Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Los Angeles sports fan. Life isn’t too bad. The Kings have won two Stanley Cups since 2012. The Clippers are exciting, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the DeAndre Jordan saga. And there’s even competitive college football, mostly thanks to UCLA in recent years, but USC is still a thing.
Now, imagine you’ve been told the NFL is returning to L.A. The joy. Oh, the joy. Professional football after 20 long seasons in the desert. But which team will it be? There are three franchises vying for your undying affection, all of whom have ties to the city: The Oakland Raiders, the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers. Normally, the NFL would tell you who to cheer for, buy tickets for and love regardless of the repressed knowledge that you’re watching hundreds of young men sacrifice their physical and emotional well-being for the enjoyment of faceless masses and the enrichment of 32 elderly, almost entirely white men.
But there’s a catch. This time, you get to choose the team for whom you’ll root. Let’s say, in our thought experiment, Roger Goodell wants you to pick the NFL’s next Los Angeles team. The only rule is it has to be of the three interested parties, and you can’t suddenly decide that you’d like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler to be the quarterback of the Rams. The rosters, the salary caps, the front offices and coaching staffs – they are what they are.
You decide: Chargers, Raiders or Rams.
Who do you want? Who would you choose? Of course, you may or may not already be a fan of one of these teams – entirely feasible considering the Rams and Raiders once called L.A. home as did the Chargers, before they moved two hours (HAH!) down the coast. Also some of you may or may not be fans in the cities in which these teams currently reside and thus rightfully biased to want them to stay. For the sake of argument, though, let’s just leave all that fandom at the door. How would you, how should you make this choice?
Let’s start by breaking down the criteria for what a new, or free-agent NFL fan, should want in their team.
First, you’ll want a team with a viable starting quarterback. In today’s NFL, the quarterback is the beginning and the end — without whom long-term success is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. The Raiders, with Derek Carr, and Chargers, with Philip Rivers, have just that. Although he’s approaching his 34th birthday, Rivers is still one of the five to seven best quarterbacks in the league. Despite facing pressure on 37 percent of his dropbacks, Rivers is still completing 69.8 percent of attempts while on pace for career highs in completions, yardage and touchdowns. Carr, on the other hand, is just 23 games into this NFL career but is already showing signs of being one of the better young passers in the league. In a smartly designed offensive system, Carr is efficient, decisive and more accurate than most expected. Most importantly, he’s cheap thanks to his rookie contract, which allows the Raiders to build out the rest of the roster with expensive free agents. Unfortunately for the Rams, Nick Foles doesn’t quite fall into the category of cheap, young, developing talent or established veteran. He’s somewhere in the middle and almost definitely will not be the Rams’ starting quarterback when they make any serious playoff run.
Next, you’ll want a team that’s fun to watch. This is hard to define because everyone has different tastes. Some, like yours truly, get unbelievable, possibly impractical joy out of watching 300-pound defensive linemen move with the agility of a scatback. Others enjoy long touchdown runs or passes or a defense that simply imposes its will on the other team.
When it comes to overall excitement, it’s hard to beat the Rams, who have two of the most exciting players in all of sports right now. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, one of those dancing 300-pound bears I love so much, and running back Todd Gurley are physical marvels. There’s no way they should be able to accomplish the feats they do on a regular basis. Yet, Sunday after Sunday, there’s Gurley splitting a lane and running 71 or 55 or 48 yards nearly untouched for a score. With Le’Veon Bell hurt, Gurley might just be the best running back in the league after five career games. Oh, and he’s coming off a torn ACL. Not to be outdone, Donald is the guy for whom Vines, gifs and embedded Twitter video clips were made. There’s nothing like watching him overpower an offensive lineman 30 or 40 pounds bigger than him or shoot past that same lineman with a twitch quicker than an itch to bury an unsuspecting running back or quarterback. The Raiders and Rams have their own versions of excitement – rookie Raiders wideout Amari Cooper and second-year linebacker Khalil Mack are amazing, and watching Rivers operate San Diego’s offense at peak efficiency is like watching Rembrandt paint a masterpiece. But for total excitement, it’s hard to top the Rams.
Also, let’s be honest, you want a team that looks good. I’m not talking about style points on the field. I’m talking looks as in jerseys, pants and color scheme. You want to root for a team that wears stuff other teams’ fans want to buy. And there’s nothing as iconic or as beautiful as the black and silver of the Raiders. Sure, the Chargers and Rams have throwback jerseys that belong in the upper echelon of upper echelon of jerseys, but their day-to-day stuff pales in comparison to the intimidating vista of the Raiders’ historic garb. The pirate logo, the way the sun shines off the silver helmets and contrasts with the pitch-black jerseys. Even their road whites are strong, and they’re just made up of essentially two main colors. There’s no debating this.
Also, while we’re on the subject of the Raiders’ looks, it’s hard to ignore the built-in fan base that comes with that franchise. The Black Hole is historic. It’s epic. It’s written in the annals of NFL Films and essentially already enshrined in Canton. Gameday atmosphere matters – a lot – and you want a fan base that isn’t going to take five years or a Super Bowl run to be all-in.
But really, we’re just dancing around the biggest issue. It’s great to be exciting. It’s great to wear cool jerseys and sit next to a screaming maniac wearing spiked shoulder pads who either had too many lattes or too many Steel Reserves. The most important thing you want in your new NFL team is a winner. It’s not just an L.A. thing. It’s an everywhere thing. It’s an American thing. We don’t want to pay money to watch a team suck.
This presents the most interesting debate of all. Of the three, the Chargers have the best player at the most important position. They also have a below-average and oft-injured offensive line and a defense that’s once again one of the worst in the league. And, perhaps most importantly, they’re probably going to fire their coach after this season. You don’t want to adopt a one- or two-player team with an uncertain future, so the Chargers are probably out.
That leaves the two most recent L.A. inhabitants – the Raiders and the Rams. On one hand, the Rams are unquestionably the more talented team. They’ve got Gurley and Donald, as previously stated, and the defense is absolutely loaded. Also, wide receiver Tavon Austin is finally being utilized correctly, and he’s pretty damn exciting, too. But they don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback or on the sidelines, where Jeff Fisher continues to gain praise despite a thoroughly mediocre resume for the past decade.
Meanwhile, the Raiders have a genuinely exciting quarterback-wide receiver duo in Carr and Cooper, a good offensive line and a young, growing defense led by the scintillating Mack, who’s a couple two- or three-sack games from dominating postgame shows. Also, while the Rams play in the NFC West with Seattle and Arizona, the Raiders get the AFC West, where the Chiefs are stuck in perpetual mediocrity (or worse) and the Chargers are crumbling before our eyes. Yes, the Broncos have dominated the division for years, but with Peyton Manning aging out of the league, there’s room for change at the top.
Maybe the Rams will find their quarterback this offseason or the Chargers will find a defense and a way to protect Rivers, but until then, give me Carr, Cooper, Mack and the black and silver.
Just win, baby.