ATLANTA — It was just two years ago that the Rams were finishing their 13th straight season without a winning record.
They had a quarterback taken with the first overall pick who had shown little on the field to live up to that designation. They had a falling-out with one of their greatest players ever and completed their 2016 schedule with an interim head coach.
They were Midwesterners transplanted to the big city, crashing in an outdated home with no indication of how long they would have to stay there, getting acclimated to the fast pace of life in their new surroundings.
And on Sunday?
They’ll be in Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots.
Even for Los Angeles, America’s dream factory, where nobodies flock to become overnight successes and stardom is one viral video away, that’s fast.
“I’ve just seen the changes over these years, and it’s beautiful,” said defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who was with the Rams in St. Louis, with them for the losing and turmoil, and still is with them now. “It makes me emotional, because things like this don’t happen in a short amount of time, and I’ve watched it grow. Like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And I’m seeing it in its beauty right now.”
The most impressive aspect of the ascent might be how utterly un-Hollywood it has been. In a town where ego is in the drinking water, where screen credits and names above titles and zip codes often determine a person’s essence, the Rams have become the toast of Tinseltown by eschewing all of that self-centered thinking. Their motto, the foundation upon which they have built this team into a championship contender, is a simple sound bite that illustrates their commitment to the team’s success above their own.
Written on game plans and painted on walls and printed on T-shirts are three simple words that epitomize the Rams:
“We Not Me.”
“I think what football really represents is there’s something special about being part of something bigger than yourself,” Sean McVay, the 33-year-old head coach of this ultimate ensemble cast, said this past week. “The star of the team is the team.”
Saying that is one thing. Living it can be more challenging.
The Rams rolled the dice by bringing in a few players who could have easily upset their philosophy. They traded for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, of whom the Chiefs had grown tired. They signed cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, two veterans who hadn’t always played the role of sage and stable leaders. The City of Angels was collecting players who were seen as anything but.
The Rams asked these players with big personalities and acclaimed reputations to buy into the team-first philosophy, and it worked. Perhaps it worked because the Rams also asked them to be faithful to something else.
“He allows you to be yourself,” Talib said of McVay. “He wants you to be yourself.”
They matched those imports with the talent they had been cultivating themselves -- the quiet, unassuming quarterback in Jared Goff, the do-everything running back in Todd Gurley and the dominant defensive lineman in Aaron Donald. It seemed as if the Rams’ front office was drafting a fantasy football team rather than one that had to jell on an actual field, but in the background, the architects were aware of reality and a bigger picture.
“We always say around here that we’re not collecting talent, we’re building a team,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “There’s more to a team than just a skill set on a football field.”
Just like all efforts in chemistry, though, this one easily could have blown up.
“I think when you have a common goal, everybody is trying to figure out a way to play our best and ultimately try to win games,” McVay said. “Everybody wants to make a big deal about it, but I’ve had nothing but pleasant experiences with these guys . . . They play for each other, one another, and success is always a nice way to avoid any kind of controversy.”
The Rams now are on the precipice of the ultimate success. Though accepting the credit would be anathema to the mindset that brought them to this point, McVay is a big reason why.
“When he got here, it was all about buying into what he was talking about,” Brockers said. “Buying into character and buying into the ‘We Not Me’ mentality. Ever since we’ve done that and this team has carried that on our shoulders, we’ve been winning. For a man to come in here and just change it like that, I have to show my respect to him. It started with him.”
On Sunday, it could end with him lifting a Lombardi Trophy.
Or, as he probably would prefer to have it written, with them lifting it.