Beginning in 1950, it was a rivalry born of heated competition and, of course, geography. Using just the time frame since the NFC West became a division in 1970, the Rams and 49ers combined to win 28 of a possible 34 division titles through 2003. Much like the Dodgers and Giants in baseball, the Rams and 49ers were expected to represent their stake in the state of California — the Rams for the south and the Niners for the north.
With both teams struggling for large stretches after 2003, the rivalry had gone somewhat dormant, as both teams played in the obscurity that accompanies losing.
Now, with the Rams back in Los Angeles — after having relocated to St. Louis from 1995 to 2015 — and atop the division and the Niners looking the part of an up-and-comer, this rivalry has all the ingredients to once again be the one to watch, especially on the West Coast.
Both teams possess charismatic and confident young head coaches and quarterbacks in the Rams’ Sean McVay and Jared Goff and the Niners’ Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo. Earlier this season, the Rams and Niners played one of the most entertaining games of 2017, a 41-39 Los Angeles victory. We likely won’t be treated to something similar on Sunday when the teams meet at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), as the Rams rest many of their top players for the postseason.
Still, in an all-time rivalry that currently has the Niners ahead just 68-65-3, there’s a realistic possibility that McVay-Shanahan and Goff-Garoppolo will be main-event caliber football for years to come.
Where they are now
Rams reporter Alden Gonzalez: The Rams have pulled a complete 180 in McVay’s first season, and no player exemplifies that better than Goff. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick finished his rookie season with an 18.3 Total QBR that was easily the worst among those quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts. Now, at age 23, Goff has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.00) than even Tom Brady (3.75). The game has slowed down for Goff, his accuracy has improved and he has a much better feel in the pocket. But he also is operating behind a better offensive line, throwing to a better group of receivers and, thanks to McVay, navigating within a much more quarterback-friendly scheme. From one season to the next, the Rams (11-4) have gone from an NFL-worst 14 points per game to an NFL-best 31 points per game. And Goff now sports the NFL’s fifth-highest passer rating (100.5).
49ers reporter Nick Wagoner: Certainly, the 49ers have a lot of work to do to catch up to the newly crowned division champs. However, after an 0-9 start, the Niners have been one of the league’s best teams over the past month and a half, winning five of six and currently riding a four-game win streak. At the center of that revitalization is Garoppolo, the newcomer who has single-handedly breathed life into the organization and looks every bit the part of a franchise quarterback (and stands to get paid like one soon, too). With Shanahan calling the plays and Garoppolo at the controls, the 49ers offense has surged. Combined with a fiery young defense led by foundational pieces such as defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and linebacker Reuben Foster, the Niners have a chance to finish the season as one of the league’s hottest teams.
What needs to happen around them
Gonzalez: It’s crazy to say, given the extreme lows of 2016, but, well, nothing. The Rams just need to keep building. Goff needs to continue to grow as a quarterback, specifically with his accuracy on deep throws and his ball security while under duress. McVay needs to continue to grow as a playcaller, most notably with his tendency to rely too heavily on the pass at times. And the front office needs to keep drafting well. The long-term concern, believe it or not, is the defense. That side of the ball was playoff-ready long before the offense, and now a lot of those key defensive players are getting expensive. The Rams might have some tough decisions to make this offseason with the likes of Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, Robert Quinn and Mark Barron. And they eventually need to make Aaron Donald the game’s highest-paid defensive player.
Wagoner: In some ways, the 49ers would be wise to take a page from L.A.’s 2017 offseason playbook as they approach the 2018 offseason. While the Rams’ dramatic turnaround is the result of many years of work, it’s what the Rams did last offseason that pushed them over the top. The Niners seemingly already have the head coach and quarterback in place, but they need to make it a priority to bolster the supporting cast. On offense, that means doing something similar to what the Rams did by adding a couple of key pieces on the offensive line and at wide receiver. The 49ers’ offense could use a game-breaker or two; a top wide receiver — preferably a big, physical one — would be a welcome addition. So too would be a couple of new bodies on the interior of the offensive line. Beyond that, the Niners also have pressing needs at cornerback and edge rusher. With more than $100 million in cap space and nine 2018 draft picks, the Niners should be able to check a number of boxes to bolster the roster and position themselves for a potential big turnaround next year.
Who they can become
Gonzalez: Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, recently noted that in 10 years McVay will be 41 and Goff will be 33, both still within the prime years of their respective professions. He was pointing out that the Rams have a coach and quarterback who can grow together, and he mentioned other successful coach-quarterback pairings who did the same, such as Sean Payton and Drew Brees, Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger and even Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. It helps that the Rams are very young at receiver and have a star running back in Todd Gurley who is only 23 years old. Said Demoff: “This is sustainable. And that’s where, as a building block for this franchise — for this organization, for this city — you feel really good about what you’ve planted. And now it’s got to grow.”
Wagoner: It’s harder to gauge the 49ers’ upside right now, because so much of that faith is being pinned on what we’ve seen from Garoppolo in a short, four-game stretch. That said, there’s a lot to like about the way Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are building this team and this culture. Before Garoppolo arrived, Shanahan’s team never fractured in the face of all that losing; and now that the Niners are enjoying some success, they don’t seem to be buying into their own hype. That type of even-keeled approach is paramount — and a direct reflection of the head coach. From what we’ve seen so far, if the Niners are successful in building around Garoppolo — giving him a full offseason to learn Shanahan’s offense and adding key pieces to the defense — it’s not out of the question that the 49ers could enjoy a quicker-than-imagined turnaround and become the top NFC West challenger to the Rams as soon as next season, with even bigger things just a bit further on the horizon.
What they’re saying
McVay on Garoppolo: “He’s definitely instilled a confidence and energy in their offense,” McVay said. “I think Shanahan does a great job putting them in good situations, and he’s distributing the ball to a variety of playmakers. … He’s definitely given them a spark, and they’re playing really well. You even hear some of the comments that his teammates are making in terms of just the confidence that he instills based on the swagger and demeanor that he has. They’ve been playing really good football behind his leadership offensively.”
Shanahan on the return of a rivalry: “I look at it as anybody in your division you are going to be pretty big rivals with wherever you are, and especially in the NFC West with the Rams and the Niners, it’s been that way for a while,” Shanahan said. “I think the hard rivals end up being usually who the better teams in the division are. I hope that we are up there as we get going; I know the Rams are there this year. … Hopefully, that can build as we get going and we’ll both be up there each year. The Niners and the Seahawks had that going for a while, and we’ll see which teams start to do that now.”