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How the Rams Have Dealt with Tragedy and Displacement

There have been bigger things than football on the minds of L.A.’s players and staff during one of the toughest stretches of the season. To deal with it, they’ve fallen back on the sense of family that’s built up over the past two years.

Rob Havenstein described what he saw a week ago Thursday at the Rams’ afternoon practice, as a plume of smoke came up over the mountains to the south of the facility: “It seemed like a volcano erupted.” Then another went up north of the building, and the 26-year-old offensive tackle realized that the first blast of smoke was in the direction of his house.

The defense was on the field, which gave operations staffer Billy Nayes—who put two and two together—the chance to go over to Havenstein, hanging on the sideline, and ask if he wanted him to send his wife a text. Havenstein said yes, and, soon enough, Meghan Havenstein sent word back that they didn’t have much choice but to make the drive over to the team’s Thousand Oaks facility.

Their neighborhood, in nearby Newbury Park, was under mandatory evacuation.

The timing could have been better for the family. Their daughter, Bria, is just six weeks old. And not only did Meghan have to round up the family’s cat and two dogs (a golden doodle and a shepherd/husky mix) along with the baby, but her brother and his wife were in from Denver and staying at the house for the week.  And so when practice ended, the Havensteins gathered and game-planned, with the Rams’ help.

Their next stop was a hotel in Agoura Hills. They were there for less than two hours.

“We were smelling smoke, and [Bria] was screaming her head off, and we were like, that’s probably not what’s best for her,” Havenstein said on Wednesday. “So we figured we’d get a little further away, and so I texted some of the other guys in the organization and they gave me a heads up on where guys were going.”

After looking around, they found out that The W in Beverly Hills allowed dogs, so The W in Beverly Hills is where the family stayed. Their story, of course, wasn’t a unique one last week. Thousands of Southern Californians, and a few dozen Rams people, found themselves displaced as wildfires raged through the region. So the Havensteins, like a lot of others, did what they had to do.

But this certainly hasn’t been a normal week for the guys on that team, and the wildfires are just a part of a story that no one on the roster could possibly have prepared for. “I grew up on the East Coast,” Havenstein said. “I was used to hurricanes, not fires. People tell you hurricanes are coming. No one tells you a fire’s coming.”

Week 11 was supposed to be all about a Chiefs-Rams showdown that most of us have had circled for two months. And for the Rams, of course, it still is. It’s just that circumstances surrounding the season’s most anticipated game have changed. A lot.

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In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a running back and a quarterback to watch on Saturday, and five pros to watch on Sunday, and we’ll answer questions on the coaching carousel (which is still seven weeks away from really getting spinning), the Bengals’ future, a big Broncos decision and Lamar Jackson.

But we’re starting in Colorado Springs with the Rams. The team, of course, traveled there to get acclimated to altitude ahead of the big one against the Chiefs in Mexico City. Except the game isn’t being played in Mexico City anymore. It’s being played in Los Angeles, just a short drive from where those fires displaced Havenstein and a bunch of other Rams staffers. Suffice it to say, it’s been a different week:

• On Wednesday, Nov. 7, about five miles from the Rams facility in another part of Thousand Oaks, 12 people were gunned down in a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill.

• On Thursday, the wildfires broke out north of Los Angeles, in close proximity to the facility.

• On Friday morning Rams coach Sean McVay canceled all teams activities in an effort to prioritize players, coaches and staff looking out for their families.

• On Saturday morning the team convened at its hotel near the Coliseum for its morning meetings, which usually would take place at the facility.

• On Sunday the Rams held off the Seahawks 36-31, with new acquisition Dante Fowler registering the game-clinching strip sack.

• On Monday, the team flew to Colorado Springs for its week at the Air Force Academy.

• On Tuesday, players were riding the bus back from a conditioning session to the hotel when word filtered through that the game had been moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles, because of the field conditions at Estadio Azteca.

“It’s been crazy,” Havenstein said. “Obviously with the tragedy that happened in Thousand Oaks, with that being our community that we work in, and a lot of guys live in, that hit very close to home. And just dealing with that, and seeing how we can help out as an organization and as individuals, and then you have the fires breaking out, obviously there was a lot of devastation there, people losing homes. It’s just been absolutely nuts.”

And it has hit everyone in different ways.

Havenstein’s situation stabilized pretty quickly. On Friday the brother-in-law and his wife headed home to Denver as scheduled. On Saturday after two nights in Beverly Hills, Havenstein put Meghan, Bria and the pets on a plane headed back to Wisconsin (they have a home in Oconomowoc, between Milwaukee and Madison). By Sunday, the evacuation order where they live was lifted, so Havenstein went back and spent the night by himself at the house.

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Meanwhile, many of second-year safety John Johnson’s possessions are still loaded up in a car back in the parking lot at the facility. Johnson wasn’t evacuated from his house, but he wasn’t taking any chances either.

Like everyone else, he saw the smoke during practice. And his residence is a short walk from Hidden Hills, a gated community that was evacuated. So instead of taking any risk, he packed up to head to his buddy’s house in Van Nuys.

“It was more of a mental thing—you have all your belongings in your home,” Johnson said. “You want to make sure you’re physically safe before anything. Honestly, I just tried to put as much stuff in my car as I can, all the valuable stuff. Anything I can live with being gone, I left at my house. It was just making sure everything I really, really needed I had on me, because you just don’t know.

“They try to forecast, but you really don’t know.”

Johnson set his alarm early for Friday morning, being a little further from the facility, and instead was awoken by a mass text telling him everything was canceled. So he stayed at his friend’s house again on Friday night, before heading for L.A. early Saturday morning.

The upshot for Johnson is that, as a 22-year-old single guy, he didn’t have anyone to be responsible for but himself.

“I literally just have to stay away from the fires,” Johnson said. “That’s all I have to do.”

The one loose end is, yes, Johnson’s car, sitting at the Rams facility, packed with football memorabilia, clothes and jewelry. As Johnson describes it, “If you opened my trunk, you’d be like, ‘Yo, are you a hoarder or what?’ It’s kind of funny.”

So for now, most of the Rams’ issues are like this one: workable. Some, like Havenstein’s, have been more challenging for a day or two. And obviously, the players are all aware that it’s not that way for everyone—certainly not for the families of bar shooting victims, and not for some folks concerned for their homes in the area.

“Ultimately we work there everyday,” Johnson said. “Anything we can do, we try and do it. We’re definitely keeping an eye on everything since it’s so close to us.”

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For the rest of the week, though, they’ll be working in Colorado, and toward the clearing the biggest hurdle left in their fight to keep up with the Saints in the race for home field in the NFC playoffs. As both Johnson and Havenstein see it, that extra time together, in a training camp-like setting, can’t be anything but good for a team that’s already very tight.

And when they do get to Monday, there’ll be the chance to put on a show for a city that’s still hurting, and for an organization that’s helping at every turn.

“It’s very easy to lock back in, knowing the organization definitely has your back, and that the family atmosphere that we preach about is 100 percent true,” Havenstein said. “So we were able to take care of our families, make sure everyone’s safe, and then when it’s time to go back to work, it’s time to go back to work. I don’t think we flinched, or wavered at all.”

Given the showdown ahead, this week, they know they’ll need all the work they can get. And given what they’ve been through, that work is probably a welcome reprieve from what they’ve been doing.

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NFL players in the spotlight on Sunday and Monday:

Texans QB Deshaun Watson: Houston has scraped by along the offensive line to win six straight games. Will they be able to pull the trick again facing a loaded Washington defensive front? Part of it will be on Watson to generate time for himself.

Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette: Jacksonville’s arrival last year was validated most by the two wins over Pittsburgh, neither of which seemed like a fluke. And the reason there was nothing fluky about them? It was the old-school Fournette dunking on the home team on both occasions. We’ll see if that holds on Sunday in Jacksonville against a surging Steelers team.

Rams CB Marcus Peters: He’s been up and down all year, and he crumbled in a huge spot against New Orleans. With his old team, the Chiefs, coming to town on Sunday, replete with a cast of speedy receivers, Peters will need to be a lot better than he has been,

Eagles CB Sidney Jones: Another nicked up Jones who’s iffy for Sunday, with the loss of Ronald Darby, Philly needs its 2017 second-round pick. Jones is the one player at corner with the talent to be a No. 1 on the Eagles roster, and with the Saints’ Mike Thomas coming on Sunday, they need a No. 1.

Falcons LB Deion Jones: The third-year middle ’backer’s status is still uncertain for Sunday. But should he play, he’ll be key to getting the league’s 30th-ranked defense in position to contain Cowboys star RB Ezekiel Elliott, which is priority one for Atlanta.

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A pair of 2019 draft prospects to watch this weekend:

Oklahoma State RB Justice Hill (vs. West Virginia, ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET): Hill’s been a difference-maker, even on a struggling Cowboys team—he’s rushed for 930 yards and nine touchdowns, and caught 13 passes for another 68 yards through 10 games. And while his build (he’s listed at 5’10” and 190 pounds, and has a slim frame) would tell you that he won’t be able to shoulder that kind of load as a pro, he’s electric with the ball in his hands. “He’s not gonna carry the load, but he is explosive,” said one AFC college scouting direction. “And he can run on first and second down—you just can’t give it to him all the time.” In an off draft year for the position, Hill projects as a potential Friday pick (rounds two and three) as a passing-down back in the NFL.

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Duke QB Daniel Jones (at Clemson, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET): David Cutcliffe’s latest quarterbacking prodigy has entered the first-round discussion in a year that’s considered shallow for the game’s most important position. Jones’s numbers are pretty good (1,948 yards, 16 touchdowns, six picks), and his traits are too. “You want to see him keep the team as competitive as they can be,” said another AFC college scouting director, talking about Jones’s looming matchup with Clemson. “You’ll get to see him face pressure, so how will he perform and throw in the face of pressure? You’re not expecting him to beat Clemson, but you’ll see if he can handle pressure and how he tries to keep them in the game. He’s good [though]. He’s a big, athletic kid with a good arm. Really good athlete, good player and they use him in a variety of ways.” Duke will need all of that, of course, against the second-ranked team in the nation.

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From Adam Heldman (@awheldman): Will Hue Jackson be the next Bengals coach?

I certainly think it’s possible, depending on how he fits in with the staff. Marvin Lewis brought him in to help ease his own transition back to calling a defense, something that Lewis had entrusted to Mike Zimmer in earlier years. And remember, when Lewis threw Jackson his last lifeline, Hue came to coach secondary.

So do I think it’s possible that the Brown family goes with a guy they know at a reasonable rate? Absolutely. Remember, the top two names bandied about last year when Lewis was on the fence about coming back were Jackson and Jay Gruden. Mike Brown loves continuity, and so it sure feels like he’ll bring back an ex-Cincinnati assistant whenever the Lewis era ends. And now he has one in house.

BENOIT:Baker Mayfield is off to a great start in the post-Hue Jackson era

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From Chris Gilmore (@CMGilmorePastor): Do the Broncos look smart for letting Aqib Talib go because of injury? Or will he come back from it and make them regret it?

I’m fine with them letting Talib go, regardless of injury, because this was going to be a major retooling year all along—and it has been. Yes, Talib can still play, when he’s healthy. But he’s also going to be 33 years old in February.

So say the Broncos held on him … Any chance he’d be around if/when the team is ready to compete for another championship? That seems like a stretch, considering how their rookie class seems to be laying a new foundation that’s probably a couple years away.

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From Skimp Dreads Stokes (@S---StokesSays): If finding a RB is so easy, why haven’t the Lions had a 1k RB since Bush was in office?

That’s a fair question, Skimp. And I’m sure it stems from what I tweeted earlier in the week. The answer is that the Lions are an obvious outlier. And the point I was trying to make wasn’t that it can’t be useful to draft a running back high. We’ve seen that it absolutely can be. The question is whether it’s worth taking a back as high as Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott were drafted.

Jordan Howard went in the fifth round of Elliott’s draft. Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt went in the third round of the draft in which Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette went in the top eight. Kerryon Johnson was a second-rounder and Philip Lindsay an undrafted free agent in this, Barkley’s draft year.

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This isn’t to diminish what an Elliott, McCaffrey, Barkley or Le’Veon Bell can do. It’s just the ease at which you can find a suitable answer at that spot versus how difficult it can be to unearth a sleeper at another position.

(By the way, here’s an interesting sidenote: Eleven of the top 13 rushers in the NFL right now are on their rookie deals. That says a lot of things, but most of all it says that running backs have the misfortune (for them) of their prime years coming when they’re under stringent cost-control.)

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From Frank McCabe (@frankmccabe2): Is Dak the answer in Dallas?

It depends on what you’re looking for, Frank. My buddy/ex-NFL linebacker Bobby Carpenter did MMQB TV with us this week, and he offered up what I thought was a pretty apt comp for Dak Prescott: Alex Smith. Totally makes sense. Mobile, some play-making ability, good head for the game, a bit limited as a passer. And hey, if the Redskins make it, this would be seven out of the last eight years in the playoffs for Smith.

You can win with Dak, just like you can win with Smith. But neither guy is going to load the team on his back. That’s why, when you see Elliott really get going, you get a different Prescott. In the win over the Eagles last week, Prescott was 26 of 36 for 270 yards and a touchdown. No coincidence that Elliott cruised to 151 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

The Cowboys coaches have also done a better job of late of getting Dak into a rhythm early in games by generating early completions. He seems like a better player late in games as a result.

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From Sheila Marie Dizon (@sheilamdizon): Do you see any of the big-name college football head coaches making the jump to the NFL next season?

I think every team that has an opening will call Lincoln Riley, who really likes the job he’s got at Oklahoma. My feeling is that the Cowboys would probably be the one team, as a native Texan, that Riley would have a hard time saying no to. And if Dallas makes a change, it’s worth mentioning that the Jones family does have a relationship with Riley, who recruited Jerry’s grandson.

If not Riley, then who? Three names I’ve mentioned that I think could generate a little heat: Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Baylor’s Matt Rhule and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. And before alumni get upset, I’m not saying those guys would bolt, just that I do believe the NFL will inquire on them.

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From John Appleton (@jaa0109): What coordinators are likely going to get head coaching jobs this coming offseason?

You guys are already into this! Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen are all names that could be in play, and obviously we have to figure out whether guys like Ravens coach John Harbaugh come available.

But as you know, there’s plenty of time for that in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy Week 11, everyone!

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