ESPN Staff Writer Alden Gonzalez writes how Rams DT Aaron Donald beyond frustrated with 2016. Star defensive tackle Aaron Donald is headed for another Pro Bowl, but it has also been another trying season for one of the game's fiercest competitors.
"It’s been tough," said Donald, his Los Angeles Rams sitting at 4-10. "It’s definitely been tough this year. I had high expectations for this year, thinking we were going to do some big things, and a lot of things just didn’t go the way we expected. But the only thing we can do is finish these last two games strong and try to build on what we have. Next year it’s going to be a totally different team."
A lot will change about the Rams in 2017, which will mark the team's second season back in L.A. The head coach will certainly be different, as Jeff Fisher was fired Dec. 12. Soon the entire coaching staff will be overhauled, and the front office might be, too, if general manager Les Snead does not stay. Then the roster will change. The Rams need depth at linebacker, cornerback and safety. They need to inject talent at receiver, overhaul the offensive line and make decisions about several key free agents, most notably Trumaine Johnson, Kenny Britt, T.J. McDonald, Benny Cunningham, Greg Zuerlein and Case Keenum.
Simply put: They need to figure out ways to surround Donald with the type of talent that will maximize his strength as the game's best interior pass-rusher.
Donald and standout punter Johnny Hekker were each named to their third Pro Bowl Tuesday night.
Starting with a Week 1 ejection, the Rams' Aaron Donald has had a tough season. But it still was productive enough to earn a third Pro Bowl bid. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
Donald has gone to the Pro Bowl every season he has been in the NFL, becoming the Rams' first defensive player to make three straight trips since cornerback Jerry Gray from 1986 to '89. Donald leads the NFL with 29 quarterback hits and is tied for the lead with 16 tackles for loss, adding seven sacks, four pass deflections and two forced fumbles despite being the focal point of opposing offensive coordinators every week.
They throw double- and triple-teams at him, structure game plans around their quarterbacks getting the ball out of their hands quickly, all to negate Donald's overwhelming presence.
"He's still a game-wrecker," said Hekker, who has already tied an NFL record with 46 punts downed inside the 20-yard line this season. "He's just so disruptive. He's got such an amazing burst off the ball, and he's just a hard-working guy who has once-in-a-couple-generations type of talent."
Donald can still make a case for defensive player of the year, especially with Texans star J.J. Watt injured, but he doesn't much care for it.
"It ain’t about individual success," Donald said. "It’s a team game."
And Donald is part of a team that has lost nine of its last 10 games and is coming off four consecutive blowout losses. His Rams have never been better than 7-9.
"It’s frustrating," Donald said. "You train, and you put so much time into this game to try to win, to get your body in top shape, to get you physically ready. And then you go through such a grind, where you wear your body down and you do so much, to go play a game, and you lose week in and week out, you’re going to be frustrated."
That frustration has seemingly spilled over a couple of times already this season. Late in a season-opening, 28-0 blowout loss against the San Francisco 49ers -- the Rams' next opponent -- Donald was ejected for unnecessary roughness and for making contact with an official, then slammed his helmet to the turf as he walked off the field. Late in a 24-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Thursday, Donald received 30 yards' worth of penalties on one play, first for grabbing a facemask and then for flinging the official's flag.
The Rams' roster might get an overhaul this offseason, but Donald still sees promise within it.
It's part of what has made this season so trying.
"I think there’s a lot of talent on this team," Donald said. "I think we have a lot of big-time players that can be stars in this league. That’s the thing that makes you frustrated, because you have so much talent on this team and then you go out and play week in and week out and you’re not winning games, and you just don’t know why. It’s definitely tough, man. I couldn’t even put it in words. Just have to try to bottle that anger in and not do certain things that hurt the team."
Goff Cleared to Start vs. 49ers
After successfully clearing all stages of the concussion protocol, Rams rookie quarterback Jared Goff is officially all set to start Saturday’s game against the 49ers.
“He did everything all week in meetings and ramped up his work on the practice field up to today,” Rams interim head coach John Fassel said following Thursday’s practice. “So, he’s good to go — he looked good.”
The young quarterback left last week’s game against the Seahawks and did not return after sustaining a hard hit on the sideline from cornerback Richard Sherman deep in Seattle territory. Goff explained what happened as he experienced it following Thursday’s practice.
“I was running down the sideline, didn’t see Sherman — if I had seen him, I probably would have gone out of bounds,” Goff said. “He made a hell of a play, after watching it on film, he came all the way from the other side of the field. He came across, I was going to try to get into the pylon, probably wasn’t going to be able to, either, because [safety Kam] Chancellor was there, but I was going to try.
“But I didn’t see Sherman, he came out of nowhere and he got me,” Goff continued. “I felt fine — he hit me in the head, but I was fine, it was just a regular hit. I got up, went back to the huddle. I heard the official blow the whistle and they’re like, ‘You have to get off the field,’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ They said it’s just protocol, whatever it was.”
Regardless, the quarterback said he never doubted he’d be cleared to start based on how he felt over the weekend, adding he felt no lingering effects.
Still, the signal-caller said there’s a lesson to be leaned when it comes to protecting himself both inside and outside the pocket. Fassel has said that as Goff becomes more experienced, he will need to learn to protect himself better.
“I think it can be hard. But he’s right,” Goff said. “Again, if I had seen him, I probably would have protected myself, but he kind of came out of nowhere there. But he’s right, I do need to protect myself a little better and try to balance the ‘going-for-its’ and protecting my body.”
Now Goff will have a chance to face the team he rooted for as a kid. Growing up in the Bay Area, Goff grew up a Niners fan, stating in the past that he even wears No. 16 in honor of Joe Montana.
“Growing up a fan makes it a little bit significant, but it’s just another game to us,” Goff said. “One that we should go out there and play well and hopefully come away with a ‘W.’ If we do what we should do, we should get a ‘W.’”
Through five starts, Goff has completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 879 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. The quarterback said he’s looking to continue getting more comfortable in his last two games — particularly when it comes to throwing with anticipation.
“It helps when you get more reps with guys,” Goff said. “It’s only my sixth game now, so the more reps I get, the easier it’s going to get. It’s just something that I think will come with time.
“But I feel pretty good at it,” Goff continued. “It’s just something that I’m always going to work on. And I’ve always been fairly confident in my ability to anticipate – even in college, high school, everything. Every step you take, it gets a little bit more, and it’s no different with this, you just have to get better.”
“I’m hoping to see improvement in, really, everything — accuracy, decision-making, getting out of bounds, sliding, even the little things that are intricate to the quarterback position,” Fassel said. “He’s been a great leader, so that isn’t anything that’s ever been an issue. He’s studied. I think just in general, improvement in throwing the football, and making decisions with the ball in his hands.”
The Rams have one of their lengthiest injury reports of the season heading into Saturday’s matchup against the 49ers, with eight players listed.
Safety Maurice Alexander (concussion), wide receiver Bradley Marquez (knee), and wide receiver Mike Thomas (hip) were all limited participants in Thursday’s session.
Goff, wideout Kenny Britt (shoulder), cornerback E.J. Gaines (thigh), and cornerback Mike Jordan(concussion) were all full participants.
And defensive back Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) did not practice on Thursday.
— Fassel confirmed quarterback Sean Mannion will dress as the backup against the 49ers. It’s the first time Mannion will be active since Week 1 when the Rams played the Niners on Monday Night Football.
“He’s been anxious since the first game of the season, when he was active, and he’s hung in there the last 15 weeks, and bided his time,” Fassel said. “He’s earned it. I’m sure if he has the opportunity, he’ll perform very well.”
— While it’s been a tough season for running back Todd Gurley, he said today he’s never been too concerned with individual statistics and the accolades that may come with them.
“I never did personal goals. If it happens, it happens. If I told y’all at the beginning of the season I was going to rush for 1,500, and I’m at like 700 now, y’all would be talking and saying stuff,” Gurley said with a laugh, referring to the media. “Just go out there and play your game.”
— Finally, heading into his second game as the Rams’ interim head coach, Fassel said he’s feeling comfortable in the role.
“I don’t really feel any different, other than it hasn’t been as rushed this week,” Fassel said. “Last week, I felt comfortable — everything was just happening fast. This week, we’ve had a few extra days to kind of — a few extra meetings, a little bit more practice time. So, I feel very comfortable. I’m super excited and also a lot to prove.”
Taran Killam Wears Rams Sweater on Seth Meyers
On Monday night, actor Taran Killam made a guest appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
The comedian discussed his collaboration on a graphic novel Love Is Love with comic book creator Marc Andreyko for Pulse nightclub shooting victims. Killam also updated on his first rehearsal with the cast of Hamilton on Broadway. He is set to star as King George III.
During the late-night interview, Killam wore a light-up, Rams ugly sweater. Host (and notable Steelers fan) Seth Meyers told Killam, "I hate that sweater."
Killam also talked with Meyers about his love for the Rams and his recent game day experience involving chest paint and a jumbotron experience.
Watch a segment of the interview above or at nbc.com/late-night-with-seth-meyers
Donald, Hekker Elected to 2017 Pro Bowl
The Rams will have two representatives at the 2017 Pro Bowl, as defensive tackle Aaron Donald and punter Johnny Hekker were both elected to the NFL’s All-Star Game.
In his third season out of Pitt, Donald has now been a Pro Bowl selection in each year of his career. Through 14 games, Donald leads the league with 29 quarterback hits and is tied for the league lead with 16 tackles for loss. The defensive tackle also has 7.0 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Donald has appeared in all 46 games for which he’s been eligible since including starting the last 42. He’s recorded 27.0 sacks in his young career.
"It’s definitely a big accomplishment," Donald said. "Anytime you get rewarded for all the hard work you put into this game, you’re going to be happy about it. It’s definitely a big deal. I’m excited about it — my family’s excited about it. So, the season hasn’t happened how we wanted it to happen. But, like I always say, hard work pays off and this just paid off."
“It’s quite the sight to behold — watching Aaron dismantle a double and triple team out there,” Hekker said Tuesday. “You can tell that other teams offensive coordinators have a gameplan for Aaron Donald, and he’s still a game-wrecker, despite the doubles and triples — things they throw at him, ways they try to quell his rush.”
As for Hekker, this is the punter’s third Pro Bowl, having been elected for his 2013 and 2015 seasons. He is on the verge of breaking an NFL single-season record for punts downed inside the 20, having already tied the mark at 46. Though he’s made 83 punts, he’s still No. 1 in net average at 46.2 yards — 2.3-yards ahead of Detroit’s Sam Martin at No. 2. Hekker’s also recorded just one touchback this season, a particularly strong feat given his number of punts.
“I think it’s a huge honor,” Hekker said of making his third Pro Bowl. “I’m so grateful to be playing under coach Fassel and with the rest of this special teams group that takes so much pride in what we do. And I really, really owe it to the other guys who go out there and make me look good on a consistent basis.”
And according to Hekker, the fact that his fellow players have helped elect him makes the honor mean that much more.
“Yeah, definitely. I’m really mostly concerned with the respect and recognition of my teammates and coaches here,” Hekker said. “But I respect the heck out of all the other 31 punters in the NFL. We’re working hard to perfect our craft, and get better, and influence field position. So to get that recognition means quite a bit. There’s only so many opportunities we get to go out and prove that what we’re doing is the stuff, and we’re growing, and moving in the right direction.”
The 2017 Pro Bowl will be played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, Jan. 29. ESPN will televise the matchup between the AFC and NFC teams.
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It’s going to be a long search with a ton of back-and-forth, so don’t get tied up in the early report. As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King divulged earlier this week, Rams VP/COO Kevin Demoff put in serious ground work in the Rams’ 2012 head coaching search in Greg Schiano. As we all know, the Rams ultimately went with Jeff Fisher before Schiano headed to Tampa Bay.
A satirical look at more than 75 years of Football's Rams history, combined with discussions of American Exceptionalism and almost 50 years of personal experience in the life of a Rams Fan. The history parallels and intertwines life to form a humorous, yet serious look at American History, World History, an American Football team, and Political Science.