All Ball Sports: Rams fight each other, Chargers last chance, Laker purge

Redondo Union sisters Alexa, and Mia Minestrella celebrate their victory over Mira Costa in the finals of the South Torrance Holiday Tournament. Mia, a junior, scored in the first half,and Alexa scored in overtime to give Redondo a 2 to 1 victory. Mia was named MVP of the tournament. Alexa, a sophomore, was named to the All Tournament team. Photo by Ray Vidal

By Paul Teetor

The Rams started out literally fighting themselves Sunday morning. But they finished the day beating the Baltimore Ravens in the most stirring win of their season so far, a 20-19 nail-biter that came down to the last play and the last second.

Right from the start, the Rams looked out of sync, and ready to implode after their star defensive back, Jalen Ramsey, took a swing at fellow defensive back Taylor Rapp during a defensive huddle early in the game. The punch snapped Rapp’s head back and forced several teammates to jump in and separate the two players. Cornerbacks Darious Williams and David Long grabbed Ramsey, and linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo grabbed Rapp to cool things down.

But once the defense got off the field, the dispute continued as Ramsey – the best defensive back in the entire league – berated Rapp for some mistake he had made in covering the Raven’s wide receivers.

Rapp, a pretty good player himself, was having none of it and went back at Ramsey just as hard. He may not be as good as Ramsey, but he’s still a professional athlete playing the brutal sport of football at its very highest level, and he wasn’t going to take crap from a teammate without fighting back.

There was no kumbaya moment when it suddenly ended, but the two antagonists eventually separated and went back to taking care of business. But close Rams watchers couldn’t help but notice that for the rest of the game, when the offense was on the field Ramsey huddled with the other defensive players like Aaron Donald at one end of the bench while Rapp hung out by himself at the other end.

What this bodes for the future, we can’t say. But real professionals won’t let it affect their working together on the field, and it didn’t appear to stop them from coordinating their movements on defense as the game went on. 

It’s a good thing they put the acrimony aside, because the Rams normally high-octane offense was misfiring most of the day. And it got worse a few minutes later when quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a pick-six interception that gave the Ravens a quick 7-0 lead. 

After his three-interception performance in last week’s victory over Seattle, it looked like the Rams were in for another long afternoon.

Soon Stafford threw yet another interception, which gave him five in his last 51 passes, a ridiculously high ratio that is normally fatal to a team’s chances. He also lost a fumble.

Online, trolls were comparing Stafford to the dearly departed Jared Goff, who also had a bad habit of throwing interceptions and fumbling the ball away at the worst possible moments.

But there is one crucial difference between Stafford and Goff, besides the reality that almost all Stafford’s passes – even the off-target interceptions — are tight spirals that are very catchable while most of Goff’s passes are wobbly, wounded ducks. Stafford has that special quality – call it resilience, short memory or situational amnesia – that enables him to shake off adversity and focus on the next play, the next series or the next game. Goff never did that, even at the height of his success with the Rams a few years ago.                        

After the game, the rare Ram vs. Ram beat-down was the trending topic of the day. The victorious Rams downplayed the dispute and dismissed it as “boys will be boys” and a “heat of the moment” problem that is common to all high-level athletic competitions.

Neither Ramsey nor Rapp addressed the media after the game, which might have helped convince people that the dispute was really over. But Rams Coach Sean McVay defended them as merely squabbling siblings and said reporters would be shocked if they were privy to the kinds of conversations he has all game long.                    

“Did you ever get into a fight with your brother? Yeah, you did,” McVay said. “So, they moved on. I don’t think it affected our ability to move forward.”

He compared the physical altercation with harsh talk between coaches.

“If you guys heard the stuff that I say on the headset during the games, it’s way worse than smacking another player,” McVay said.

Stafford, who ended up making the two key plays at the end of the tense game, said all is well that ends well – without realizing he was paraphrasing Shakespeare.

“Things are going to happen. You don’t want to see it. You want to be able to communicate a little bit better than that,” Stafford said.  “But at the same time, both of those guys, all they want to do is win. And we won. We’ve got to be supportive, we’ve got to be better for each other, there’s no question about that.”

Actually, the two players have a history of beefing with each other, so it’s not like this was a one-off incident. Ramsey was traded to Los Angeles in the middle of the 2019 season, when Rapp was a rookie. Late that season, Ramsey openly blamed Rapp for a blown coverage that cost the Rams an important game against the San Francisco 49ers. 

Safety Jordan Fuller, who had a key interception Sunday, also shrugged off the rare incident.

“I’d say it was just two competitors who had a bit of a disagreement,” Fuller said. “But we’re all good now.”

Actually, the incident cast a dark cloud over the team, which was still trailing 19-14 late in the fourth quarter when Stafford orchestrated a near-miracle, 9-play, 75-yard drive for the winning touchdown.

The key play on the long drive was a fourth down and five yards to go conversion when Stafford connected with Odell Beckham Jr., the former New York and Cleveland star signed by the Rams six weeks ago. 

There was a loud chorus of haters who insisted Beckham is a diva who would not be comfortable in a secondary role to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who now leads the league in all three receiving categories with 138 catches for 1,829 yards and 15 touchdowns. In the process Kupp broke former Rams receiver Issac Bruce’s franchise records for yards and catches.

But Beckham, by all accounts, has worked hard, kept his mouth shut, blocked hard when called on to do so, waited his turn to make big plays at big moments, and understands that he is Robin to Kupp’s Batman when it comes to catching passes on this Rams team.

His fourth down catch was critical, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t made an even bigger play a couple of minutes later when he caught a short pass from Stafford, sprinted towards the right corner of the end zone, and leaped over the pylon while having the presence of mind to hold the football out with one hand and make sure the refs saw that it broke the end zone’s invisible barrier even as he landed out of bounds.

The TD came with 57 seconds left, and the Ravens had one more chance to march down the field and get in position to kick a game-winning field goal. At that point the Rams’ other key mid-season acquisition, linebacker Vonn Miller, made the biggest play of his short Rams career when he sacked Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley for an 8-yard loss that prevented Baltimore from advancing far enough to give Justin Alexander, the league’s best kicker, a chance to kick a game winner.

It’s been clear all year that the Rams are all-in on making it to the Super Bowl scheduled for next month, Feb. 13, at SoFi Stadium. Giving up future draft picks for Stafford, Ramsey and Miller was a big part of that win-now-and-worry-about-later-later strategy.

Sunday it paid off big time. The Rams improved to 12-4 and now have a chance to win the NFC West outright in their final regular season game next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. That would give them home field in the first round of the playoffs, and again in the second round if they win their first game.

The Rams will come into that game riding a 5-game winning streak, their longest of the season. Unfortunately, they currently have a 5-game losing streak against San Fran.

One of those streaks will end Sunday at So-Fi.

Whose House? Rams House!!!      

Antonio Brown: Mental health pioneer

Put the name of Super Bowl champion Antonio Brown next to champion gymnast Simone Biles and champion tennis player Naomi Osaka as mental health pioneers. 

The two young women made headlines last summer when they dropped out of competition and announced they were dealing with mental health issues. It was a long overdue acknowledgement that the pressures of world class athletic competition can sometimes be too much for young people struggling to find their place in the world.

This past weekend a bunch of NFL teams played their way into or out of the playoffs that begin the third week of January. But no one made more headlines than Brown, the Tampa Bay wide receiver who ripped off his jersey and stomped out of the stadium during his team’s victory over the New York Jets.

It was the last straw for Coach Bruce Arians, who had just welcomed Brown back after a 3-week suspension for forging a proof-of-vaccine card. Brown had previously been dumped by both the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for off-field issues, including financial scams and allegations of sexual assault.

But because he was one of the top receivers in the NFL, he was given chance after chance to play that less talented players never would have gotten. Indeed, the only reason Tampa Bay signed him last year was because the GOAT, quarterback Tom Brady, urged – some say insisted – that his new team sign him. Turns out the Golden Boy and the Bad Boy had bonded during their time together in Boston, and Brady vouched for his character, saying he had learned his lesson and that he, Tom, would help keep him on a straight and narrow path.

After his epic meltdown Sunday afternoon that made the national news – “Never seen anything like it” was the most common reaction – Brady was the only one who seemed to recognize what was really happening: This wasn’t just some knucklehead acting out his version of the thug life. This was a full-blown mental health episode.

“People should do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs,” Brady said. “I think it was a cry for help.”

Amen, Brother Tom.

Chargers: Win or go home

There’s a delicious simplicity to the consequences of the Chargers game at Las Vegas next Sunday: win and make the playoffs.

Lose and don’t make the playoffs.

Done for the season.

In a season of ebbs and flows, it feels like this day of decision has been coming all along.

But now it’s here, and the stakes couldn’t be higher: the winner advances to the playoffs while the loser has six months to contemplate where it all went wrong.

It is, for all practical purposes, a play-off game to get into the real playoffs.

The Chargers and the Raiders come into this final game of the regular season with identical 9-7 records. The Chargers beat the Raiders 28-24 way back on October 4. But that was a home game at SoFi Stadium when the Chargers were racing out to their 4-1 start to the season, a fast start that put them on the list of legit Super Bowl contenders.

Since then the Bolts have been up and down – more down than up – and never would have been in this position except for their pathetic 41-29 loss to the sad-sack Houston Texans last week.

Sunday, they did what they absolutely had to do by crushing the Denver Bronco 34-13. As usual, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was great, connecting on 22 of 31 passes for 237 yards, with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

He has become an elite quarterback in less than two full seasons, so sometimes it’s hard to remember that he was an untested rookie just a year ago who was expected to sit, watch and learn for a year before being thrown into the fray.

His incredible progress since then was marked by some of the team and league records he set Sunday. First, his two TD passes moved him past Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, who held the Chargers franchise record of 34 TD passes in a single season. Herbie now has 35, and figures to get a few more next week against the Raiders. 

His 22 completed passes took him to 800 in his first 31 games, making him the fastest to reach that milestone since the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970. He also broke Peyton Manning’s first two-years record of 30 games with at least one TD pass.

“It’s not a coincidence that these records are happening for him,” Coach Brandon Staley said after the game. “It’s because of the type of person he is, the type of competitor he is and the type of player he is.”

Late in the game the Chargers management, which has been trying to promote Herbie as the face of the franchise ever since they realized what they had on their hands mid-way through his rookie year – take a look around at all the blue-and-gold Chargers jerseys with Herbert on the back – went out of their way to honor his achievements. First they listed them on SoFi’s centerpiece – the 2.2-million-pound, double-sided videoboard that wraps around the upper part of the stadium. Then they focused the camera on Herbert standing on the sidelines as the huge crowd erupted in a sustained cheer.

Herbert, naturally, tried to move away from the all-seeing camera beaming his image down at the crowd, but ultimately there was no way to hide.

“The defense was still out there. I wanted to give them all the attention,” the ever-modest Herbie said after the game. “I think it is a huge accomplishment. But it doesn’t get done without my teammates – the receivers, tight ends, especially the offensive line that’s done an incredible job protecting me all year.”

This was the year the league and the media belatedly recognized what a great player Herbie already is. Next Sunday will be his chance – their chance – for the Chargers to show everybody what a great team they are.

Lakers: the purge begins

It was a minor trade but a major signal: the Lakers realize they made a terrible mistake signing so many former All-Stars in the hope and belief that LeBron James – the oldest superstar in the world – functions best surrounded by other battle-tested veterans.

Turns out the Lakers have too many battle-tested veterans, and their 16-18 record dictated that some of them have to go in order to make room for some fresh legs to surround LeBron.

Thus 35-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo was the first to go over the weekend, but he won’t be the last. Rondo was traded to Cleveland for Denzel Valentine, a player the Lakers then immediately gave away to New York in order to clear a roster spot for Stanley Johnson, the former Santa Ana Mater Dei star who played one year at Arizona and was the 8th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Over the next six years he washed out with Detroit, Toronto, New Orleans and Chicago before ending up out of the NBA entirely.

His entire career was built on his “NBA body” – a 6-foot-8 chiseled mass of muscle and sinew that convinced coaches and executives they could add shooting skills to his repertoire and make him a star or at least a serviceable NBA player.

It never happened because some people, no matter how great an athlete they may be, simply don’t have an NBA-level shooting touch. Johnson is one of those no-touch guys. But along the way he became an outstanding defender and rebounder while trying to compensate for his offensive weaknesses. Because he is still a young man at 25, the Lakers figure to give him time to see if he can become the defensive stopper they desperately need at small forward. LeBron and Westbrook and Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony can take care of the scoring. The Lakers need young guys that can defend and rebound.

Look for either Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan – most likely Jordan — to be the next to get shipped out of town. Both 7-footers have proved they are useless in the modern pace-and-space game, but Howard seems to have a little more spring left in his huge body than Jordan does. 

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

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