The Monday Night Football Week 1 doubleheader ends with a West Coast NFC West matchup. The Los Angeles Rams are back in California for the first time since 1994, although their home opener will have to wait another week. For now, they'll travel to Santa Clara to take on the San Francisco 49ers.
The Rams ushered in the new L.A. era with an ambitious trade to acquire a flashy rookie quarterback, but things haven't gone quite to plan with him. Jared Goff spent much of the offseason program second on the depth chart, behind uninspiring journeyman Case Keenum. It was puzzling, but didn't seem like something to be real concerned about. Goff was the No. 1 overall pick and they spent about a million draft picks to get him. Surely he would be under center in Week 1, right?
Then the preseason started and things went sideways. Goff looked alarmingly unready for the NFL, finishing the exhibition just 22 of 49 for 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, averaging a paltry 4.7 yards per attempt. In addition, he took a lot of big hits and was often a deer in headlights in the pocket. Goff dropped even further down the depth chart behind unknown Sean Mannion, and head coach Jeff Fisher later confirmed that he'll be inactive for this game.
It's easy to overreact to a small sample of preseason games, but Goff didn't look close to the pro-ready quarterback he was billed as before the draft. The last quarterback drafted first overall who didn't start in Week 1 was ... JaMarcus Russell. Not the company you want to keep if you're an aspiring franchise quarterback. It's way too early to declare Goff a bust, but it's not too early to say this has been an inauspicious start to his NFL career.
As for Keenum, he'll play mostly the same role he did last season: handing the ball off to Todd Gurley. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley is by far the Rams' best chance of moving the ball (aside from the odd Tavon Austin bubble screen). He has all the tools of a three-down back and will be counted on as L.A.'s bell cow. If he stays healthy, which is not a guarantee with his injury past, he'll be one of the favorites to win the NFL rushing title this year.
So the Rams will try winning games by running the ball and playing tough defenses. They certainly have the pieces to do so — Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald are elite franchise cornerstones — but if the passing game doesn't show a pulse this team could easily be, in Fisher's own words, "f***ing going 7-9" again.
After Jim Tomsula looked comically in over his head, the 49ers decided to hire a real head coach this time. In comes Chip Kelly, taking over his second NFL team after an unceremonious exit from the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly took the league by storm in 2013, leading the Eagles to a divisional title in his first year, but it's been all downhill from there. Last year's offseason gambit to get full personnel control led to a poorly built roster and fractured locker room, and the Eagles fired him with one game left in the season.
So Kelly the GM was a bust, but with the 49ers, he just gets to focus on being Kelly the Coach. That sounds like a great idea in theory, but he's inherited a roster that has less talent than he's ever worked with. Blaine Gabbert is the starting quarterback. Behind Torrey Smith at receiver are names like Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, Rod Streater and Aaron Burbridge. This is a far cry from the days when Kelly had DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy at his disposal.
Of course, the biggest story surrounding the 49ers involves Colin Kaepernick. His decision to kneel during the national anthem, in protest of racial inequality, has sparked an outpouring of both strong support and opposition. Whereas most teams would be unhappy with the "distraction," the 49ers have shown public support for Kaepernick's decision and other NFL players have started kneeling in unison. Kaepernick couldn't beat out Gabbert in the preseason — he missed too much time recovering from offseason surgeries to really learn Kelly's offense — but if Gabbert plays like the Gabbert we've seen for years, it may not be long before the Super Bowl 47 starter gets his starting job back.
The 49ers were bad last year and don't appear to have gotten any better. The Rams are stuck in neutral, and their prized rookie quarterback isn't ready. When the two most talked-about players in this game won't even be playing in the game, that probably doesn't bode well for the on-field product we'll be seeing on ESPN.
But hey, mediocre football is better than no football, and after seven months of no football we'll gladly take what we can get. Who knows, we might even get a pleasant surprise. Let's not forget the last time everybody wrote off a Monday night game between two bad teams.
Time: 10:20 p.m. ET
Place: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
The Rams opened as 2.5-point favorites, according to OddsShark. The line has stayed steady ever since then.
This game has underrated entertainment value, but actual points could be hard to come by. At the end of the day, the Rams' defense is still the best unit on paper here, so look for that to be the deciding factor, and Gurley should bang one in if they ever get close to the goal line. Rams 16, 49ers 10.