Ndamukong Suh earned multiple All-Pro honors, Pro Bowl selections and tens of millions of dollars during his first eight NFL seasons.
The imposing defensive lineman had never won a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl. When he was free to choose his next team after the Dolphins released him last March, Suh decided he would try to fill that gap in his resume.
After speaking at length with the New Orleans Saints and other suitors, he decided to join the Los Angeles Rams . They hadn’t won a playoff game since the 2004 season, but they appeared to be on the verge of something big after going 11-5 last season.
“I felt this team had some of the right pieces, and I would be a good addition to it,” Suh said. “A lot of conversations that we had with the coaching staff and the front office on my visit were (about) playing well in the season and being prepared for the postseason.”
Nearly 10 months later, the payoff has arrived for Suh’s leap of faith to Los Angeles.
After the Rams went 13-3 for the best regular-season record of Suh’s career, he had likely his best game for his new team last weekend when Los Angeles beat the Dallas Cowboys 30-22 in the divisional round. The Rams head into the NFC championship game at the Superdome on Sunday with a shot at the 32-year-old Suh’s first trip to his sport’s biggest stage.
“It would mean a lot,” Suh said. “I’ve been in this league for nine years. (This is) my first NFC championship (game), and that would be my first Super Bowl. I get chills thinking about it, so I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
Suh’s thoughts are echoed across the Rams’ locker room, which is filled with accomplished NFL players who have never accomplished much in the postseason.
Many key players remain from the team that went 4-12 in 2016 during the franchise’s 13th straight non-winning season, from Jared Goff and Todd Gurley to Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.
Several of the veterans that Los Angeles has added in the past two years also lacked playoff credentials — including 37-year-old Andrew Whitworth, the dominant left tackle who finally got his first postseason win last weekend.
“Honestly, we feel like we’ve been through it,” Whitworth said. “There’s really not much adversity we haven’t seen all year long. I think we kind of feel like we were born for this moment and this opportunity.”
Indeed, the Rams likely don’t have the collective playoff experience of their fellow conference finalists, but they have a firm bond forged during a season of upheaval.
They had to stick together in November when the suburban area around their training complex was rocked by the double impact of a mass shooting at a bar and two wildfires that forced several players and coaches to leave their homes as a precaution. The Rams also had to adjust to a schedule change when their game against the Chiefs in Mexico City was moved back to Los Angeles on six days’ notice.
None of it has shaken the team led by coach Sean McVay, who became the youngest coach in NFL history to win a playoff game last weekend.
McVay acknowledges no concern about his inexperience on the sport’s highest levels when compared to the likes of New Orleans’ Sean Payton, who has a Super Bowl ring.
That’s because McVay has assistant coaches with experience in conference championships and Super Bowls — particularly defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has done and seen everything the NFL can offer.
While a conference title game in the deafening Superdome is a new experience for most Rams, Brandin Cooks is an exception on several fronts. The veteran receiver won’t even be surprised by the Superdome din.
Cooks played three years with the Saints — albeit without making the playoffs — before moving to the Patriots last season. He played in the first quarter of the Super Bowl before incurring a concussion that kept him out of the rest of New England’s loss to Philadelphia.
Cooks was traded to the Rams, but he agreed to a five-year contract extension before he had even suited up in a horned helmet. He says he hasn’t regretted his decision, although he didn’t dare to imagine he would have a chance to play in two straight Super Bowls for different teams.
“When I got here, I knew we had something special,” Cooks said. “But (I knew I shouldn’t) get ahead of myself. Take it one game at a time, just build throughout the weeks, and if we have the opportunity, then we’re blessed. Don’t think about it too much, is what I should say.”
NOTES: WR Robert Woods also got his first career playoff win last week. The six-year veteran admits that last years’ experience in the Rams’ postseason loss to Atlanta helped them. “Just learning from that experience, our win last week was about situational football. Just executing, and protecting the ball.” … For the second straight day, the Rams had no players on their injury report. Although they’ve lost key receiver Cooper Kupp for the season, the Rams have been otherwise remarkably healthy this season. … The torrential rains that have hit Los Angeles over the past three days abated by midday Thursday, allowing the Rams to practice on their normal outdoor fields. The team erected an enormous temporary tent on the parking lot next to their training complex if they needed it, but so far it hasn’t been necessary to go indoors.