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Elliott: Once-exiled Cam Akers a bright spot for Rams amid Super Bowl payback season

While Rams players underwent massages and treatments and tried to shower off the disappointment of their 27-23 loss to Seattle on Sunday, a team staffer walked around the locker room at SoFi Stadium to pick up their discarded towels and water bottles. On the back of his T-shirt, beneath a Rams logo, was the slogan, “2022 Write Our Next Chapter.”

It became clear a few weeks ago, when the Rams began a losing streak that reached six Sunday, that this chapter won’t be nearly as exciting or successful as the drama they lived last season after they mortgaged their future the last few years and gave up a raft of prime draft picks to acquire Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller in an all-in run for a championship.

Their triumph in Super Bowl LVI inspired another slogan on another T-shirt, this worn by general manager Les Snead in the Rams’ championship parade. It proclaimed his contempt for building around draft picks by using an expletive that was unfit for family viewing but reinforced he had been right to prefer proven players to draft picks with boundless potential that might never materialize.

Snead gave up a lot but won the ultimate prize, and that’s the whole point. Why be content to be a team that makes the playoffs on a consistent basis but rarely goes far, when he saw a chance to win it all?

The championship banner that hangs at SoFi, the compact-car-sized championship rings players and coaches earned, the line in history books … winning all that was worth everything he gave up.

But now, payment has come due. After a long playoff run it’s no surprise the Rams have been badly depleted by injuries, especially on their offensive line. Or that Stafford, with a pieced-together offensive line trying to protect him, has been hurt and is now on injured reserve because of a spinal cord contusion.

Coach Sean McVay said Sunday there’s a good chance Stafford is done for the season. There’s no point in bringing him back and risking additional injury. The Rams are done, too. But their problems might only be beginning, with salary-cap dilemmas looming and no first- or fourth-round draft picks in 2023 to use or trade as a way to accelerate the rebuild they’ll need.

Rams running back Cam Akers scores touchdown against Seattle in the first quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“These are the times that you really learn,” McVay said. “I know for me, personally, this is the most challenging thing that you’ve ever gone through. It’s forcing a lot of reflection that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

“I don’t want to go through this but I’m grateful because if you have the right perspective, growth can occur, and I want to be better for these players, for these coaches. That’s the thing about sports, man. When things are good it’s easy. When things are challenging you really are forced to live out the stuff that you talk about.”

One thing McVay should have learned on Sunday was that he previously had underused running back Cam Akers, who had a season-high 17 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks (7-5).

Akers was exiled from the Rams for about two-and-a-half weeks in October, returning to practice in early November. He had been unhappy over how little he had been deployed and over being told in training camp he hadn’t shown enough intensity. He was instructed to stay home. The Rams couldn’t find any takers in trade talks.

On Sunday, with McVay needing the running game to support backup quarterback John Wolford, Akers came through. He scored the Rams’ first touchdown, capping their first possession with a one-yard run, and barged into the end zone for the six-yard run that gave them a 23-20 lead with two minutes and 56 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

The defense couldn’t hold the lead, but Akers did his part well. It brought back memories of his exile, though he wouldn’t elaborate.

“A lot that I’d rather not say. Just I learned from it,” he said. “I know what I can do. I know what I’m capable of; I know who I am.”

As a fired-up Bobby Wagner led the Rams’ defense on Sunday with two sacks and an interception against his former team, Akers was a touchstone for the offense.

“I’m not much of a vocal guy. I’m more of a guy who’s going to go out and do it, lead by example. Make the play. Try and make the play when it’s there,” he said. “I feel our offense has got a lot of leaders who are more do it by example, not vocal guys, and that’s something that we got to get better at offensively, is having guys step up and step up and be those vocal guys that we need, vocal leaders.”

McVay spoke about having seen improvement, which is something to cling to as the Rams make a quick turnaround to face the Raiders at SoFi Stadium on Thursday in what’s sure to sound and feel like a Raiders home game.

“You’re not going away with the moral victories, but I think we can all see the steps that this group has taken. A lot of positives. But we want to be able to win the football game,” McVay said. “It’s tough because of the amount of work that these guys put into it. But we just came up short. Didn’t make quite enough plays. But there was a lot of things that we can build on.

“This is challenging. But I’m proud to be going through this with these guys, and this is where real growth can occur.”

What they did to win last season was worth it, no matter how painful these final few games might be.

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