” he said, his voice rising slightly at the end.
The two kept in touch through the offseason, McVay said, and had “great dialogue.” In the immediate aftermath of a long season, and the emotions of working so hard and finally reaching that career-long goal, it was only natural that Donald – and McVay, too – would want to step back, take a deep breath and ponder the commitment required for another year.
Once Donald decided he did, evidently, the pondering process was a moot point. Asked if he’d given any thought to what he might be doing in the last week of July besides being in training camp, he answered: “Oh, no, because I’m here now. That’s all that matters, full football mode. I’m locked in and all that matters right now is trying to do everything I can to get myself ready for a football season.”
Donald also said he thought it was a long off-season, and even though the Rams were the last ones standing at the end – and the break, from Feb. 13 to July 24, was exactly 161 days – maybe the decision (and negotiation) process made it seem longer than it was.
“When you reach that, and he had been working so hard to try to get to that goal, there’s an exhale,” McVay said. “I think you want to be able to let the dust settle, figure out what’s important, what can we do to accommodate that if you still want to be able to play football.”
If any external motivation beyond just the hunger to win is needed, try this: No NFL team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since New England in the Februarys of 2004 and ’05. And the seven franchises that have done it in the Super Bowl era represent the sport’s true bluebloods: the Vince Lombardi Packers, the Don Shula Dolphins, the Chuck Noll Steelers (twice), the Bill Walsh 49ers, the Jimmie Johnson Cowboys and the Bill Belichick Patriots.
You want to make history, Rams? It starts here.