INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — In their first game after the end of a highly eventful calendar year, the Los Angeles Rams made the bad kind of NFL history Sunday.
With their 31-10 loss to the Chargers in the first Los Angeles derby at SoFi Stadium on New Year's Day, the Rams became the first defending Super Bowl champions in NFL history to lose 11 games.
“The margin for error was really small,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
The margin of defeat definitely was not.
And the eighth double-digit loss of this season for the Rams (5-11) underlined the primary reasons why this consistently strong franchise over the previous half-decade has crashed to a historic low immediately after raising the Lombardi Trophy.
The 1999 Denver Broncos lost 10 games as defending champs, but they had the excuse of John Elway's retirement. These Rams still have many of last season's difference-making veteran players on their roster, but nearly all of them are injured as the season reaches a merciful end.
Most notably, three of their four most prominent stars — Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald — haven't played since November. The absences stretch across the roster, and the replacements have not performed well enough to keep the Rams competitive.
“I don’t make any excuses,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said bluntly when asked if the absence of the Rams' entire starting defensive line made his job harder.
Indeed, the Rams haven't made excuses, and they don't need to elaborate on the obvious reasons.
The defensive line played most of the game with none of its three most important players: Seven-time All-Pro Donald and A'Shawn Robinson are out with injuries, and Greg Gaines could barely play with his own shoulder injury. The Chargers rushed through that line for 192 yards.
“That's kind of been standard operating procedure for us this year,” McVay said. “There's been some good things, and then there's been some pains that we end up going through, and that's really for our team in general. But overall, the way the guys continue to battle is great.”
The offensive line is similarly battered, with three Week 1 starters sidelined and a fourth playing a different position out of necessity. The line did enough to help Cam Akers to a 123-yard performance, but Baker Mayfield was sacked three times and lost a fumble with little time to settle on many plays.
“When you're playing an offense like theirs, it's tough to get behind,” said Mayfield, who went 11 of 19 for 132 yards. “We didn't make it easy on our defense. We didn't sustain drives and stay on the field. Converted a few third downs, but not enough. We ran the ball well. In the pass game, we have to make more plays, and I'll take blame for a lot of that.”
In place of those injured regulars on both lines, the Rams are giving extensive playing time to backups, newcomers and warm bodies. McVay has described the absences as an opportunity to evaluate linemen, but it's clearly nothing more than an evaluation of future backups and potential practice squad members.
The Rams found some positives in the loss, most notably in Akers' inspired play and in a strong effort from Van Jefferson, who had 77 yards receiving on just three catches. They also got another solid game from rookie cornerback Cobie Durant, who had seven tackles, and unlikely edge rusher Michael Hoecht.
But none of it was enough to even slow the Chargers in the Rams' latest blowout loss.
The Rams hadn't lost eight games in a season by 10 points or more since 2011, when the St. Louis Rams went 2-14 and took nine double-digit losses. The last Rams team to lose nine games by at least 10 points in Southern California was the 1993 squad.
This wasted season finally ends Sunday at Seattle, where the Seahawks are likely to be playing for a chance at the postseason. The Rams will have one last chance to play spoiler, and one chance to avoid matching the 2016 homecoming team with 12 losses.
“We've just got to coach better, and then we're capable of playing a little bit better,” McVay said. “We'll see if we can do that next week.”
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press