St. Louis fans must have mixed emotions heading into the offseason. Some might be celebrating the tremendous turnaround the Rams have pulled off. Others may still be guzzling Pepto Bismol after watching the playoffs slip from their grasp.
Facing a week 17 must win game (essentially a playoff game before the playoffs), the Rams caved to the pressure. The offense sputtered producing a lousy 6 points against a suspect Seahawks defense. Sam Bradford looked like the rookie he was while the rest of the team showed their own inexperience in clutch games.
To make matters worse, the loss was not only hard for St. Louis fans, it also embarrassed the NFL as St. Louis' demise allowed the Seattle Seahawks, the first team with a losing record, to sneak into the playoffs.
As Cab Calloway used to sing "I got the St.Louis blues, sweet mama, got St. Louis blues, just blue,
Blue as I can be, St. Louis blues..."
Right now, all eyes are on Albert. If the Cardinals can't work out a deal for hall-of-fame slugger Albert Pujols then they will really be singing the St. Louis blues.
Season in Review: Not Meant to Be
It wasn't all bad in St. Louis and certainly there is reason for great optimism - unless you just like baseball. No one outside of St. Louis expected much out of the Rams who were competitive until the very end. Similarly to Detroit, they suffered a lot of close losses, especially early in the season.
To the Ram's and especially Steve Spagnuolo's credit, a 4 point loss to division rival Arizona followed a week later by a demoralizing 2 point defeat to Oakland, could have ended their season. The Rams could have folded, resigned to the fact that 2010/11 would be another losing season. For bad teams, losing can become a culture and something to be expected.
After the 'greatest show on turf' ran out of gas, losing did become endemic. 3-13 was followed by 1-15 and an only slightly improved 2-14 came after that. Six wins in three seasons. By contrast the Colts started two seasons 6-0 in that same time span. Yikes.
At 0-2, the 2010 season was looking like another disaster, so give Spagnuolo a lot of credit that it wasn't. Instead two consecutive wins, the Rams were right back in the thick of things. After trading wins and losses for the next few weeks, the Rams entered the bye week a comfortable 4-4. Then after two consecutive losses, including a heart stopping 23-20 OT loss to the Niners, doubt crept back in. Was the Rams' hot start - hot being a relative term appropriate only considering their recent history and the other teams in NFC West - too good to be true? Were the Rams too young and inexperienced?
Yes and no. The Rams followed the 2 game losing streak with a pair of wins to reinvigorate the fan base. Sitting tied atop the NFC West the Rams 6-6 record was vastly superior to the Cardinals' lousy 3-9 start. It was inconceivable given the Niners 4-8 record that they could challenge either and even though the Seahawks shared the same record, somehow it felt like St. Louis was the better team. Seattle didn't have a quarterback, had no identity at running back and seemed generally leaderless. Not so in St. Louis. Fans and the sports world were abuzz with media darling Sam Bradford. Stephen Jackson was a work horse and Coach Spagnuolo had them pointed towards the playoffs.
What everyone overlooked, was that while St. Louis may have been the more exciting and promising team for the future, it was deeply flawed this year. Not saying Seattle didn't have its problems, because boy did they ever, but St. Louis was not a good team statistically and we all know, statistics never lie.*
* They can and do. But in this case thankfully they didn't.
The Rams finished:
21rst in passing yards per game (204).
25th in rushing yards per game (98).
19th in passing yards allowed per game (224).
17th in rushing yards allowed per game (113).
The Rams finished ranked in the bottom half of the big 4 statistical categories which is why they ended up as a below average team. Fittingly, the Rams are drafting in the 14th slot, or slightly above the median. No matter how you split it, the Rams didn't deserve to be in the playoffs. This is not to say that the Seahawks belonged, not by any means, but this year wasn't meant to be for the Rams.
Fortunately for them, St. Louis' best years are yet to come.
Offseason Momentum: They have all the pieces
A good head coach - check
A team not owned by Russ Limbaugh - Phew... thank goodness (Way to go Jim Irsay!!!)
A smart, gifted, hard-working quarterback - yep, you bet
A powerful and durable running back who consistently earns 1000 yards - absolutely
A strong and sturdy offensive line - ehh....but generally speaking yeah (they certainly have enough money invested)
Dominant and explosive defensive ends - Chris Long and James Hall combined for 18.5 sacks so I would say so.
Smart, tough and savvy Middle Linebacker - James Laurinaitis' 114 tackles makes a strong argument
Hard hitting safeties - eh, uh, Oshiomogho Atogwe (great name) and Craig Dahl are good enough... sort of.
Offseason Anxiety: Everything else
Offensively, the Rams are desperate for receivers. I mean they are in the most dire of straits. We are talking a Laurent Robinson vs. Brandon Gibson battle-for-the-number-two-receiver dire.
That is not a knock on either - both are young and have potential - but that is not who Sam Bradford was hoping for. Granted Mark Clayton went down and was out for the majority of the season and Danny Amendola turned out to be a great find -but sheesh - Bradford needs some help.
Ideally the Rams draft an immediate-impact playmaking receiver who steps in and allows Amendola to move to the slot where he can roam as a lethal Austin Collie type.
The same goes for tight end as receiver. Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and Billy Bajema caught 68 passes or 1 more than Jacob Tamme caught by himself. You know, the 'nobody' backup you only played half a season...
Be the way, who are those guys?!? I am pretty sure I saw Bajema rated a 19 on Madden. Ok, thats not true, but Bradford is crying out for an upgrade!
Defensively the Rams are built right, which if you've read any of these other of these season in reviews (or just know football), you understand to mean that the Rams have good defensive ends who can apply pressure.
Chris Long was the 2nd pick in the draft a few years back and while he has yet to live up to the hype, he keeps progressing each year. Opposite Long was James Hall who had a breakout year with 10.5 sacks.
Hall is old so that is a concern, but going forward the real focus should be the secondary.
For the most part, St. Louis' outside linebackers and corners need to be replaced or at least upgraded. Starting corner Ron Bartell didn't manage an interception all season and Bradley Fletcher is a promising starting corner but needs to continue to improve.
More than that though, and that is certainly a tall order, the Rams need to find a way to win. Bradford admitted as much after their tough week 10 loss in San Francisco, "Somehow we've got to find that killer instinct. We have to be able to put teams away when the game is on the line."
Spaguolo is working with them on it, but until they do, St. Louis will continue to watch others steal a playoff birth that could have easily been theirs.
Draft Desires: Receiver, Tight End, Outside Linebacker
Rams' GM Billy Devaney deserves a lot of credit for knowing how to build the team the right way.
Yes the Rams were lucky to have the first pick and be able to select Sam Bradford. GM's don't always have that luxury. At the same time, Devaney isn't just sitting back and letting Bradford fend for himself. He is surrounding Bradford with the right players and it starts with his protection. The Rams spent Yankee sized big bucks making sure Bradford doesn't re-injure that shoulder. St. Louis could upgrade their guards but Jason Smith and Rodger Stafford (long hard sigh as a Colts fan knowing he could have been ours) will are the pillars of the line at right and left tackle respectively.
If I were Devaney, I would continue this offense oriented trend because Bradford has a chance to be a very special quarterback. He already held his own after being thrown to the wolves, so providing him weapons at receiver will only accelerate his progression. Think of it as the Peyton Manning model. Bradford is a special enough quarterback to just focus on offense. The hope, and it worked well in Indiana, is to give Bradford all the tools necessary to build an explosive offense that can outscore the opponents. Then, once Bradford is a solidified elite quarterback with no chance of regressing, and only then, you can spend money and draft defensive players to match the offense -hopefully resulting in a superbowl or two (The Colts should have had 3 by now).
With their first pick, I think the Rams should consider trading up for A.J. Green. The talent at the top is generally weaker than years past so they may be able to pull something off. If not and the asking price is steep, Julio Jones is not too much of a drop off. St. Louis will need to secure his talents.
In the second round, St. Louis should stay on offense by drafting Florida State offensive guard Rodney Hudson. He is a player with a mean streak who can step in and start right away. For the 3rd round, St. Louis should again go for offense with Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. A lot of teams covet him and for good reason. His presence could really open the field and make St. Louis more dynamic in the passing game.
A draft of this sort would not indicate the Rams' faith in their defense. It's low. Rather it would show St. Louis' trust in Bradford. At this stage in his career, it's a must.
The defense will have to suck it up for the next few years until Bradford is comfortable and ready to lead.
Free Agency Farewells: Rams can't afford to lose Clayton or Robinson
No matter who the Rams draft they cannot afford to lose Mark Clayton and unless they take 2 receivers and one is named Julio Jones or A.J. Green, same applies for Robinson. Otherwise Clifton Ryan and Chris Hovan (if he's healthy) would be worthwhile keeping on at defensive tackle.
Threat to the Stampede: Bradford is good but he is no Peyton Manning
Let's leave it at that. Bradford is an exciting up-and-coming quarterback with a lot of hopes and promise. He may be the best of his generation. He is not yet Peyton Manning and until he is - a nearly unfathomable feat - the Rams don't pose any threat. We don't play the Rams during the regular season and will definitely not see them in the playoffs.
2011 brings a lot of promise and excitement for St. Louis fans, although right now, with a lockout possible and training camp still months away, I would still be focused on Albert Pujols.
Tomorrow we head to sunny Miami Florida to check in on the Dolphins and see why they gave up on the Chad Henne experiment.