SEATTLE — When last season began, the Los Angeles Rams were the defending Super Bowl champions with aspirations of getting back there again.
The Rams begin this season on Sunday against division foe Seattle in a far different place. They’re coming off the worst season of Sean McVay’s coaching career, a 5-12 campaign where just about everything went wrong. And their roster has been gutted due to salary cap constraints, leaving the Rams with a serious talent gap at many positions.
They still have quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but overall, the Rams are a shell of the team that won the title two seasons ago.
“Every team is new. We happen to have a lot of young guys on our team, a lot of rookies that have come in and done a heck of a job and earned roles on our football team,” Stafford said. “They are going to be big parts of our season and that’s exciting.”
The story of where Seattle was at the start of last year to where it is now is similar to the Rams’ narrative, just with opposite results. The Seahawks started last season expected to be among the worst teams in the league, with evaluators having zero confidence in Geno Smith’s ability to be a successful starting quarterback.
By the end of the year, Smith had set career highs in every passing category, led Seattle to nine wins in the regular season and a playoff berth and earned NFL comeback player of the year honors.
The Seahawks enter this year hoping they have closed the gap with San Francisco in the NFC West.
“I believe we have a tremendous opportunity this season with the players that we have and the coaches that we have,” Smith said. “So I expect to go out there and play well. And obviously like I said, we got to prove it. It’s not going to be given to us. And that’s what I’m looking forward to is the opportunity to prove myself again.”
A familiar face for both teams will be on the field Sunday with linebacker Bobby Wagner beginning his second stint with the Seahawks. Wagner spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle before becoming a salary cap casualty during the 2022 offseason and signing with the Rams.
Wagner continued to play at an elite level last season for Los Angeles with 140 tackles and a career-high six sacks, earning second-team All-Pro honors. But he was released as part of the salary cap moves the Rams had to make and quickly agreed to return to Seattle.
Earlier this week, Wagner and coach Pete Carroll spent time in Carroll’s office sharing their appreciation for the opportunity to reunite.
“The reward now to come back and get another chance to finish this thing together is very special,” Carroll said.
The Rams will be without Cooper Kupp, the Yakima native and Eastern Washington graduate who won the triple crown of receiving and the Super Bowl MVP award two seasons ago. After missing the final eight games of last season with an ankle injury, Kupp injured his hamstring in training camp, aggravated it in late August and didn’t improve quickly enough to play.
Kupp’s absence is a major blow to the Rams’ offense, which is counting on him to be the No. 1 target for Stafford. The drop-off from Kupp is steep, although Stafford is upbeat about Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell and newcomer Demarcus Robinson. Rookie Puka Nacua, a former Washington Huskies wideout who transferred to BYU, is also likely to get snaps.
The Seahawks revamped their defensive front this offseason in the hopes of being better at stopping the run. Seattle ranked 30th in the league giving up more than 150 yards per game on the ground last season. This offseason saw the arrival of Dre’Mont Jones and the return of Jarran Reed in free agency, along with drafting rookies Cameron Young, Mike Morris and Derick Hall.
While the Rams will have a significantly overhauled offensive line, they still have Cam Akers, who rushed for 104 yards and averaged nearly 5 yards per carry against Seattle in Week 18 last season.
Smith will be the first quarterback to test the Rams’ secondary, which is ranked by many evaluators as the least impressive in the NFL. Los Angeles cut ties with four defensive backs who started at least 12 games last season, including All-Pro Jalen Ramsey and starting safeties Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott.
The Rams appeared to be content to compete this season with a secondary composed of last year’s backups, who are mostly low-round draft picks, before they blinked and signed veterans John Johnson and Ahkello Witherspoon late in the offseason. Cornerbacks Cobie Durant and Derion Kendrick will get an immediate test of their readiness against DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed to this report.