It was a signature victory for the Rams, and one without a player whose name is scrawled all over the franchise.
While his teammates knocked off Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before a national audience Monday night, injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth watched from his couch, his knee immobilized and his booming voice bouncing all over the room.
He was like a proud father, rooting on a trio of first-year players who played such a vital role in the 27-24 win. Receiver Van Jefferson and running back Cam Akers scored their first career touchdowns, and safety Jordan Fuller had two interceptions against a quarterback with a record six Super Bowl rings.
“It was like the night of the rookies, man,” said Whitworth, a 15-year veteran who is out six to eight weeks with sprained ligaments in his left knee.
After all that hand-wringing that the Rams didn’t have a first-round pick in the draft, a bunch of lesser-known rookies stepped up in a huge way — and against a star-studded team featuring Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh and others.
It was a huge win for a team making its fifth cross-country trip of the season. The Rams have played more games in the Eastern time zone than they have in SoFi Stadium.
Jefferson and Akers were second-round picks, Fuller was taken in the sixth. It was rookie outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, a third-round pick, who leaped and (with his biceps) batted a Brady pass back in his face. In a comical moment, Brady tried to re-throw his own pass that he had caught. His wobbly second toss was caught by receiver Mike Evans but was illegal, so it didn’t count. Regardless, another big play by a Rams rookie.
“There’s an intentional reason that they are Rams, why they have important roles with the Rams,” general manager Les Snead wrote in a text. “It depends on the week and the game what our coaches ask our guys to do to contribute.
“Our coaches have done an amazing job developing them and eventually trusting them to help us.”
But it’s not just the coaches. Veteran players have played a significant role in the development of the younger players too. The All-Pro Whitworth was focused on one player in particular— his replacement, Joe Noteboom, a third-round pick in 2018 who has been groomed to succeed him.
“It was agonizing not to be there, because you know how much you poured in him and how much you believe in him,” Whitworth said. “I was so confident in him. I talked to him earlier [Monday] and told him how good he was going to do. I was proud of him for going in there and playing well.”
The game wasn’t perfect for the offensive line. The Rams couldn’t move the ball on the ground — albeit against the league’s No. 1 rush defense — and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul slipped off a block and intercepted a screen pass. But Brady was under heavier pressure than Jared Goff, who outplayed him.
Whitworth was so nervous before kickoff, he went outside with his sons and from his chair officiated their backyard basketball game.
“It was hard, the feeling of not being with the guys as they build up their energy and anxiety and passion to go play, being in there and with them together in this thing,” he said. “I tried to text as many of them as I could earlier in the day. Not being with the guys is the hard part.
“But not playing? The last four years I’ve felt like I’m part of a lot more than just the position. So obviously I’m proud of the guys to go out and play like they did.”
He agreed that this was a milestone win for the team.
“Even when the game was tied, 24-24, no matter how it ends up, you had to say that this is the performance you wanted,” he said. “To go on the road and play against a playoff team? And let’s keep it real, this [Buccaneers team] was the one people thought were winning the Super Bowl.
“This doesn’t count for anything more than another W — but in a way it does.”
As for the young players, Snead wrote: “Performances like tonight on Monday Night Football is how you go from no-name to household name.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.