Rams, Bears ended 2018 in heartbreak; one team saw clear path to bouncing back

Coach Sean McVay set an incredibly high standard by reaching the Super Bowl that season. Then the Rams made all the right moves to meet it.

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Sean McVay is 55-26, plus 6-3 in the playoffs, in five seasons as Rams head coach.

Sean McVay is 55-26, plus 6-3 in the playoffs, in five seasons as Rams head coach.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

It wasn’t quite the same level of deflation as the Bears losing their season on the Double Doink, but Rams coach Sean McVay felt similarly dejected as he walked off the field after falling to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

Here he was, the supposed offensive wunderkind and leader of a team that tied for the best record in the NFL that season, and he was at the center of an epic failure. The Rams lost 13-3, matching the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl, and spent the whole night punting.

Said McVay: “Definitely, I got outcoached [by Bill Belichick].”

That memory sticks with him to this day as he prepares for his second shot at a championship when the Rams play the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday.

One of the keys to making it back just three years later was that McVay didn’t make any assumptions based on one great season like the Bears did after going 12-4 in 2018 and rolling into Bourbonnais the next summer talking about a dynasty.

“The expectations are [that] you’ll be right back there,” McVay said Monday. “I remember the amount of people that said after the game, ‘Oh, you guys will be back.’ I’ve grown up in this business long enough to have an appreciation for how difficult it is to even get yourself in the playoffs. It’s not quite that seamless.”

What that Super Bowl appearance did for the Rams, though, was set an ambitious standard. And McVay led the way by owning responsibility for his shortcomings in a way that diverged significantly from the Bears and former coach Matt Nagy blaming a last-second missed field goal rather than taking a harder look at why they scored just 15 points.

So while the Bears had a parade of kickers audition by trying Cody Parkey’s 43-yarder at Halas Hall and kept talking about the Double Doink well into the next season, McVay refused to stay stuck in the moment after Belichick outfoxed him.

“What you do to get over it is you take accountability and then you keep it moving,” he said. “You have to be able to handle those tough moments.

“You want to learn from previous experiences, but not allow it to inhibit your ability to move forward. . . . You take those lessons, apply them, and let’s go cut it loose.”

The Rams struggled the next two seasons as quarterback Jared Goff slipped from Pro Bowl to pedestrian, but even then, struggles are relative. It’s quite a life when your down seasons are going 9-7 in 2019 and 10-6 with a playoff victory in ’20. The Bears haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons in 15 years.

They weren’t drastically far behind the Rams at 8-8 in both of those seasons, but this is where having high standards makes all the difference.

Rather than push ahead with mostly the same pieces and assume the magic of 2018 eventually would reappear, the Rams sized up their situation critically and clearly: It wasn’t good enough.

If the only worthwhile goal in the sport is to chase championships, there was no value in being “good” only to be outmanned against the Packers, Patriots or other heavyweights at the end.

They aimed high by trading Goff and two first-round picks for Matthew Stafford, betting that the former Lion would flourish in an offense that already had impeccable infrastructure with a robust offensive line and a host of ridiculous skill players.

Those 2020 Rams were an example of a team that really had everything but the quarterback. Then they got a quarterback. Stafford had the best season of his career with 41 touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and a 102.9 passer rating.

As an example of what he’s working with in Los Angeles, wide receiver Van Jefferson had 802 yards and six touchdowns this season. He probably would be the Bears’ best receiver, yet he’d be fourth in line on the Rams if Robert Woods was healthy.

The Rams pushed even more chips to the center of the table and traded for three-time All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller in November.

When Woods, who averaged nearly 1,100 yards over the last three seasons, went down with a torn ACL the next week, the Rams swung big by signing three-time Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham. The Bears’ splashiest wide receiver pickup over the last three seasons was Damiere Byrd.

All of those moves speak to the superior standard set by McVay and general manager Les Snead. They didn’t give in to complacency or delusion like the Bears. McVay didn’t think it was unfair to be measured against Belichick or anyone else. The Rams insisted on standing among the elite, and they made all the right moves to get there.

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