THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Palm trees are visible from the 50-yard line. The nearby Pacific Ocean ushers a breeze through columns onto a vast concourse. A double-sided video board overhead displays highlights, while a translucent canopy allows the Southern California sun to shine through.
This is the NFL in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium, one of the “crown jewels” in sports, as Rams quarterback Jared Goff describes it.
More than four years after the Los Angeles Rams returned after a 21-season stay in St. Louis, they will leave behind the cavernous L.A. Memorial Coliseum to play in owner Stan Kroenke’s state-of-the-art masterpiece in Inglewood.
• 2,300 miles away? Washington crew is on it
• Colts-Jets trade in 2018 feels one-sided
• Seattle’s DK Metcalf on path to stardom
• What’s Eli Manning up to right now?
• Cowboys need to find winning ways on road
“How amazing,” coach Sean McVay said after the Rams’ first scrimmage in the indoor-outdoor building. “This is something spectacular. Never seen anything like it.”
With a price tag of more than $5 billion, SoFi Stadium features tree- and foliage-filled canyons to lounge in, individual seats — no bleachers — throughout and plentiful luxury suites. It’s a venue worthy of any fan, including sought-after Hollywood stars.
The only question that remains, an effect of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, is how much longer fans (famous or otherwise) must wait until they’ll be allowed inside.
When the Rams open the 2020 season against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), more than 70,000 seats will be empty, save for cardboard cutouts in the end zone section, while piped-in crowd noise and a public address announcer fill the silence.
“We need fans in there just for the excitement and for the fun of it,” two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald said in disappointment. “But ain’t nothing I can do about it.”
The Rams were once geared to make the grandest opening of them all. And perhaps they would have if not for historic rains that fell across Southern California in 2017 that delayed construction, moving the opening of the stadium from 2019 to 2020.
The Rams were flying high entering last year’s opener, fresh off playing in Super Bowl LIII and consistently gaining momentum since hiring a then-30-year-old McVay after a 4-12 2016 season in their Los Angeles debut.
The Rams acquired and paid stars, which included signing 2017 Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley to a record-breaking, four-year extension to produce a winner and attract attention in a crowded L.A. market.
But when the Rams take the field Sunday, they’ll be coming off a disappointing 9-7 season, having missed the playoffs for the first time since McVay took over as coach.
The scenario is far from what Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer who was instrumental in the return to L.A., envisioned — at least in the short term.
“This building will stand the test of time and be a great tribute to Angelenos and what we can accomplish for decades to come,” Demoff said. “But I would be lying if I didn’t say every now and then, ‘I cannot believe that this building will be empty against the Cowboys.'”
Gurley, the Rams’ most visible star the past few seasons, won’t be donning the new “Bone” uniform. He’ll be wearing the Atlanta Falcons’ red and black after the Rams cut him in March following a decline in production and concerns about his knee.
“We all would’ve wished that Todd would have run out of this tunnel and been a member of the 2020 Rams. Circumstances didn’t make that happen,” Demoff said recently during a tour of the stadium, adding later that a constant churn of NFL talent “has a cruel way of upending your best-laid plans.”
But the Rams remain hopeful about a bounce-back and about forging a fresh path in their new home.
“Everybody’s got a little pop in their step,” McVay said.
Gurley might be gone, but the Rams wasted little time anointing their next star, as cornerback Jalen Ramsey will remain into the foreseeable future.
Four days before the opener, Ramsey signed a five-year, $105 million extension — the richest contract ever for an NFL defensive back — that will pair him with Donald at least through the 2024 season.
Ramsey and Donald, a one-man offense wrecker who produced 33 sacks the past two seasons, will anchor a unit that returns veteran Michael Brockers and safety John Johnson III, who was sidelined most of 2019 because of a shoulder injury.
Goff, entering his fifth season, will attempt to leave an uneven 2019 behind and recapture his form from 2018, when he lit up the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football and led a come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Playing in SoFi Stadium could provide an extra boost.
“As a quarterback, anytime it’s indoors, you love it,” said Goff, who completed 22 touchdowns, but had 16 passes intercepted, last season. “And it’s — it’s a little bit of both. There is that little breeze you can feel at times, but it is fairly indoors for the most part, and the ball jumps here and it feels really good.”
Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, who each surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last season, will aim for an encore, and rookie Van Jefferson, a second-round pick from Florida, will try to demonstrate why even his most experienced teammates heaped praise on him throughout his first training camp.
“The wide receiver 12 was making some real big plays,” said Donald, referring to Jefferson’s jersey number. “If he continues to work, continues to get better, can definitely make a big impact in the league right away.”
But, the reality remains: No matter how many plays the Rams make in their sparkling new home, there will be no one there to cheer them on.
Their best bet is to start fast, gain momentum, then hope that “until further notice” means the near future.
“You have to see the positive in everything,” Goff said. “If I’m a betting man, I would bet eventually we will play there in front of fans. When that will be, who knows, but we’re excited to go out regardless and play in what I think is the best stadium in the world.”