Aaron Donald had fun after Rams practice one day this week, listing the ways he seems to be defying the passage of time.
Aches and pains do last longer now, the defensive tackle admitted. But he feels good, he said. Strong, fast, explosive. Smarter, more instinctive.
“I feel like I look good,” Donald added with a grin, patting his black T-shirt where it hung from his pumped-up pecs over his granite abs.
But time’s effects can’t be tripped up forever. Not even by the Rams’ first six-time All-Pro. Not even by one of the trio of NFL players to win three Defensive Player of the Year Awards
Donald turned 30 in May and feels growing urgency to win a Super Bowl.
“One hundred percent,” Donald said Thursday. “Having the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl (after the 2018 season), and get the experience, motivated me to want to get there and win one.
“That’s the only thing I’ve been chasing, only thing I want to accomplish that I feel like I didn’t yet. That’s my main focus, my main goal, to do everything I can to help this team to do that.”
In that way, this year more than ever, the Rams’ greatest player is the face of his team.
Time is of the essence for the 2021 Rams, who open the season Sunday night at home against the Chicago Bears.
The trade for 33-year-old quarterback Matthew Stafford was a move to ditch Jared Goff and his flattening learning curve and win now.
Splashing out contract extensions for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and wide receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp and a big new deal for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd in the past year were moves to keep core players here and happy and win now.
Having the chance to play in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium, built by Rams owner Stan Kroenke in Inglewood, to try to match last year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers by winning the championship on home turf, makes it all the more important to get there now.
Asked about it this month, Rams general manager Les Snead correctly made fun of the “Super Bowl or bust” cliché – but not the sentiment behind it.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘bust.’ You’d have to define bust for me. I don’t know if they’re closing the stadium (if the Rams don’t win),” Snead said. “If the Super Bowl were in New Zealand, we’d still be ready to climb that mountain and go and play it.
“(It would) be cool, though.”
Coach Sean McVay said Rams players talk about the next Super Bowl only because reporters ask them about it.
“Now, if you ask them and you say, ‘Hey, do you want to play in the Super Bowl in your home stadium?’, I think everybody would say, ‘Yes,’ ” McVay said. “But they know the way that you get there is by being totally and completely present.”
That’s Stafford’s approach to the topic.
“It’s always nice to think about,” the quarterback, whose Detroit Lions were never good enough to win even one playoff game, said of the Super Bowl. “But a majority of my time is spent trying to make sure that I’m ready to go every single day.”
Donald isn’t the only Rams star conscious that NFL careers don’t last forever and their success is measured partly in Super Bowl rings.
Going by Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” ratings, Donald, Stafford, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, 34, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 39, all are among the top 15 players on current NFL rosters who haven’t won a Super Bowl.
“I think those are things you think about a lot in the offseason and downtime,” said Whitworth, who played in the Rams’ Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots, one of their three playoff trips in the past four years.
“Week in and week out, it’s just about staying in that mode of winning football games and putting yourself in a position to make a run, and that starts this week.”
The Rams’ roster is one of the NFL’s youngest overall, and they’re counting on on hungry second- and third-year players to step up.
Those include running back Darrell Henderson, outside linebacker Justin Hollins, cornerback David Long Jr. and safety and defensive signal-caller Jordan Fuller, all going into their first season-opener listed as starters.
But how far the Rams go in the sixth season since the franchise’s return from St. Louis will depend a lot on those hungry eight- to 16-year veterans.
Stafford can expand McVay’s playbook by making throws to more parts of the field than Goff could, and inspires confidence with a résumé featuring 38 game-winning drives, the most in the league over the past 12 seasons.
Whitworth must protect Stafford’s blindside, but first he must safeguard his own health after last year’s knee injury, the most serious of his career.
Jackson, signed in March after the Philadelphia Eagles let him go, adds deep speed to the Rams’ receiver group. That’s key to taking advantage of Stafford’s arm. But health is vital for Jackson too, after he missed 37 games over the past seven seasons.
Even the chiseled Donald got hurt last season, and was on the sideline in tears with a rib injury as the clock ran out in the Rams’ second-round playoff loss to the Packers in Green Bay.
But Rams teammates and coaches usually laugh when asked if they see signs of Donald slowing down.
“Just make sure you write that you called him 30 and not me,” said Raheem Morris, the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. “He’s the best looking 30-year old I’ve ever seen in my life.”
No decline here: Last season, Donald was credited with 13 1/2 sacks, second in the league to T.J. Watt; received his third Defensive Player of the Year Award, matching Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt; and earned his sixth All-Pro honor, breaking a tie for the Rams franchise lead with Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood and Riley Matheson.
Few fans know that Matheson, a guard, was an NFL championship winner with the 1945 Rams. Fewer hold it against Olsen, Jones and Youngblood that they didn’t win a Super Bowl.
So the importance of a Super Bowl to players’ reputations shouldn’t be overestimated. Still, it matters to them.
“I want to get him a championship,” Sebastian Joseph-Day, the Rams’ starting nose tackle, said of Donald. “He deserves it. A player of his caliber deserves it.
“I know I’m going to give it my all for him. I want to win a championship as well. We all want to win a championship.”