Probably a dozen or more NFL head coaches, their players and fans spent a part of Sunday evening muttering something along the lines of, “The Rams? Hell, gimme Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp, and we could have won the Super Bowl too.”
It’s close to the truth. Despite being on home turf, the Los Angeles Rams were in a mostly game-long stumble against a team that lost seven regular-season games. The Bengals were playing a second-year quarterback behind a mediocre line that three games earlier allowed nine sacks, and would give up seven Sunday, tying a Super Bowl record.
The Rams couldn’t run a lick (43 yards in 23 attempts), lost star WR Odell Beckham to injury, were down to a fourth-stringer at tight end, QB Matthew Stafford twice threw interceptions, and their star cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, was having a bad game. Holder/punter Johnny Hekker even muffed an extra-point snap.
Formidable, they were not.
Champions, they are.
After routing a broken Arizona team 34-11 to open the playoffs, the Rams outlasted Tampa Bay 30-27, slip-slid past the 49ers 20-17 in the NFC Championship, and Sunday night in Super Bowl LVI, slip-slid past the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 (box).
They did not conquer. They survived.
That is the only requirement.
It would appear that after 27 years of free agency and two years of covid, in the NFL there are no more dreadnought teams. Just a bunch of outfits that are good enough on a given day. Yes, owner Stan Kroenke fulfilled his expensive dream to win a Super Bowl with his own team on his own SoFi Stadium field, but the margins were less than Indiana Jones had ahead of the giant rolling boulder.
That is why the final seven postseason games were collectively thrilling dramas.
Play was often inelegant and officiating occasionally cartoonish, but the tension was irresistible. Which makes for splendid sports theater.
That is why the NFL as a business enterprise is a bullet-proof success nearly beyond imagination. All the controversies the league has endured — racism, franchise relocations, Deflategate, stadium-funding fights, concussions, scandalous and sometimes criminal behavior by players, owners and coaches — are all tied for last place in the mind of the sports public.
The games prevail every time, because unlike any of the major pro team sports, money is legislated into a relatively even distribution and in a secondary position, so that brains, poise, strength and will are the deciders, not just team payrolls. Every enterprise has a relatively fair shot.
Which adds resonance to what Rams coach Sean McVay tells his team — as often as Pete Carroll tells the Seahawks to always compete — “Be the best when the best is required.”
That thought puts a bow on what happened Sunday: When the game was on the line in the final two possessions, Kupp was best of the best on offense, Donald was best of the best on defense.
The rest of the game was pretty much a dead heat.
On the Rams’ final possession that covered 79 yards using 15 plays, Kupp had 39 yards on four catches, including a one-yarder for what would be the game-winning TD, plus a seven-yard run on a jet sweep that produced a vital first down.
With their final chance, the Bengals moved to midfield in the final minute, But on third-and-one, Donald denied a rush attempt, and on fourth down, sacked QB Joe Burrow to preserve the win.
Either player could have been voted game MVP, but Kupp, the unlikely kid from Yakima and Eastern Washington University, won the award, becoming only the second player in single-season history to win receiving’s triple crown (yards, catches, touchdowns) as well as the Super Bowl and game MVP.
The first was the incomparable Jerry Rice.
Kupp post-game seemed to think his success was almost ordained.
“It was written already,” he said. ” I just had to play free.”
For those who have a more secular view, the Rams had a run of 13 consecutive non-winning seasons through 2016, the year before Kupp was drafted in the third round. Nobody saw any writing for him or the Rams then.
The Bengals’ arrival was far more unlikely, then and now, and came far closer to the upset than most expected.
In a pre-game column, longtime NFL executive and former player agent Andrew Brandt offered a behind-the-curtains peek to show why the Bengals haven’t been to a Super Bowl since 1988:
I still shake my head at the thought of the Bengals, the most frugal team in the NFL, in the Super Bowl. Their miserly ways, embodied in owner/general manager Mike Brown, have not only frustrated agents for decades (including this former agent) but also peer teams around the league. For the longest time, the Bengals would not hire full-time scouts, choosing to have their coaches do the scouting (they rationalized that the coaches were not coaching in the spring, so they could scout). They practiced under a highway, barely spent any money on facilities, and were inflexible in player contract negotiations.
I vividly remember NFL owners meetings where the interactions between Brown and Jerry Jones were great theater. Brown inevitably would be complaining about some rule or proposal that would cost him money; he was, although bright and pragmatic, the ultimate “sky is falling” owner.
Some things have improved, including a new-found aggressiveness in free agency, but the Bengals were still 4-12 a year ago. Yet the plausibility of such an occurrence annually for one among numerous teams is real. And this match-up featured the two youngest head coaches in the game, another bit of evidence for how fast things change in the NFL.
From a Seattle perspective regarding the title outcome, as long as Russell Wilson is around to do what Burrow and Rams QB Matthew Stafford did, a reasonable expectation, then the season’s 7-10 record is a crack in the windshield, not a shattering.
But somewhere in the football universe, the Seahawks need to hire one or two gentlemen who can be the best when the best is required.