By GREG BEACHAM
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — One year ago, general manager Les Snead and the Los Angeles Rams’ front office decided they had to jump through the championship window that had suddenly, shockingly appeared before them.
Now that they’ve landed on their feet in Atlanta, Snead has zero regrets about writing the checks and making the commitments necessary for his Super Bowl-bound team to make that leap.
“After winning the division last year, after contending last year, we sat back and said, ‘We definitely feel like we can do this, and we could do this consistently for a little while,’” Snead said Wednesday. “I think the moves this year were (about saying), ‘Let’s improve. That wasn’t good enough.’”
The Rams reached the playoffs last season for the first time in 13 years, with rookie coach Sean McVay leading a seven-win improvement for a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since 2003.
But Los Angeles promptly lost its first postseason game to the Falcons, putting a slight damper on that incredible one-season turnaround.
Knowing the tenuousness of NFL success for every team except the Patriots — and realizing the impact that a Super Bowl run could have in the Rams’ new hometown — Snead decided it was already time to do everything possible to help homegrown stars Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Jared Goff.
“That feeling after Atlanta was hollow, even after the sweetness of the breakthrough,” said Snead, the genial Alabama native in charge of the Rams’ front office since 2012.
So the Rams made several enormous bets on themselves, and every single one of them has paid off.
The Rams acquired defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and edge rusher Dante Fowler to bolster their defense. They gave huge contracts to Gurley and Donald — and even to receiver Brandin Cooks, who had just been acquired from New England for a first-round pick and hadn’t even suited up yet for Los Angeles.
Snead’s largely homegrown roster was suddenly supplemented by elite, high-priced veteran talent, and McVay’s staff made it all work.
After matching the NFL’s best regular-season record at 13-3 and then beating Dallas and New Orleans in the postseason, the Rams are beginning preparations for their trip to Atlanta to face New England in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
Snead knows some of the Rams’ moves were greeted with raised eyebrows. Talib and Peters are well-known for their strong personalities, with Peters particularly enduring rough patches in college at Washington and again with Kansas City.
Yet there hasn’t been a hint of serious conflict in the Rams’ harmonious locker room. Despite some up-and-down performances, Peters allowed the Rams to get past the loss of Trumaine Johnson, their top cover cornerback last season, while Talib is a team captain who has been the Rams’ top cover man since returning from injury in December.
Suh didn’t immediately have the dramatic effect many expected after he signed for one season at $14 million, but he was incredibly disruptive in the Rams’ two playoff games — which also happened to be the first two postseason victories of his nine-year NFL career.
Snead gives much of the credit to McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but he also isn’t surprised.
“We always say around here that we’re not collecting talent,” Snead said. “We’re building a team, and there’s more to team than just a skillset on the football field. I like to say, ‘You can’t bring someone in that’s going to be a toothache.’ … And also, our culture can lead to them thriving.”
The Rams’ bets on continuing excellence from Donald and Gurley paid off with outstanding seasons from both stars. Cooks also lived up to his five-year, $81 million extension from July, racking up 80 catches for a career-best 1,204 yards receiving.
The Rams acquired Fowler from Jacksonville during the season, and his effectiveness has steadily increased, culminating in two strong playoff games against Dak Prescott and Drew Brees.
Snead had one clever move left for the winter, signing veteran running back C.J. Anderson last month after Gurley was slowed by a knee injury. Anderson had been released by three teams in the previous eight months, but the compact back immediately delivered three consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
Snead is quick to point out one important factor in the Rams’ recent moves: Goff is still on his rookie contract, which frees up a large chunk of Los Angeles’ payroll that would otherwise be given to a franchise quarterback, as the third-year pro appears to be.
“That gives you some flexibility within the budget to do some other things,” Snead said. “The goal is also to continue being sustainable when you do have to maybe give Jared a raise in due time.”
Snead plans to enjoy the next two weeks, but he isn’t ready to reflect fully on the success of his moves — not while he’s still spending several hours a day preparing for the draft and free agency.
“All that’s done now is (to) put you in a spot where you’ve got an opportunity to go get a bigger trophy, and that’s the focus,” said Snead, who spent his formative front-office years with the Falcons.