As the Rams prepare for their Monday night game at Green Bay, the franchise is still buzzing about the stunning victory 11 days earlier over the Las Vegas Raiders.
It wasn’t that the underdog Rams picked up their fourth victory in a disappointing season. Upsets happen every week in the NFL. The surprising part was quarterback Baker Mayfield, acquired two days earlier, somehow learned enough of the playbook to take over on the second series and lead his new team to a win.
In less than a week, Mayfield went from asking for his release from the Carolina Panthers — who weren’t even going to dress him for their Week 14 game — to being named NFC offensive player of the week.
The Raiders came into the game having won three in a row and with flickering playoff hopes. They weren’t pushovers. And Mayfield directed the 17-16 win in the most improbable of ways, a 98-yard drive with no timeouts in the final 1 minute, 45 seconds.
So many people rose to the monumental challenge. It was Mayfield, the preparation and play-calling of coach Sean McVay, and huge plays on the winning drive by receivers Ben Skowronek and Van Jefferson.
Somehow, in an otherwise lost season, the Rams pulled off one of the greatest wins of the McVay era.
Some snapshots of the week and win from people in and around the Rams organization:
The personnel executive
John McKay has been around football his whole life — he’s named after his grandfather, the legendary USC coach — but he’s never seen anything like he saw in Week 14. As the director of pro scouting for the Rams, his responsibilities include getting the newly acquired players to Los Angeles, setting up their physical exams and the like.
When the Rams claimed Mayfield off waivers, McKay had to act quickly. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, word came from the NFL that the Rams had successfully claimed the quarterback. That was the end of the business day on the East Coast, though, so it would be really difficult to book Mayfield on a flight that could get him to L.A. that day. The Rams would be playing host to the Raiders in roughly 48 hours.
“We reached out to Baker, and he had already bought himself a flight to come out here, thinking that he was going to get claimed by us,” said McKay, 30. “So he’s like, `Yeah, I’m about to board the plane in four minutes.’ Made it easy for us. Had he not done that, I doubt we would have been able to get him into the building on Tuesday night.”
But the Rams were able to pull that off, with Mayfield rolling into team headquarters around 9 p.m. Waiting to meet him were McVay, offensive coordinator Liam Coen and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson. They convened in McVay’s office and got right to work, wrapping up around midnight — 3 a.m. by Mayfield’s body clock.
McKay was under the weather and wasn’t in attendance at the game. He was watching from home in disbelief.
“I was watching the game and was like, `Did that actually just happen?’ ” he said. “It really didn’t hit me until the next morning.”
The assistant coaches
Both Coen and Robinson, who were in that initial meeting and furiously worked to bring Mayfield up to speed, were amazed by how much information he could digest and process so quickly.
Mayfield only took 12 snaps in the Wednesday walk-through, splitting the reps with John Wolford, who played the first series.
Mayfield’s wasn’t a pristine performance. But he completed 22 of 35 passes for 230 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, and that’s astounding for someone who just joined the team fewer than 48 hours earlier. And going 98 yards with no timeouts in the final two minutes to win was something that hadn’t happened in the NFL in 45 years.
“His ability to see something one time and then go ahead and execute it in real time was impressive with all these plays,” Robinson said.
This was not a vanilla, dumbed-down version of their offense the Rams were running. For instance, late in the third quarter, the Rams even tried a trick play in which Mayfield had an underneath handoff to Brandon Powell, who then handed off to Tutu Atwell running the opposite direction. It was only good for one yard, but it showed that the Rams had the confidence to try some different types of plays with Mayfield.
They had run that play once in practice the day before, and it was Wolford who was taking snaps at the time.
“Throughout the game, you really didn’t feel yourself as a coach worried about what he was going to have to do,” Coen said. “He’s got a way about him that gives you confidence as a coach. He has confidence in himself and that bleeds into the guys. That helped with the ability to call some things off-script.”
The team doctor
It’s part of the lore now that McVay sat next to Mayfield when the two were on a Southwest flight from L.A. to Indianapolis for the 2018 scouting combine. They talked football the whole way.
There were three people in that exit row, with the coach in the window seat and the Rams’ Dr. Neal ElAttrache on the aisle. Those two were hoping no one would fill the middle seat as the plane was boarding. But Mayfield, who had been training in Southern California, was in a later group.
“As he passes our row, he notices, despite all of our efforts to camouflage it, that no one was sitting in the middle seat,” ElAttrache recalled. “He said, `Hey, you mind if I sit there?’ I don’t even know if he looked and saw that it was McVay. But when Sean saw who it was, he said, `Absolutely!’ ”
McVay said he gave Mayfield several minutes to settle in before peppering him with football questions. ElAttrache remembers it differently.
“Those two football nerds, by the time the wheels left the tarmac, they had pencil and paper out, both of them,” ElAttrache said. “Sean’s asking Baker, `So in your scheme, what would you guys call in this situation?’ Baker was picking his brain too. The entire way to Indianapolis, they were laughing and drawing up offensive schemes like two kids playing Madden.”
ElAttrache is convinced that by establishing so early that they were on the same football wavelength, Mayfield and McVay poured the foundation for that historic performance.
The equipment manager
As equipment manager for the Rams, Brendan Burger is in charge of making sure a player has everything he needs when he steps onto the field. In the case of Mayfield, Burger and his team had to move at hyper-speed because this particular quarterback has some specific equipment and uniform needs.
The first thing Burger does when a player comes to the Rams from another team is Google game images of him. Burger is looking for the type of helmet, pads, jersey cut and cleats the player prefers. He called his counterparts in Cleveland and Carolina to get Mayfield’s precise jersey dimensions. The No. 17 was non-negotiable. The Rams had no other jersey number to give him.
Because Mayfield likes the sleeves of his uniform just so, Burger had four jerseys made, duplicates of two different cuts. Mayfield didn’t pull one on for the first time until he got to SoFi Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
What’s more, the quarterback has a helmet with custom-fitted pads that the Rams had sent overnight from Carolina. He wears a different kind of facemask, one with a square opening at the mouth. That, too, was sent by the Panthers.
“Could he have played with a different facemask? Of course,” Burger said. “But I don’t want him to. I want him to have what he wants and what he’s used to. That’s why we go the extra mile to get that done for him.
“He had enough to figure out in getting ready to play a game in 36 hours, never mind having to worry about the equipment stuff.”
The Rams will have their seven-stud cleats ready for Monday night’s game in Green Bay. They didn’t have a pair in stock for Mayfield, so Burger’s crew painted an orange pair the quarterback wore in Cleveland, transforming them into the blue and white worn by the Rams. No detail is too small.
The guy behind the guy
The scene had to leave an indelible memory on millions of Amazon Prime Video viewers. Having returned to the sideline after his game-winning touchdown drive, Mayfield — who wasn’t wearing a helmet — celebrated by head-butting teammate Robert Rochell.
It wasn’t a timid tap, either. Mayfield aggressively tilted his head into the helmet of the reserve cornerback.
The camera angle made it appear as if Mayfield was shoved into Rochell by Byron Cunningham, the assistant athletic trainer, who had approached the quarterback from behind and was reaching out to pat him on the shoulder. But Cunningham was as surprised as anyone by the cranial collision.
“I was just going to tap him on his back to tell him, `Great job. Congratulations,’ ” Cunningham said. “As I went to extend my arms, I see him kind of duck and extend his head for the head butt. I literally have this, `Oh, shoot,’ look on my face. I immediately went up to Robert Rochell and said, `Did he head-butt you?’
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I have never been an eye witness of a player head-butting someone without a helmet. It’s almost like it happened in slow motion, to be honest with you. As exciting as the sideline was, I felt like time started to slow down as he went to go launch himself. It’s probably the most shocked that I’ve ever been on an NFL sideline.”
The retired quarterback watching from afar
Not many quarterbacks have had a similar experience to Mayfield, but Carson Palmer has. In 2011, the Oakland Raiders made a trade with Cincinnati for Palmer and sent him out on the field five days later in the second half of a 28-0 loss to Kansas City.
So Palmer, who was watching Mayfield’s Rams debut on TV, has an understanding of how challenging it can be to learn an offense in a matter of days, or even hours.
“The hardest part is not the throws,” Palmer said. “Any quarterback who’s any good can go out and get timing and rhythm with guys. The hard part is memorizing the footwork in the run game. That’s the part that I was surprised about.
“I kind of assumed when I heard he was playing that it was not going to be a Sean McVay offense, where he’s motioning guys and shifting. I thought they’d just line up and play, I-formation. But it looked like Sean McVay’s playbook, with a lot of motions, a lot of pre-snap movement. You could see Baker getting guys into the right spots, redirecting guys. That was the part that is really hard.
“You can go out there and throw a go-ball with a lot of guys. Everybody in the NFL is pretty fast if you’re an X or a Z [receiver]. But there’s certain runs you reverse out and you fake this way. There’s certain runs where you open up straight to the run. A lot of the motioning they do, you’ve got to snap the ball right at the right spot and at the right moment, because the guy’s in motion and you’re trying to get him in a certain position to block somebody. I thought Baker was money on all of that.”
And doing all that with one walk-through practice under your belt? Unheard of.
“It’s like taking a final exam on a Saturday and you just started studying and didn’t even go to class all year,” Palmer said. “You don’t really even have time to make flash cards or whatever it is you do. It’s learn as much as you can as fast as you can. It’s just a crash course.”
Somehow, Mayfield aced the test.