LOS ANGELES -- Two weeks before the NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Rams made a stunning move. Just a few months after their highly contentious move from St. Louis, the Rams decided to trade their first round pick, two second round picks, a third round pick in 2016 and first and third-round picks in 2017's Draft to the Tennessee Titans, all for the opportunity to move up to the top overall pick to select Cal quarterback Jared Goff. The trade was surprising for several reasons: The Rams seemed to have a ton more holes to fill than "future quarterback"; Goff was far from a slam-dunk overall top pick; they made the trade partly out of fear the Browns would select him, even though Cleveland would end up trading out of its slot as well. But the reasoning for the trade was understood. The Rams were moving to L.A., a city that hadn't seen them in 20 years, and they would need a high-profile Face of the Franchise, someone who would inspire fans to come out in droves and welcome home their conquering heroes. It couldn't just be The Rams coming back to Los Angeles: It had to be First Round Pick, Future Superstar and Native Californian Jared Goff and His Los Angeles Rams. The Rams decided they would need a star to construct everything around. On the Goff rock, they would build their church.
On Sunday afternoon, in front of a mostly full but also mostly bored crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Rams played their 13th game of 2016, the first season of their new life on the West Coast, against the Atlanta Falcons. On the opening kickoff, Michael Thomas, the Rams' returner, caught the kick … and then dropped it. The Falcons recovered it and scored on the next play. Ten seconds into the game, the Falcons led 7-0. The crowd booed and booed and booed.
This would not be the end of the pain for the day, and it would not be the end of the booing. The Falcons would score the next 35 points of the game for a 42-0 lead, and they'd ultimately win 42-14. The only highlight of the game for the Rams was a touchdown scored by Goff, the first rushing touchdown of his career, on a play he was hit so hard that he barely made it off the field to the sideline. Goff, of course, was only playing his fourth game, after being such a Face of the Franchise that the Rams refused to put him on the field until the backlash over him riding the bench reached such a fevered pitch that the Rams could ignore it no longer. They have gone 0-4 in Goff's four starts.
Meanwhile, head coach Jeff Fisher tied a record for most head coaching losses in a career with Dan Reeves -- the only two of the top five in that category without a Super Bowl victory -- and had the surprise news sprung on an unsuspecting Rams public that he had received a contract extension before the season began. Every time he was shown on the Coliseum Jumbotron, the fans booed.
Fisher would be fired the next day, but no one in the Coliseum knew that at the time. In fact, it felt like the opposite: It felt like he'd never leave. (In a nice touch, Fisher was even feuding with Eric Dickerson, the most beloved Ram of all time. They really rolled out the carpet for the fans, these guys.) Two fans sitting in front of me at the game on Sunday wore "Fire Fisher" shirts. I asked them when they got the shirts, and they said a few weeks ago. Considering this is the Rams' first year in Los Angeles, "a few weeks ago" was not even halfway through the team's time in town. Was this the first piece of Rams merchandise the couple had bought, these "Fire Fisher" shirts?
"Yes," the woman told me.
Her husband interrupted her. "I think we have some old Rams stuff lying around. But this is the first with the new team."
The Rams' return to Los Angeles, long awaited, much heralded, has led to fans spending more time buying merchandise supporting the firing of the coach than the return of the team. The place was mostly empty by halftime. Who wants to deal with that traffic?
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention the two biggest cheers were when fans ran on the field of play. They were received not as idiots trespassing, but as rampaging invaders successfully lodging protests against the horrors unfolding in front of us all.
So the first year in Los Angeles is going well.
"We're not having fun, we're not enjoying any of this, it's awful, and it's hard."
That's Goff after that Falcons loss, and he was, in essence, speaking for the fans themselves. For all the hype of Goff, it is worth noting that City of Champions Stadium, the awful name for the new Stan Kroenke windfall stadium that's being built in Inglewood as we speak, won't actually be opening until the 2019 season. The Rams moved heaven and earth to get Goff as the Face of the Franchise, and at the rate this is going, that Face of the Franchise isn't going to even be on the team when they finally move into the big real estate project that's the reason all this is happening in the first place. That would sort of be the perfect final touch, would it not?
Suffice it to say, Los Angeles is not crazy about the Rams right now. Television ratings have been dreadful, and a couple of weeks ago, when the Patriots hammered the Rams like everyone else has been hammering the Rams, the ratings were in fact better in St. Louis -- where fans are watching simply to see the team and owner that betrayed them suffer -- than they were in Los Angeles. The Rams were bad in St. Louis just like they were bad in L.A., but there is something a little sadder about seeing them this bad in L.A., this fast. Maybe they deserve it, maybe they don't. But "when is the NFL coming back to Los Angeles?" has been one of the league's central questions for 20 years. It is bizarre to see, three months in, this as the answer. And they're gonna possibly bring another team out next year!
The reason the NFL is returning, of course, has nothing to do with fan interest, or a burning desire for Los Angeles to get a team back. It's real estate, with Kroenke's deal so appealing that the Raiders and Chargers are still falling over each other to be a part of it. But real estate is not the same thing as passion. The NFL has come back, but as of this point, football hasn't.
It is also strange to see NFL games back at the Coliseum. The famous Los Angeles venue is the makeshift home for the Rams, and it feels it: The tailgate area (or "NFL Fan Zone") outside feels like a traveling carnival that's barely unpacked, there are no businesses that have sprung up near the stadium to take advantage of the Rams, there's still more USC apparel and logos around the place than there are Rams stuff. The whole Rams gameday experience has a Just Passing Through vibe that, while understandable, is maybe not the best selling point for a team with a history of moving all over the place. It's tough to get too invested in what's going on when the team is just parking there, sort of against its will, until it moves into its real home. Who gets excited about settling into an Airbnb?
This is not a criticism of the Coliseum, which is just the right mix of tradition and old-school multipurpose utility to feel like a welcome change from the usual Jerry World excess. The place feels lived in and refreshingly free of frills, with no luxury boxes, steep inclines to the upper deck and obscenely long rows of seats. (If you're in the middle of a row, you're essentially going to be asking roughly 25 people to stand up when you want to get out.) It's a little strange that the countdown to the lighting of the torch before every game, which shows a different Coliseum moment for each number until the flame arrives, features a picture of O.J. Simpson at the "Countdown: 3," but hey: When you close your eyes and think of the Coliseum, you either think of the Olympics or O.J., so maybe he should be there. It's the sort of stadium where fans can still sneak onto the field during an ugly blowout, and sometimes I think the NFL could use a little bit more of that sort of chaos.
But it's still not home, in the same way that Los Angeles doesn't really feel like home for the Rams just yet. As it turns out, because the Rams' return to Los Angeles was more about real estate than fandom, there's no real immediate passion to welcome them there. Will there be at some point? Sure, once the team settles in, once it gets halfway decent again. But to be honest, watching that nightmare game on Sunday, the NFL's triumphant return to Los Angeles felt even further away than it did when they were still in St. Louis. Los Angeles made it just fine without the NFL for 20 years. After watching the Rams for three hours on Sunday, it's clear they're still without it, and doing just fine.
Tomorrow: The Lakers, the Clippers and city supremacy.