INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Before Stan Kroenke became the driving force behind the NFL’s return to Los Angeles, Jerry Jones had a leading role in the years of political maneuvering, hard work and massive construction that led to the inaugural game at SoFi Stadium.
So it's only fitting that when Kroenke's Los Angeles Rams open their $5 billion West Coast NFL showpiece on Sunday night, their opponents will be Jones' Dallas Cowboys.
Kroenke and Jones are long-standing allies on a mission to return pro football to the nation's second-largest city, which also happens to be Jones' birthplace. Although the absence of fans because of the coronavirus pandemic puts a massive asterisk on what should have been a triumphant occasion for the league and two of its most important owners, the Rams and Cowboys will still enjoy a memorable evening at the start of new eras for both franchises.
“Jerry has told us all about the stadium,” Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said. “I know he’s excited for the Rams organization and what’s gone into this stadium. I think it’s just a little smaller than AT&T (Stadium). That’s a fact that I’m saying as I’m winking my eye, but we’re excited to be part of that, no question. It’s supposed to be an unbelievable venue.”
McCarthy's debut as the Cowboys' first new coach in a decade is the other milestone event at SoFi Stadium. The Super Bowl winner at Green Bay takes over one of the NFL's most talented rosters with just one playoff victory in the past half-decade to show for it.
The Cowboys are a popular pick to be an immediate Super Bowl contender under McCarthy, with quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott leading an offense that was one of the NFL's best last season.
The outlook is murkier for the Rams, who missed the playoffs last season for the first time in coach Sean McVay's tenure. Their roster took several big losses in the offseason, from running back Todd Gurley and receiver Brandin Cooks to pass rusher Dante Fowler and leading tackler Cory Littleton.
The Rams face significant obstacles to join the Cowboys as an elite NFC contender, but at least they've got a beautiful new home. They held two scrimmages at SoFi Stadium to familiarize their players with their new environs, but the awe still hasn't evaporated.
“I’m excited anyway, but I’d be a lot more excited if we had fans,” McVay said.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel and kicker Greg Zuerlein both left Los Angeles for Dallas in the offseason after eight seasons together with the Rams. Zuerlein's departure wasn't terribly surprising after a decline in accuracy last season, but McVay seemed disappointed to lose the respected Fassel.
Fassel and Zuerlein spent those eight years alongside punter Johnny Hekker and long snapper Jake McQuaide, who are both still with the Rams.
“I had a lot of great memories (from) four years in St. Louis, four years in LA,” Fassel said. “It will be cool in a way, just to compete against the guys that I coached for eight years there.”
The Cowboys will send 1,110-yard receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup along with promising rookie CeeDee Lamb against a Rams secondary led by Jalen Ramsey, who became the highest-paid defensive back in the NFL this week with a $105 million extension. Don't expect Los Angeles to put Ramsey on an island against Cooper: New Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley says Ramsey will be more than just a cornerback in his new defense. Exactly what that means will be revealed Sunday.
Gurley was the foundation of the Rams' offense for the past half-decade, but he's gone in a cost-cutting move. They're likely to alternate three running backs in his place: veteran Malcolm Brown, rookie Cam Akers and second-year pro Darrell Henderson. Matching Gurley's production and versatility will be a tall order, and Dallas was fairly strong against the run last season.
Jared Goff was drafted 134 picks before Prescott in 2016, but Prescott has passed for more yards (15,778 to 14,219) and touchdowns (97 to 87) with a higher completion rate (65.8% to 62.4%) and fewer interceptions (36 to 42). Goff got a four-year, $134 million extension that kicks in next year, but Prescott is still waiting for his next contract. McCarthy doesn't expect it to be a factor when both QBs begin their fifth season, saying Prescott's focus and discipline are “very impressive.”
Player leaders on both teams haven’t disclosed whether they’ll make any form of pregame protest after a summer of social upheaval and calls for racial justice. Jones has attempted to remain supportive of his players while avoiding statements that would rile up the conservative segment of the Cowboys’ massive fan base.
“This is a huge issue,” Jones said. “I’m very sensitive to that, and that’s exactly why I have said and will want our players to be very sensitive to just how important it is to the majority of our fans, more than any other team. I’m very confident that on both sides, our players, as well as our fans, that we can come together for our grace. It is all about trying to move the ball forward, see where the other guy is coming from.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.
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