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Rams’ Super Bowl success built on a core 4 around McVay

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Andrew Whitworth still has the first voicemail he got from Sean McVay welcoming him to the Los Angeles Rams five years ago, and the left tackle plays it occasionally to tease his boss.

McVay had barely turned 31 at the time, and he had just become the NFL’s youngest head coach — a title he still holds.

“He sounded pretty square on the voicemail, and a little cheesy,” Whitworth said with a grin. “But he’s not that. He’s just so passionate sometimes. Once we finally got the chance to sit down and talk ball, it was like — sometimes you meet people and you’re like, ‘Man, we were destined to meet each other. We were destined to sit down.’ We’ve been destined to be together and be around each other.”

Whitworth and McVay didn’t know it at the time, but they were also destined to sit down with Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald for a ride to a remarkable future.

Their half-decade with the Rams has been the best time of their careers — five winning records, four playoff teams, three NFC West titles and two Super Bowl berths — largely because McVay and Whitworth quickly teamed up with two receivers who also arrived in early 2017 and a defensive tackle who was already here to form the core of a perennial winner.

While big names from Todd Gurley to Odell Beckham Jr. have come and gone on the Rams’ high-profile roster, McVay has always been able to count on Whitworth, Woods, Kupp and Donald. While the coach masterminds their moves, all four veterans are prolific contributors who rank among the most dependable players in the league at their positions.

They’re the cornerstones of the Rams’ success, and newcomers to Los Angeles immediately understand what they’re standing upon.

“It comes from the top down, Coach McVay, the leaders on this team — Aaron Donald, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp,” midseason acquisition Von Miller said after the Rams’ 20-17 victory over San Francisco in the NFC title game. “These guys have built something special, man, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of it.”

The Rams are well-known for collecting superstars in the unique approach to team-building under McVay and general manager Les Snead. They’ve repeatedly sacrificed high draft picks to acquire elite veterans, annually assembling a self-described All-Star team built to contend urgently for championships.

But the Rams’ risky strategy is possible only because of the moves they made in early 2017, shortly after the franchise finished its 12th consecutive non-playoff season and 13th consecutive non-winning season. Donald was already one of the NFL’s best players, but he had little continuity and even less elite talent around him.

After taking a huge risk in hiring the precocious McVay, the Rams went shopping for a left tackle. McVay and Snead persuaded the longtime Bengals lineman to move his family to the West Coast, and Whitworth has been the bedrock of LA’s offense and leadership ever since. In December, Whitworth became the first NFL left tackle to start in his 40s, and he’s still grading out as one of the league’s best pass blockers.

“In the five years I’ve been here, every year there’s a new standard,” Whitworth said. “Every year, there’s a new, ‘You know what? This is what it takes for us to get our job done.’ This year, adding some of these players has really taken us to another step, and it’s been great.”

On the same day in March 2017, the Rams signed both Whitworth and Woods, a Los Angeles native and USC luminary who had underwhelmed in Buffalo. Woods embraced McVay’s offense, and his cerebral, precise skills made him a perfect fit.

Nearly two months later, the Rams used a third-round pick on Kupp, a moderately regarded receiver from Eastern Washington who immediately proved he was much more. Kupp and Woods immediately clicked in offseason workouts, and their bond is now among the tightest on the roster, both on the field — they’ve combined for 10,143 yards receiving and 63 touchdowns in their five seasons together — and off.

The only thing preventing the Rams’ core four from playing for a storybook ending in SoFi Stadium next weekend is Woods’ season-ending knee injury. It’s particularly painful for Kupp, who missed the Rams’ first Super Bowl trip together three years ago with his own torn knee ligament.

But Woods is watching the games in the stands next to Kupp’s wife and family, and he cheered wildly for the Rams in the NFC title game. Afterward, he took the field and shared meaningful hugs with several teammates, including an emotional moment with Kupp, who won the NFL’s receiving triple crown this season.

“It’s a special thing having someone like Rob on your team, having someone like him as a friend,” Kupp said. “What he means for this team, even when he’s not able to be out there with us, it’s a special thing. He’s a very special person. I love Rob. He’s going to be my brother for the rest of my life.”

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL



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