The Boys are Back in Town
UC Irvine, mid-August. The sun toasts a cloudless sky as the occasional student coasts along a network of campus bike paths. Lose the red “no-hit” jersey emblazoned with the number 16 and Jared Goff blends right in, another summer session undergrad picking up a few credits. It isn’t that farfetched: A few months earlier, the 21-year-old UC Berkeley senior was closing in on a degree in sociology—and, as the overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, on his first real job.
Along with the other 90 or so members of the born-again and eagerly anticipated Los Angeles Rams, Goff is ensconced in preseason training on UC Irvine’s soccer pitch. By month’s end, he and his mates will migrate to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and, a few years down the road, to a shiny new stadium in Inglewood.
What happens when a team—the St. Louis Rams, say—decides to relocate to a city more than 1,800 miles away? How does a franchise manage a monumental transition, take on a new quarterback and ready itself, mentally and physically, for the first coin toss of the season?
In “The Sun Also Rises,” one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters notes that his bankruptcy came about in two ways: gradually and then suddenly. He could have been talking about the Rams. The gradual part in this case lasted 20 years, with fans bemoaning the move from L.A. to St. Louis and enduring countless rumors of new stadiums and suitors anxious to lock up the nation’s No. 2 media market. The sudden part came when Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced his intention to partner on a state-of-the-art stadium in Inglewood. Within a year, National Football League owners had voted, approved and signed off on the move.
Overall responsibility for the logistics of the Rams’ move fell to Director of Operations Bruce Warwick, who learned of the decision in mid-January and had just six weeks to figure out where they were going, pack everything up and head west. By moving day they’d filled 32 eighteen-wheelers.
“We didn’t want the move to affect the team,” Warwick said. “Coaches and players like routine. The relocation was obviously way outside of our routine, so we focused on minimizing any potential impact on the off-season program, training camp and the upcoming season.”
The Rams’ relocation involved three Southern California counties, with offices and practice facilities in Oxnard; games scheduled in their temporary home, the Coliseum; and preseason camp in Irvine. “It’s hard to move an entire operation,” said Warwick. “It’s not like you’re going away for a week. The three moves in seven months has been the hardest part because we had to do everything simultaneously.”
Warwick met with Oxnard. He met with Coliseum management to discuss retrofitting the stadium. And he called UC Irvine Athletic Director Mike Izzi. “I said, ‘Here’s our timeline. Here are our specs. And, by the way, we’re bringing (HBO’s) Hard Knocks with us so there’s going to be a lot of exposure.’
“I think Mike saw how this arrangement could benefit both the athletic department and the Rams,” said Warwick. “Irvine’s been a great location, and the university has been fantastic to deal with.”
Rams General Manager Les Snead learned of the move during a January phone call with team President Kevin Demoff, who asked Snead how he would feel about being general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. As GM, Snead is responsible for the quality of the team’s roster and the overall football operation, which includes athletic performance, player development and managing the League’s salary cap. Although he wasn’t directly involved in the decision to relocate the franchise, he did spearhead the process that led to trading for Goff.
“We didn’t want the move to affect the team. Coaches and players like routine.” —Bruce Warwick
“With a decision this big, you’ll sit down with the head coach, Jeff Fisher, the president, and our owner, and come to an agreement,” said Snead. “There are a lot of ramifications to a move like this,” he said. “The coaching staff has to buy in and believe that this individual is a franchise QB because they’re the ones that have to develop him and convert his production to W’s on Sunday. By moving up in the draft, there’s going to be more money spent in this year’s budget, and you may be sacrificing future assets. It takes everybody’s expertise to make the right decision.”
But it was ultimately up to Snead to make the case for Goff.
“Acquiring a quarterback is a calculus formula,” he said. “Over the last four years, we’ve had six starting QBs and we needed to stabilize the position. We’ve been dialing into the whole QB class for the last couple of years, and we identified Goff as a franchise-type player. The hardest part is acquiring him because, depending on where you’re picking, there are people in front of you who may want the same player. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
It helped that the Tennessee Titans, which owned the rights to the first pick, had selected a quarterback in the first round of the 2015 draft, so they were willing to trade out of the top spot for the right price. For the Rams, the right price would be determined by how they evaluated Goff.
Snead’s enthusiasm for Goff began with the player’s central nervous system. The GM praised the young quarterback’s ability to process what his team does on offense, what the defense is trying to do and to make quick and correct decisions. He believes Goff has a sixth sense about defenders crashing in on him, and an ability to avoid the rush and make plays downfield.
“The other thing is, and this gets into intangibles,” said Snead-,“he has the courage to take hits. At Cal, he got hit a good bit and kept making throws and getting off the mat. He’s got the ability to forget. If he throws a pick, he’ll come right back and try to score. And if he scores, he’s not going to rest on his laurels.”
“It takes everybody’s expertise to make the right decision.” —Les Snead
Finally, Snead cites Goff’s ability to get the ball into the end zone. He relates this to golf, noting that there are plenty of players who get to the green but whose nerves fail them when putting. “You’ve got to have something in you where your heart rate doesn’t go up and you can actually score TDs.”
Like all GMs, Snead wants to win every game.
But does the team’s return to L.A., and to a passionate fan base, buy the Rams some time as they work their way up in the standings? Snead acknowledges that there is a honeymoon period, but estimates that it will last about one game. “Once we start keeping score,” he said, “the honeymoon is over. The fans are going to want us to win, and they’re quickly going to become normal fans—and normal spouses.”
While veteran players, front-office staff and coaches are experiencing the unavoidable chaos of the relocation, Goff, who is just beginning his tenure as a Los Angeles Ram, has barely felt the impact.
In April, the Rams traded a boatload of high draft picks to the Tennessee Titans for the right to select Goff, making the Novato, California, native the top overall NFL draft pick. It was a bold move for a team that finished the 2015 season with a 7-9 record and a gamble on whether Goff would develop into the type of player to lead the team to playoff and Super Bowl victories.
“I’ve been here since May, and I love it,” said Goff, coming off of the Rams’ UC Irvine practice field. Goff’s welcome to L.A. has been enhanced by a budding friendship with former Rams quarterback Jim Everett and by an ovation from the nearly 90,000 fans who set an NFL exhibition game record at the team’s first home appearance in August. “There were a lot more people there that day than when Cal played USC,” Goff said. “People were excited. It was a new feeling to be home there. It was really fun.”
“I’m happy with what we’re doing and where I’m at. I’ll continue to improve every day.” —Jared Goff
Early in the preseason, Fisher named veteran QB Case Keenum as the Rams’ starter, eliminating a quarterback controversy and taking pressure off Goff as he grows into the position. Goff is sanguine about the situation, buoyed by the inevitability of getting his shot. “I’d love to play now, but I’m happy with what we’re doing and where I’m at,” he said. “I’ll continue to improve every day.”
While Keenum starts in the QB spot and star running back Todd Gurley carries the load on offense, Goff watches and waits along with thousands of Rams fans across Southern California who have hung in for 21 years and are more than ready for their Rams to prove that you can, indeed, go home again.