INGLEWOOD, Calif. — A barrage of fireworks erupted. Plumes of smoke hung in the air. The chorus of a catchy Nipsey Hussle song blared from the loudspeakers.
Only one element was missing Sunday night when the 2020 Los Angeles Rams sprinted out of the tunnel to take the field for the first time at their palatial new stadium: There were no fans in the stands to applaud them.
The startling emptiness at SoFi Stadium served as a surreal backdrop to what should have been a historic night in Los Angeles. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed Rams fans of the chance to celebrate the unveiling of their new $5 billion stadium and to revel in a tense 20-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Instead of the smell of carne asada and bacon-wrapped hot dogs wafting into the stadium from pregame tailgates, the parking lots were deserted. Instead of a sea of Rams and Cowboys fans in the stands, there were a few dozen cardboard cutouts in each end zone surrounded by endless rows of black empty seats.
The concession stands stood unmanned because there was nobody to serve. The cheerleaders were shown on the video board performing from a location outside the stadium. It wouldn’t have even felt like a game at all were it not for the soundtrack of piped-in cheers and boos that aired over the loudspeakers at key moments.
Aaron Donald compared the atmosphere to a scrimmage. Then, the Rams’ All-Pro defensive lineman found an analogy he liked better.
“It felt more like a little league game, back when I was 6, 7 years old playing,” Donald said after the game. “The only thing that wasn’t there was my mom and dad screaming, ‘Aaaron.’ That’s the only thing that was different.”
The Rams were far from the only team that had to adjust to empty stadiums during the opening weekend of the NFL season. As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, only the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars had any fans in the stands for their home openers — 22 percent and 25 percent of capacity, respectively.
The unusual environment led to some memorable postgame quotes on Sunday, none better than Bill Belichick’s reply to a long-winded question after the Patriots began the post-Tom Brady era with a victory over Miami.
“What was the atmosphere like in the stadium without fans there? Can you compare it to anything else you’ve experienced in your football career?” the reporter asked.
“Practice,” the notoriously terse Belichick responded.
A similar question inspired New Orleans defensive lineman Cam Jordan to take a jab at Tampa Bay after a Saints victory over the Buccaneers inside the typically deafening Superdome. Quipped Jordan with a smile, “It felt like we were at a Tampa Bay game.”
The Rams’ game was the ultimate buzzkill only because of the time and money owner Stan Kroenke invested in SoFi Stadium. This is a jewel of a venue that deserved a better inaugural event than what resembled a training camp scrimmage.
The Rams did an admirable job creating their own energy without fans to feed off. They staved off every Dallas comeback attempt thanks to a series of spirited defensive stops and a critical disputed pass interference call.
Jalen Ramsey ended one Dallas drive with a third-down hit on Amari Cooper that jarred the football loose. Jordan Fuller halted another when he sniffed out a CeeDee Lamb crossing route on fourth-and-3 and leveled the rookie one yard shy of the first-down marker.
The pass interference call negated a 47-yard strike from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup that would have put the Cowboys in field goal range in the final minute. Referees ruled that Gallup used his right arm to create separation from Ramsey even though it appeared that both players were hand fighting for position.
Under normal circumstances, the scene from the stands would have amplified that decisive moment. Roaring Rams supporters would have sensed victory was close. Patches of booing Cowboys fans would have protested that they were robbed.
To Rams coach Sean McVay, the absence of that was “eerie.”
To Rams quarterback Jared Goff, it was “galvanizing.”
“There’s no one else in the building and it’s really mano-a-mano,” Goff said. “It was a different type of fun without the fans, but it was still fun.”
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