Mannion, Hekker enjoy being Rams
LOS ANGELES — It wasn't the happiest of Sundays for former Oregon Staters Sean Mannion and Johnny Hekker, in light the Los Angeles Rams' 16-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
The victory lifted Seattle (3-2) into a tie with the Rams (3-2) atop the NFC West Division.
"It was a tough one for us," said Mannion, the Rams' No. 2 quarterback. "You want to win division games. But this team has a lot of fight. There were ups and downs through the game, but we never felt apart. We stayed connected and kept ourselves in the game to the end. That's a testament to the guys in this room."
The 6-6, 230-pound Mannion — who left Oregon State after the 2014 season as the Pac-12's career passing yardage record-holder — is the backup to former California standout Jared Goff. In his second NFL season, the 6-4, 225-pound Goff began the day ranked No. 2 in the league in passer rating (112.2) behind Kansas City's Alex Smith (124.2).
For his first two seasons with the Rams — the first one in St. Louis before the move to L.A. — Mannion was the third-string quarterback. Now he is No. 2, suiting up for every game and running the scout-team offense. The No. 3 QB is Brandon Allen, a 6-2, 215-pound second-year pro from Arkansas.
"I'm really happy about getting to be the backup this year and getting a lot of reps in practice with the scout team," he said. "I'm happy with the improvements I've made with my game. I'm staying ready all the time, because you never know when your opportunity will come. I'm doing whatever I can to support Jared and be a great teammate."
Mannion played in only one game in each of the 2015 and '16 seasons and has made one appearance this year, going 1 for 1 passing for 12 yards in a 46-9 win over Indianapolis on Sept. 10. He saw ample duty during the preseason, completing 49 for 76 passes (64.5 percent) for 490 yards and two TDs with no interceptions. But he has had little time on the field during the regular season, which won't change unless Goff gets hurt.
"It's hard, but it's not just me," he says. "Everybody in this room got to play a lot in college. It's an adjustment when you go from being a starter to not getting to start. I'm no different than anybody else. Everybody in this room wants to play.
"All I do is focus on my game, trying to be the best quarterback I can be, prepare as best I can. I channel all my energy into preparation and working on my fundamentals."
Mannion likes playing for first-year coach Sean McVay — at 31 the youngest head coach in modern NFL history — along with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleuer and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson.
"I've had a lot of opportunities to work on some things through the offseason, training camp and the preseason," Mannion said. "I'm happy with the improvements I've made. We have a great staff here. It's been a great environment to work in."
The move from St. Louis to Southern California before the 2016 campaign was a welcome one for Mannion, 25, for a number of reasons. He's a native of Pleasanton, California, in the Bay Area. His father, John, is now the head football coach at Mountainside, the new Beaverton high school. His wife is the former Megan Lopez — granddaughter of former Portland-area football prep coaching great Mike Lopez, and the daughter of Mike Lopez, Jr., the ex-Oregon State safety who died of ALS in 2013.
"I liked St. Louis," said Mannion, who now lives in Thousand Oaks, California. "It was a cool city. But it's great being here in L.A. Our families live in Portland, which is home for me, too.
"It's great being on the West Coast. The weather is hard to beat. The traffic can be a little rough at times. From Thousand Oaks, the commute can be 40 minutes or two hours. But our experience in L.A. has been awesome."
Hekker is in his sixth season with the Rams, so he was able to show Mannion the ropes. They were together for two years at Oregon State, during Mannion's redshirt (2010) and redshirt freshman (2011) seasons.
"Johnny was always good to me as a young guy at Oregon State, and he's been that way with the Rams, too," Mannion said. "Coming in to the team as a rookie, it was great to have one familiar face, somebody you could talk to, to help you get settled."
Hekker is one of football's great Horatio Alger stories.
"He's the best punter in the league, no question," said Mannion, who is not just pumping up a teammate.
A prep quarterback in Bothell, Washington, Hekker walked on as a punter at Oregon State. He experienced his ups — he was Most Valuable Player of the 2009 Sun Bowl, punting 10 times for a 45.0-yard average in a 3-0 win over Pittsburgh — and some downs, including a minus-four-yard shank in a game at Wisconsin. He was only honorable mention all-Pac-12 as a senior.
Undrafted, Hekker made the Rams as a rookie free agent and has held the punter job ever since. And what a career it has been, including first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections in 2013, '14 and '16. His career average is 47 yards per punt, tied for second in NFL history. Hekker has the two best single-season net averages since the statistic began being kept in 2007 — 46.0 in 2016 and 44.2 in 2013.
Last season, Hekker put together what may have been the greatest season by a punter in NFL history.
He set NFL single-season records for net punting (46.0) and punts inside the 20 (51), with only one touchback all season. He was fifth in punting average (47.8), with a long of 78, tied for longest in the NFL.
The Rams understand Hekker's value. After the 2014 season, he was awarded a six-year, $18-million contract extension — $9 million guaranteed, largest ever given to punter.
Several weeks ago, the Rams gave Hekker a two-year extension, running his contract through 2022 and giving him $10 million guaranteed — a record for a punter. His teammates have honored him this season as the special teams captain.
"He's captain for a reason," Mannion said. "He's one of our leaders."
Even Bill Belichick, the often monosyllabic head coach of the New England Patriots, puts Hekker in a class of his own.
"The guy is a tremendous weapon. … as good a player as I've ever seen at that position," Belichick said last season. "He's a tremendous weapon in his ability to punt the ball, punt it inside the 20, directional kick it. He's involved in fakes, can throw, can run, very athletic."
Hekker, 27, smiled when asked his career path.
"I'm shocked," he said. " I see God's fingerprints all over it. There were many times when I shanked punts in college and didn't get pulled, still had the opportunity to go back and prove myself.
"I just kept improving. I've loved the guys around me who fed into my life and journey."
Hekker punted only three times for a 45.5-yard average Sunday, booming his first one 62 yards. He entered Sunday ranked seventh in the league in average (47.8) and second in net average (46.1).
"Room for improvement," he said. "Not up to my standards where I want to be yet, but I'm working on it.
"I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in with this group of guys. It's all for naught if my guys aren't covering punts and downing balls inside the 20."
Hekker, who also holds for place-kicks, is a weapon in another way. Through his career, he has completed 7 of 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown off of fake field goals and fake punts. His first head coach with the Rams, Jeff Fisher, and McVay haven't hesitated to use the former QB on trick plays.
"I love it," he said. "It's part of being sneaky, I guess. Coach Fisher and Coach McVay are both guys confident in our ability to pull off fakes. We practice them every single week."
Hacker and his wife — former OSU gymnastic Makayla Stambaugh — are expecting their first child, a boy, at the end of February.
"We're really excited," Hekker said. "Going through this season, it's a ton of fun. We're enjoying it together, a really cool experience."