SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Quarterback battles, national anthem protests, and dealing with a franchise move dominated talk this summer for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.
With Case Keenum and Blaine Gabbert set as starting quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem getting more public acceptance, and the Rams mostly settled into their new home, much of the focus when the teams open the season on Monday night could be on the running backs.
Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley quickly established himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous runners as a rookie when he rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games on the way to winning the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
San Francisco has a dynamic back of its own in Carlos Hyde, who has shown bursts of stardom while battling injuries his first two seasons and is looking forward to opening the season on the big stage against another top back.
“It’s just like last year, all the talk was about Adrian Peterson,” Hyde said. “We just have to go out and do our job. It doesn’t really matter what the media is talking about or other guys.”
Hyde did that last year in the opener when he outshined Peterson by rushing for 168 yards and two touchdowns in San Francisco’s 20-3 win over Peterson and the Vikings.
Hyde gained only 302 more yards for the season before he was shut down after seven games with a foot injury. But with an improved offensive line and an up-tempo spread offense run by first-year coach Chip Kelly, Hyde expects to see lots more holes this season.
“I think I’m one of the main parts of the offense,” he said.
That’s the philosophy as well for the Rams, who hope Gurley’s running can make life easy for Keenum, who is getting the opportunity to start an opener for the first time in his five-year career. He beat out No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff for the job in the team’s first season back in L.A. after a move from St. Louis.
“He does all the little things right,” Keenum said of Gurley. “He’s talented and he’s grown, too, which has been cool to watch to see his progression from last year to this year.”
Here are some other things to watch when the Rams visit the 49ers:
GOING WITH GABBERT: Gabbert begins the season as a starter for the first time since 2013 in his third and final season in Jacksonville after being a first-round pick in 2011. Gabbert replaced Kaepernick as starter midway through last season and beat him out again this summer. Gabbert’s most productive game last year came in the finale against the Rams, when he threw for a career-high 354 yards in an overtime win.
ROOKIE SPECTATOR: Instead of making his NFL debut against his childhood favorite team just down the road from where he starred in college, Goff is expected to be inactive for the opener. Los Angeles mortgaged a chunk of its future to draft Goff, but he was unable to earn either the starting or backup job (second-year QB Sean Mannion has it) out of camp. He’s the first No. 1 overall QB not to start his first season opener since JaMarcus Russell missed the first game in 2007 for Oakland in a contract dispute.
NATIONAL ANTHEM: All eyes will once again be on Kaepernick just before the game during the national anthem when he once again plans to kneel in protest over racial oppression and police brutality in the United States. Teammate Eric Reid is expected to join him again and receiver Torrey Smith said other players also might get in on the protest.
DEALING WITH DONALD: San Francisco’s upgraded offensive line will get a stiff early test going against St. Louis’ stout front led by edge rusher Robert Quinn and dominant tackle Aaron Donald. Donald has emerged as the game’s top interior pass rusher after getting 12 sacks last season, and is equally tough against the run.
“He’s just a really, really good football player who has a really, really high motor, and he’s kind of mean too,” San Francisco offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said.
RIVALRY RESUMED: For the first time since 1994, the L.A.-Bay Area rivalry that is so heated in baseball, the NBA and NHL will return to the NFL. While the teams remained division rivals after the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, it lacked some of the passion from when they were California’s two NFC teams. That’s back now with the Rams having returned to Los Angeles.
“We have to start winning games, both teams, and then I think it will come back,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.