Rams’ Johnny Hekker would welcome smaller role in this Super Bowl

The other time Johnny Hekker played in a Super Bowl, he accounted for more yards than the rest of the Rams combined.

That’s not a great memory when you’re the punter.

“Not ideal,” Hekker admitted Thursday.

Hekker, who turned 32 on Tuesday, has seen plenty that wasn’t ideal in the 10 seasons since he came to the then-St. Louis Rams as an undrafted rookie from Oregon State.

Now, as the longest-tenured Rams player, he goes into Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium with a deeper appreciation than anybody for the journey.

From St. Louis to Los Angeles. From the Coliseum to SoFi. From five straight losing seasons under Coach Jeff Fisher to five straight winning seasons with Coach Sean McVay.

“It’s been a blessing,” Hekker said Thursday after the Rams practiced at the Rose Bowl to get out of winds forecast to reach 30 mph at their Thousand Oaks facility. “An incredible ride full of a good amount of lows early on, with not a ton of winning seasons and things going our way. It’s been great to see the rise of this organization and see the fans of L.A. embrace us as their own and to give them a great brand of football to be proud of.

“Hopefully, to bring a Lombardi (Trophy) back to Los Angeles would be amazing.”

Hekker, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and right tackle Rob Havenstein are the only Rams remaining from the St. Louis period that ended in 2016.

They’ve recounted coming to L.A., being shown plans for a new stadium to be built in Inglewood, and joking that there was no way they’d still be around to play in it.

Now they’re playing in a Super Bowl in it.

This seemed unlikely last summer when Hekker found himself in a fight for his job against young punter Corey Bojorquez, at the same time as he faced an extended battle with COVID-19.

Hekker was stuck at home, watching on TV, as Bojorquez put on a show in the Rams’ last preseason game, against the Broncos in the thin air in Denver.

“I was sitting there watching the game and feeling my heart sink a little bit, and down in the pit of my stomach thinking, ‘Man, he might have just solidified this thing for him,’” Hekker said Thursday. “I ended up turning off the game at halftime.

“It was a deal where I just talked with my wife (Makayla). We turned on ‘Ted Lasso’ or ‘The Office,’ watched some feel-good TV. I called a mentor of mine, talked with him through some stuff, prayed with him.

“I put it all in God’s hands and was able to find some peace in the work that I’d done and the reputation I had in this building, and was really really grateful when I got the opportunity to stay a Ram.”

The Rams traded Bojorquez and kept Hekker even though he was the NFL’s highest-paid punter. Hekker has a five-year, $18.8 million contract that runs through 2023. He’s one of several veterans who restructured his contract in 2021 to help the team stay under the salary cap.

The special teams had been a strength in the eight years that Hekker played as punter and field-goal holder with kicker Greg Zuerlein and long snapper Jake McQuaide. They were a mess for much of this season, aside from Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay. But they got better with the addition of return man Brandon Powell and the improvement of young players.

As for that older player, Hekker recorded the lowest raw punting average (44.2 yards) of his career and made it four years since the last of his four All-Pro, Pro Bowl seasons.

But Rams special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said that statistic is misleading, pointing out that Hekker ranked higher in the league in stats that reward avoiding touchbacks and preventing long runbacks.

“The thing we wanted to do was to really get his net punt up and get our average return down,” DeCamillis said Thursday. “To be honest with you, I think gross punt average is one of the biggest jokes of a statistic ever.

“I think he’s done a great job for what we’ve asked him to do. He had a rough go of it right at the start. But I’m happy to see Johnny come through because he’s a heck of a guy and a really good leader for our team.”

Hekker is a captain, and his voice could get more attention this week because he has Super Bowl experience.

“I think the guys listen to him anyway,” DeCamillis said. “Guys know the guys that are working at it (and) are bought in completely, and Johnny definitely is that.”

Hekker’s summation of the 2021 season is typically upbeat.

“This season has been full of challenges, for sure, but the blessings have far exceeded those challenges,” he said.

The punter who has completed 14 passes on trick plays in his career joked with a reporter who asked if the Rams might run a fake in the Super Bowl.

“We might only throw the ball, who knows?” he said with a straight face.

Just as long as he doesn’t wind up punting nine times for 417 yards, as he did while the Rams’ offense was throwing and running for only 260 in the 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

“I do really relish those games with one or two punts, just getting to watch our offense drive down the field and score points,” Hekker said.

That would be ideal.


Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (knee) missed practice again Thursday and remained doubtful for the Super Bowl. But the Rams did have some good injury news: Running back Cam Akers (shoulder) and wide receiver Van Jefferson (knee) returned to full participation in practice, and offensive-line sixth man Joe Noteboom (chest) was able to practice on a limited basis for the first time since he was hurt two games back. … The Bengals practiced on an 87-degree day at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. Tight end C.J. Uzomah (knee) was a limited participant, indicating improvement. Asked if Uzomah will play, Coach Zac Taylor said, “So far, so good.” … The temperature forecast for Sunday in Inglewood dipped a bit to 83 degrees. SoFi Stadium has a canopy, rather than a full roof, allowing air to come in.

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