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There’s one player the Los Angeles Rams can’t afford to lose to get into the playoffs

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The Rams can’t get to January football without this one guy.

Los Angeles Rams LT Andrew Whitworth during the national anthem before the Rams’ Week 13 game against the Arizona Cardinals
Los Angeles Rams LT Andrew Whitworth during the national anthem before the Rams’ Week 13 game against the Arizona Cardinals
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A late theme week this evening as yours truly is getting ready to head out of the country for some late 2017 R&R. As it occurs to me, it comes with a realization that theme week has itself taken on a bit of a theme.

In early October, every SB Nation NFL team site was tasked with identifying our best newcomer. My choice for the Los Angeles Rams was really quite easy. A month later as we considered our votes for MVP, mine went neither to QB Jared Goff nor to RB Todd Gurley.

So this week as we’re looking at the one player each team can’t afford to lose, I’m forced to return to the best newcomer who happens to be the MVP in 2017.

Rams LT Andrew Whitworth.

It’s not just his individual value on the field which he has proven and re-proven nearly every game this season. It’s not his value off the field having helped his previous team, the Cincinnati Bengals, to six postseason appearances evidenced by his stark poise after the Rams’ Week 11 loss to the Minnesota Vikings to suggest the Rams “needed” the adversity the loss posed.

It’s all of it and how irreplaceable he is.

There’s always a cliff when you go from a member of the starting 11 on either side to a backup. But I don’t know that the cliff is steeper anywhere than at left tackle.

This weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles, Andrew Whitworth missed some snaps having sprained his MCL per Rams Head Coach Sean McVay. Filling in for big Whit was Darrell Williams. Suffice to say, the difference in play was significant. And then some.

There’s just no sincere plan B. There is no real backup. No mitigation strategy. No “break in case of emergency.”

There’s only Andrew Whitworth.

And it deserves pointing out how we got here.

The lineage of Rams left tackle forefathers prior to Whitworth is a mishmash of failed attempts to fill the position adequately since the retirement of Hall of Fame LT Orlando Pace. First there was Alex Barron, a first-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. His career was capped by his former general manager, Billy Devaney, suggesting he cared about nothing other than money. Not great. The Rams then spent the #2 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft on Jason Smith. He too was supposed to supply above average athleticism and soak up the required tutelage to match the required work rate to succeed. Again, no. Having failed twice in the draft, the Rams turned to free agency in 2013 by signing Jake Long. A storied early career became marred by injuries that the Rams hoped he would be able to overcome. He was not. Long tore his ACL twice and left the door open in the 2014 preseason to re-injure QB Sam Bradford’s ACL. With the future uncertain, the Rams took Greg Robinson #2 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft hoping to play him at guard despite his college experience coming at tackle. Long’s ACL injury that year forced GRob into the position without adequate training and with Head Coach Jeff Fisher manning the controls. It did not work.

And that’s how we got to the 2017 offseason without a functioning left tackle, without a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft via the trade with the Tennessee Titans for the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft the Rams used to select Goff.

Why is all of that worth reiterating? Because it’s that damn hard to get a quality left tackle. It’s Alex Barron/Jason Smith/post-injury Jake Long/Greg Robinson hard. And that’s what Andrew Whitworth really represents — the culmination of failed attempts and misguided decisions that made a 35-year old Whitworth more than just an adequate solution in 2017.

It made him the only solution.

And that’s why he’s been the one player we simply couldn’t have afforded to have been without this year.