The 49ers won’t play for a playoff spot on Sunday against the L.A. Rams. They won’t even face the real Rams — Rams head coach Sean McVay announced on Tuesday that he will not play his starters. But the 49ers still have plenty to play for. They want to beat the Rams. They want to become the Rams.
The Rams represent what the 49ers aspire to, an elite team. After winning only four games last season, the Rams turned things around fast. They have won 11 games this season and are the champions of the NFC West.
The 49ers’ record is 5-10 and they’re in last place in the NFC West. But since Jimmy Garoppolo became the starting quarterback, they’ve won four games in a row, and last Sunday they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose record is 10-5.
The 49ers may just be in the middle of their own quick turnaround.
“(The Rams) have accumulated a number of good players over the years,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters Tuesday morning. “I think the results aren’t that surprising when you look at some of the people they have on paper. They have the quarterback that they made the move for, and they got him a few weapons this year.”
Shanahan was referring to quarterback Jared Goff. The Rams traded up to take him with the first pick last season, and he struggled as a rookie. He threw only five touchdown passes in seven games and his passer rating was a mere 63.6.
This season, the Rams brought in a new head coach — McVay — and three new receivers — Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Now, Goff is flourishing.
He has thrown 28 touchdown passes in 15 games, his quarterback rating is 100.5 — fifth highest in the league — and when he faced the 49ers earlier this season in a 41-39 Rams win, he posted a passer rating of 145.8.
“He’s not hesitant to let it rip,” Shanahan said. “He knows when to be aggressive. He knows when not to force it, too. He’s doing a much better job giving them some bigger plays, eliminating the turnovers and really getting the ball into some of his playmakers’ hands and letting them do a lot of the work.”
The Rams primary playmaker is their running back, Todd Gurley. He has been with the Rams for three seasons, but this season has been by far his best.
Gurley currently leads the league with 1,305 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He leads the Rams with 64 catches, too. And when he faced the 49ers Week 3, he gained 149 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns.
“He’s as big a challenge that there is for anyone,” Shanahan said. “I thought he was one of the better guys I’ve ever studied coming out of college. He looked that way his first year, definitely. I know he had a little setback last year. But this year he looks like that exact same guy.
“He’s physical enough to run you over. He’s a big guy, but he’s got track-type speed, and he’s very smooth at getting in the right holes. He’s a very natural runner to where he always goes to the gap that people are out of position, and when he hits it, he so naturally can hit it at full speed that if guys aren’t closing, what could normally be a six-yard run for someone else, for him, it’s an 80-yard run, and he’s to the house fast.”