Truly great players make game changing plays in the biggest moments. They are clutch performers. Which ever competitor has the most of these type individuals in any team sport usually wins the contest. In the Super Bowl, where everybody is talented, clutch talent wins games. The Los Angeles Rams just won Super Bowl LVI, in large part because of their clutch talent.
The Rams went all in on winning a championship this season. They don't have the look of a sustainable dynasty, with many of their best players already at or past their primes. The Rams ownership realized their championship window was closing quickly, with generational talent defensive tackle Aaron Donald having precious little left to prove in his Hall of Fame career. Undoubtedly an all time great, Super Bowl champion was the only accolade that had eluded his grasp.
That is true no longer. He even closed the game out with a monumental play. T.J. Watt took home the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) Award, but Donald finally got his Lombardi. There are hints of a storybook ending, with rumors of Donald considering retirement lingering in the air. Actually, numerous Rams standouts enjoyed storybook seasons in 2021.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has been on a record setting pace statistically throughout his NFL career, but had never participated in a playoff game playing his entire career with the hapless Detroit Lions until this season. He needed a championship to solidify his Hall of Fame resume. Four post season games later, he has it. You couldn't write a better ending.
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp delivered arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history. As if his path to NFL glory wasn't unbelievable enough, he went out and was the triple crown winner at receiver on the season, 2021 Offensive Player of the Year (OPOY), and topped it off by catching the game winner in route to being named Super Bowl LVI MVP. During his short acceptance speech, he humbly suggested he didn't feel worthy of the recognition. In a league full of divas and look at me players, that certainly was refreshing. Inspirational even.
Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth may have the best storybook ending of them all. Offensive linemen just don't play 16 years at a high level in the NFL. He was the first 40 year old offensive lineman to ever play in a Super Bowl. After playing for 11 years, and excelling both on and off the field, for the Cincinnati Bengals, he has endured some injury plagued seasons with the Rams. Through it all, both the good and bad, he has been a pillar in the community. His charitable efforts where acknowledged on Thursday night when he was awarded the 2021 Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Now he is finally a champion on the field also.
Each of these individuals are now champions because they persevered. They have been difference makers for years now for different teams, but this was a magical season where the stars aligned. All the blood, sweat, and tears are now worth it. They had the personal integrity and work ethic to focus on the only thing they could control: themselves. They didn't make excuses or blame others, they worked tirelessly to hone their craft. Sustained excellence is the byproduct of hard work and attention to detail. That's how champions are made.
The Rams offense struggled mightily to move the ball after Odell Beckham Jr. went down with a knee injury in the second quarter. They found themselves losing by four in the latter stages of the fourth quarter. Facing a pivotal fourth and one deep in their own end, Rams Head Coach Sean McVay decided to roll the dice and go for it. Convert it, you are a young genius. Fail to convert, you're definitely trending in the wrong direction. McVay was smart enough to get the ball in the hands of his best offensive player, Cooper Kupp. With the trajectory of his career at stake, he knew who he could count on.
So who can Mike Tomlin and the Steelers count on next season? The obvious and hopefully correct answer in my eyes would be Najee Harris, especially if they solidify the offensive line and improve the talent surrounding him. That is more likely and possibly much easier than finding your next franchise QB in the first off season after Roethlisberger's retirement. That's simple analytics, which is all the rage in today's NFL landscape. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have yet to prove capable of being reliable game changers in the clutch, so an upgrade is definitely needed at WR.
Thankfully the Steelers defense is in better shape than their offense, and could potentially help carry the new look offense with a few tweaks and talented acquisitions. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick give the Steelers an elite performer at each level of the defense. Alex Highsmith looks like he could potentially team with Watt to form the top edge tandem in the league if he continues his current trajectory. Strengthen the surrounding depth through the draft and free agency, and the Steelers run defense could improve rapidly, making them an elite unit once again.
The Rams had more talented game changers on both sides of the ball than the Bengals, and that's why they are the 2021 Super Bowl champions. Coaching is important, but having talented individuals with character to coach wins games.