The ground was closer than Puka Nacua expected. Much harder, too.
The Rams’ rookie wide receiver was able to fend off dehydration-related cramps to return during the second quarter of their game against Cleveland on Sunday, but it appeared his return would be brief when he fell with a thud after making an exceptional catch along the sideline for a 20-yard gain as the Rams tried to expand a three-point lead.
He landed on his shoulder and ribs. It looked awful. For several scary, hold-your-breath moments, he didn’t move. “I thought he was dead,” coach Sean McVay said.
No question, Nacua wasn’t feeling too good for those first few minutes. When he stirred and rose, he let team medical personnel guide him to the Rams’ locker room at SoFi Stadium to be examined. He walked off slowly, carefully, as if something might break or fall off if he moved too fast or too suddenly.
“I wasn’t breathing and my shoulder didn’t feel like it was in the right place,” Nacua said. “But I was good.”
Amazingly, he said tests showed he hadn’t suffered a dislocation or any damage beyond soreness. He passed the strength and mobility tests.
So back he came, not just to stand there but to be a difference maker, as he has been throughout his stunning rookie season.
“Nothing surprises me with him anymore,” McVay said.
Nacua, as with the Rams, has proven he’s able to take a beating and then emerge stronger for having been tested.
No one expected such great things so soon from Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick out of Brigham Young in April. Even less was expected this season of the retooling Rams.
But here they are, with Nacua owning the Rams’ franchise record for yards receiving by a rookie after a four-catch, 105-yard effort Sunday that put him over 1,000 yards for the season, and with the Rams hovering around an NFC wild-card playoff berth after a 36-19 win over the Browns.
“Puka definitely embodies a lot of the things that are right about this team,” McVay said after the Rams (6-6) stretched their winning streak to three.
Nacua came back in the third quarter to make a career-best 31-yard run on first-and-10 at the Rams’ 44, extending a drive that ended with the Rams taking the lead for good. He also had a 45-yard gallop called back in the fourth quarter because of a holding call.
“He did a great job against as good a defense as there is in this league,” McVay said.
And let’s not forget the blocks Nacua made, despite ribs that were sore well after the game. The victory eased the aches.
“I just hope the guys know that I love playing this game of football and I love being out there with them,” Nacua said. “I’m willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in this game on Sunday. Whatever it takes to win, I’m willing to do that.”
A 12-yard reception on the Rams’ first possession in the first quarter vaulted Nacua past Eddie Kennison (924) for the franchise record for most yards receiving by a rookie. That inspired a congratulatory tweet from Lakers star LeBron James that almost embarrassed him.
“I’m a huge LeBron stan, so I can’t wait to see that one and send it over to my family. I’m sure they probably already sent it over,” Nacua said. “But that’s a huge honor.”
On the Rams’ second possession, with quarterback Matthew Stafford improvising a play, Nacua beat linebacker Sione Takitaki — who also played at Brigham Young — for a 70-yard touchdown reception. He deliberately didn’t put his hands out, fooling Takitaki.
“The whole time I was, ‘Man, I’ve got to beat him. He’s a linebacker. I’ve got to show that I’m fast,’” Nacua said. “[Stafford] put it right in the center of my chest. Honestly I don’t know if I really even looked at it. I was, ‘just don’t show him that you’re trying to catch the ball.’ It hit me right in the center of my chest and the rest of it was just green grass, trying to make sure I didn’t get caught.”
By the third quarter, when he pulled off that 31-yard jet sweep, he was sore but happy.
“I love playing football. I love being part of this team,” he said. “And all the guys around me, I know how much we all sacrifice and what we put in throughout the week, so I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else besides out there on the field on Sunday with my guys.”
He’s fun to watch. So are the Rams, in a season that has been surprisingly enjoyable and still offers hope of reaching the playoffs.