In the heat of the moment, in the late stages of a dominant performance by the Rams that carried them to a wildcard playoff victory over Arizona on Monday, running back Cam Akers did something he soon regretted.
The Rams were up by 20 late in the third quarter, on the way to a 34-11 rout of the Cardinals, when Akers took a handoff from quarterback Matthew Stafford and carried the ball around left end. Cardinals safety Budda Baker came up to tackle him, and they collided violently. Baker hit his head on the ground and rolled onto his back in obvious distress. A teammate recognized Baker had been injured and immediately gestured toward the sidelines for medical aid.
Akers, walking back to the line of scrimmage, made a downward motion with his right hand several times, appearing to mock the fallen Baker. The Cardinals took exception to his callous reaction and players jawed at each other, but their concern for Baker outweighed everything else. Players on both teams kneeled as Baker, who managed to weakly wave his right hand toward the hushed crowd at SoFi Stadium, was strapped to a gurney and transported off the field and to a hospital.
The Cardinals announced that Baker had suffered a concussion and wouldn’t return, but Mark Dalton, the team’s senior vice president of media relations, said via social media that Baker had “movement & feeling in all extremities” as he left the field. Dalton later said Baker was alert and communicative and had never lost feeling or movement. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said he was unsure if Baker would stay in Los Angeles overnight for observation but added, “seems to be positive news that I’ve got so far.”
Akers recognized that his gesture and trash talk were sorry moments in an otherwise strong performance in his second game back following a remarkably quick recovery from Achilles’ tendon surgery. Akers, who had five carries and three catches in the Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, had 17 carries for 55 yards on Monday, second to Sony Michel’s 13 carries for 58 yards. Akers also was targeted for two passes and caught one, a 40-yard-pass from Odell Beckham Jr. that fueled a third-quarter drive that padded the Rams’ lead to 28-0 .
“Prays up to Budda,” Akers said on Twitter, adding an emoji of two hands pressed together in prayer. “I didn’t know he was hurt after the play but I have nothing but respect for him.”
Akers expanded on that in a postgame news conference. “It was just a football play, nothing personal, obviously,” he said. “I’ve got the utmost respect for Budda and that team in general, so I hope he’s doing good. Just a football play there.”
Rams coach Sean McVay also offered good wishes for Baker’s recovery. He generally was pleased with the work done by Akers, whose effectiveness helped the Rams establish a strong running game in an impressive ensemble effort. It’s the kind of complete game they’ll have to replicate Sunday in Tampa to have a chance to upset the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
“I don’t think the stats tell the story for how good he looked, leveling some runs off. He got a couple big time runs called back,” McVay said of Akers. “But I thought Cam was outstanding. He did a great job. And he’s only getting more and more confident.
“And you know what I love the most about him is what a confident, secure individual he is. A play I think he would want back earlier in the game and then he makes a great catch off the double pass in kind of that same spot. That thing hung up like a [Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson moon ball. It was great plays by those guys.”
Akers, drafted second by the Rams in 2020, was expected to play a prominent role in 2021 after a strong finish to his rookie season. But he tore an Achilles tendon in July while preparing for training camp, an injury that seemed likely to keep him out the entire season. A specialized surgical procedure performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic — who had performed an earlier version of that procedure on Kobe Bryant in 2013 — helped minimize Akers’ recovery time. So did Akers’ devotion to physical therapy.
“I’m blessed, being able to come off an injury like that five and a half months after surgery. Nobody does that,” he said.
Akers said increasing his role in his second game back was part of the game plan. “I knew we were going to lean on the running backs a lot and we were ready for the challenge,” he said.
A challenge that will include keeping his poise in heated moments.