Andrew Whitworth put his surgically repaired knee through seven weeks of tough rehabilitation starting in mid-November because he believed the Los Angeles Rams would be fighting for a championship if he could get back in time.
The 39-year-old left tackle was absolutely right — and if the rest of the week goes well, the anchor of Los Angeles' offensive line will be on the field this weekend when the Rams (10-6) start their playoff push in Seattle.
“There's still some boxes to check off and make sure you can do everything, but right now everything feels great,” Whitworth said. “Eight weeks from an MCL-PCL tear is fast. I've told some friends I'm going to do my best not to cry the whole first half because I'm going to be emotional. I can't wait for the opportunity.”
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Whitworth began his second full week of practice with his teammates Wednesday and came out feeling confident about his chances to return from a potentially season-ending injury more quickly than almost anybody realistically anticipated. Whitworth was hurt during the Seahawks' visit to Los Angeles earlier this season, leaving the field on a cart with the knowledge his career could be finished.
Not only is Whitworth's career not over, but he seems increasingly likely to return to the Rams next season. Whitworth said his body is fresh after two months without a game, but his rehab has “been a grind," and he doesn't want to waste that work.
But first, he wants to give a boost to an offense that was among the NFL's best in his first two seasons in Los Angeles, but hasn't been close to those heights since.
The Rams are in the postseason largely because the NFL's top-ranked defense carried an offense that committed a turnover in every game and hasn’t scored a touchdown since before Christmas.
Two years after Sean McVay was considered the smartest offensive coach in football, his unit is struggling to score points, finishing the regular season tied for 22nd in that category. Washington is the only playoff team that scored fewer points than the Rams.
That's a fairly shocking decline for a team that recently did things like scoring at least 29 points in 11 of its first 12 games during its Super Bowl season only two years ago.
“No frustration going on,” said receiver Robert Woods, who led the Rams with six touchdown catches. “We know we’ve just got to stay consistent, stay poised. We know we’ve got a huge opportunity, but we’ve just got to go out there and play our game against their defense. We know who they have. We know who they’re going to line up against us, so we really just need to play how we usually play versus Seattle.”
The Rams' struggles began long before Jared Goff injured his thumb by banging it on a helmet during the Rams' loss at Seattle less than two weeks ago. Whitworth watched with approval while backup John Wolford generated 287 total yards last week in Los Angeles' win over Arizona.
“He did a heck of a job, and I thought we could have played better around him, honestly,” Whitworth said of Wolford. “We’re confident with him in there.”
McVay doesn't plan to announce a starter this week, although Goff looked comfortable throwing the ball in practice Wednesday. He would also have his favorite target if he plays. Leading receiver Cooper Kupp returned to practice after more than a week away from the team on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Whitworth's presence also would be a likely boost to a running game that's struggling almost as much as the Rams' red zone offense. Leading rusher Darrell Henderson is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain, and rookie Cam Akers managed just 34 yards on 21 carries with a goal-line fumble last week against the Cardinals.
McVay thinks the Rams' scoring problems are due to “inefficiency running the football, and then self-inflicted wounds," pointing to two false-start penalties that pushed Los Angeles back from the goal line against Arizona. He also continued his season-long self-criticism of his play-calling decisions in the red zone.
“That’s just where you have to be that much sharper, that much more precise,” McVay said. “When the field condenses and shrinks, it’s less horizontal and vertical grass, which makes it more difficult to move the football. But no excuses, we have to be better in that area, and I expect us to do that this week."