NFC WEST: St . Louis Rams 2013 season and beyond outlook
Yes. The Rams are my favorite team. Yes, I live in Chicago. I grew up watching the greatest show on turf, Marshal Faulk being my favorite player. I loved Tory Holt and Kurt Warner. I don’t hate the Chicago Bears, but I always have and will be a Rams guy. The Rams have unfortunately been a joke for almost a decade. Ever since Mike “the offensive wizard” Martz succeeded Dick Vermiel, things slowly fell apart. Bear fans are familiar with Mikey. Sure, he inherited the best offense in the game, so the first couple of years were good. After the 2001 Super Bowl loss to the then baby faced Brady and rising Patriots dynasty, the ship began to sink. The Rams haven’t been to the postseason since 2004, when I was a freshman in high school. I’m now 23 and a college graduate. 2007-2012 was the worst five year stretch record wise for any franchise in ALL OF SPORTS….It has been rough.
Now that I have the discreet bias out of the way, let’s talk where this team is at for the upcoming 2013 season and beyond. The future is bright. FINALLY. For many reasons. I’ll start with this: Sam Bradford, the former number one overall pick of the 2010 draft. He was the last first overall pick of the old collective bargaining agreement, which means he got paid huge money for never even setting foot on a professional field. People outside of the Rams faithful have forgotten about Bradford. He’s been written off, with some even calling him a bust. Blasphemy. Everyone forgets he won rookie of the year in 2010, beating a Peyton Manning rookie record while he was at it. (Most completions, alongside other little feats you can find online) He also set a rookie record for most consecutive passes without an interception, with 169. Then the next year this guy Cam Newton came along, and rewrote all the rookie record books. The very next year, some guys named Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin the III, and a pipsqueak named Russell Wilson took the league by storm, lighting up the stat books and win columns. Not to mention some guy named Kaepernick, a backup turned starter in week 11 only to lead his team to the championship. This has spoiled football fans, both hardcore and casual. Now every rookie QB has to be Christ resurrected to get any attention. He has to have immediate success and assault statbooks. People forget the last two years have been historic for rookie QB’s. The league has never seen anything like it, and may not ever again. (Sorry EJ Manuel and Geno Smith) And Sam Bradford is left behind. But bust? I think not.
Everyone has forgotten a QB’s development rate used to be 4 years in, then finally take off. I read a very interesting piece that listed NFL greats in their first 4 years. Some names were Marino, Manning, Brees, Aikman. Their numbers were shockingly similar to what Bradford’s have been. How about this? Aside from Matthew Stafford’s big 2011, where he threw for 5000 yards and 41 TD’s, he has been injured and mediocre as well. Last year, Bradford actually threw more touchdown passes than Stafford. Don’t forget, Stafford also has a guy named Calvin Johnson at wideout, arguably the most gifted receiver ever to take the field. He accounts for a big chunk of Stafford’s numbers. I’d like to see what Bradford could do with Megatron. Stafford’s record as a QB is right next to Bradford’s in similarity. And he just got a major contract extension. Bradford might be on the same path if he jumps forward this year and lives up to his potential. Finally, Bradford even had better numbers than Joe Flacco in the regular season. But Flacco had a red-hot title run, and got paid big time. I think he is wildly inconsistent, and doesn’t deserve it. He deserved a raise after this postseason, but not what he got. It is just the age of the QB we live in. But what do I know? I’m just a small time writer.
Might I also remind you, Sam Bradford, since 2010, has had two GM’s, two head coaches, and three different offensive coordinators. This upcoming season will be his first as a pro with the same coordinator for consecutive seasons. He has also had one of the worst offensive lines since he came in. The O line in St. Louis has been one of revolving doors. Bradford has been one of the most sacked, hurried, and hit QB’S since he entered the league. Receivers? I can name them, only because I’m a fan. Can you? I’ll wait…The most notable wideout Bradford has had is Danny Amendola, now in New England. Even he was hurt all 2011, and missed half a dozen games last year, playing hurt in the others. In three seasons, Bradford has had 3 different leading receivers, none with 1000 yards receiving, or anywhere close to double digit Td’s. ZERO consistency. As a matter of fact, the only bright spot Bradford had, the organization actually, was workhorse Steven Jackson, now in Atlanta. They were a power run team. But if you remember correctly, Bradford was the leader of a deadly Oklahoma Sooner aerial assault. He was always out of the shotgun. When he got to St. Louis, he was forced to ground and pound. Hell, it isn’t like they had weapons for an air attack anyways. Thank poor management and drafting for that.
But then came 2012, new GM Les Snead, I’M SNEADDD. (1993 Doggystle album, Snoop reference, anyone?) and seasoned head coach Jeff Fisher, fresh off a one year hiatus. Fisher chose the Rams over the Dolphins simply because of franchise QB Bradford in place. He believes in him. So do I. Snead and Fisher’s first draft together has proven swell so far. They added Brian Quick in the second round, and Chris Given in the fourth. Givens led the team in receiving yards with 698, with 3 TD’s. He also went five straight weeks with at least one catch of 50 plus yards, an NFL rookie record. Quick only played sparingly, catching 11 balls for fewer than 200 yards and two scores. But he showed flashes of why he was picked so high with those catches, including an acrobatic jumpball catch in the endzone. He has drawn comparisons to Terrell Owens, because they are eerily similar in size, and both came from small Division 2 colleges. Quick struggled last year with the playbook. But with a full year and offseason under his belt, look for improvement out of the big bodied man this year. Givens will only improve too. He’s already a deep threat to stretch defenses, and word out of Rams camp so far is he’s already becoming very efficient with the rest of the route tree. He has great after the catch ability. Third year man Austin Pettis out of Boise State looks to finally shine. He came on strong at the end of last season, and so far this offseason, he has been the most impressive wideout of all according to the coaching staff. Oh yeah, the oldest guy of the bunch is Pettis at 25. Youth baby. They’ll only grow together and get better.
So Fisher’s first year in St. Louis was a success. Here’s why. He took a 2-14 team and led them to a 7-8-1 record, with a 4-1-1 division record. What division are they in again you ask? The NFC West. That’s right. The division that was called the NFC worst only three years ago. An embarrassment for sending a 7-9 team to the playoffs, it is now the best division in football. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are powerhouses. They are easily the top two teams in the NFC, and two of the best in the entire league. And the Rams defeated them both last year. They split with Seattle, and took one from the Niners and tied the other. And if not for a terrible penalty call in OT, where a touchdown was taken from the Rams, they’d have swept them. That’s the NFC champion 49ers were talking about. Favorites to maybe win again this year.
Fisher brought his trademark tough nosed, old school defense to the Gateway city. Behind one of the most underappreciated pass rushers in the game, Chris Long, and the heart of the defense, James Laurinaitis, and the hated, but effective Cortland Finnegan, the Rams quietly finished in the top half of the league in all defensive categories. They also led the NFL in sacks, with 52, tied with Denver. You throw in then rookie Janoris Jenkins, who already looks like a steal from last years second round, and an awesome Jo Lonn Dunbar free agent pickup, (look him up, you’ll be impressed by his performance), and you have an on the rise defensive unit for the upcoming season. Why will the Rams be better this year? How on Earth will they compete with the now even stronger Hawks and Niners? Here’s how.
Snead and Fisher came to St. Louis with a plan. Get Sam Bradford help. They started at the 2012 draft. They went all out this past offseason. They struck early in free agency, signing Jared Cook from Tennessee. A lot of pundits say he was overpaid big time, based only on potential. But that potential is limitless. He is 6’5, 240 plus, and runs a 4.5 40. That’s a tight end. The same hybrid type the position has now evolved to. Maybe Cook never played off the charts with the Titans. But he was poorly utilized. Reunite him with the coach that originally drafted him, Fisher, and Bradford, who is better than any QB Cook had down south, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Remember Bradford loved himself an athletic tight end. Think Jermaine Gresham from their Oklahoma days, where they lit it up. He finally has a tight end capable, with freakish athleticism. You know coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is drooling on how to line this guy up and get the ball in his hands.
Also in free agency, the Rams added former All Pro left tackle Jake Long. He too was a former number one overall pick, now protecting a former number one overall pick. (Historic fun fact). He has dipped in performance over the last two years. Injuries have robbed him. But now he claims to be healthier than ever, and maybe new scenery will get him back to old form. Time will tell. Even if he isn’t dominant like he was, he’s better than anyone Bradford has had protecting him since joining this league. That leads me to Roger Saffold. The incumbent tackle was only fully healthy once, and he was very impressive. Since then, it has been hard to gauge him because of injuries. But he too is now fully healthy, and sliding to the right side, to give the Rams solid bookends. The middle features rugged veteran Harvey Dahl, still effective, and Scott Wells, also solid when healthy. That’s the key here. Health. But hey, it is with any team. The bottom line is Bradford has the best line he’s had yet, and he has to be smiling ear to ear. Enter the 2013 NFL draft.
The Rams possessed two first rounders due to the epic RGIII trade, and traded up to number 8 overall. They selected Tavon Austin, the heartstopping playmaker out of West Virginia. Lightning fast, ultra quick and agile, soft hands, crisp route running. What more can you ask for? Critics say size. He stands at only 5’8 and 173 pounds. But he has never missed a practice or game in his entire football career. The NFL is obviously a whole new world. But if they’re gonna wallop him, they’re gonna have to catch him first. That’s incredibly hard to do. Austin is also very smart, and knows how to get out of bounds and avoid crushing blows. He uses the negative talk as motivation. I can’t wait to see this kid make it. I love seeing the little guys excel. If Steve Smith, Randall Cobb, and Percy Harvin can do it, granted they are a little bigger, there’s no reason Austin can’t. I’m willing to bet he immediately becomes Bradford’s favorite target manning the slot. Remember, Amendola was the slot man, and he thrived with Sammy B. Let’s face it: Amendola is a good player, with great passion and respect for the game. But Austin has a much higher ceiling. You may think I’m insane. Maybe I am. But I don’t think nearing 100 catches is out of range. Don’t forget, Austin played all over the place in college. Running back, return man. The Rams have already stated they’ll be doing the same. It’s going to be mighty fun to watch.
The rest of the draft went great as well. The Rams traded down to 30 overall, recouping more picks from the trade they made. Here they selected Alec Ogletree, the linebacker out of Georgia. Great value. The speedy former safety flies around the outside. He can cover the running QB’s of the division, and even drop in coverage on tight ends due to his past safety skills. If not for character concerns, he was thought to be a top 10 talent. Hey, Janoris is fine so far. Fisher is no nonsense. He handles the troublemakers. Look for Ogletree to immediately start outside at backer and make an impact to a strengthening D, with one of the most well kept secrets on the D line. Here you have youngster Robert Quinn and Chris Long on end, and beefy second year man Michael Brockers, who did nothing but move forward in 2012. Improvement from Kendall Langford will also help. Then the secondary with Finnegan and Jenkins, and Trumaine Johnson, you have a solid D. The only weakness is safety. The candidates there are third round pick TJ McDonald, Rodney McCleod, and Darian Stewart. Throw in unknown veteran Matt Girodano, and there are nothing but question marks. But trust in Fisher.
The rest of the draft this year resulted in wide receiver Stedman Bailey, Austin’s college teammate, decorated Alabama lineman Barrett Jones, and running back Zac Stacy. Bailey was a highly productive college player, catching a ridiculous 25 TD passes. He was overshadowed by Austin. But now they can grow and complement each other at the next level, and challenge each other. Look for Bailey to step in and contribute on a slowly but surely basis. Barrett Jones is a swiss knife lineman. He played every line position at Alabama, winning recognition at each. He won three titles there. If it wasn’t for a late season foot injury, he was being touted as a late first round pick. Talk about value. If the chances pan out, the Rams will reap major benefits. Finally, Zac Stacy is already being predicted as this year’s Alfred Morris. He enters a crowded backfield now that SJax is gone. One that features second year backs Daryl Richardson and Isiah Pead. Richardson is the starter as of now, he played well relieving Jackson last year. Pead had a horrid rookie year for being a second rounder. But he is still talented, and it is only his second year. But both those guys are better suited for change of pace, passing down backs. Stacy can be the powerful runner, between the tackles, early down guy. It’ll be running back by committee this year. Not a bad thing with Fisher, think back to Tennessee in 09, when Chris Johnson pre CJ2K and Lendale White were slash and dash. We could see that between the Pead/Richardson duo and rookie Stacy combo.
The pattern is showing. Speed. And a whole lot. Spread offense, shotgun formation, just like Bradford had at OU. The coaching staff has said this is the plan. The plans are finally taking shape, and this team is rising quickly. If you ask me, it looks oddly familiar to the Matt Ryan path. It was all about Turner and running as Ryan developed. He slowly progressed, putting up better numbers each year. This past year, his fourth season, he finally became an air general, lighting it up with Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzales. The difference is obviously wins, and playoff appearances. Also, Ryan always had White and Gonzo before Julio. He had the right cast. But now, the Rams finally put the weapons together for Bradford. If they were in any other division, they might be popular sleeper picks to win the division. But given that they have the Hawks and Niners, and an improved Cardinals team to contend with; those games will be vicious, tough, dogfights. But they went 4-1-1 in the division last year, there’s no reason to think they can’t succeed again. They’ve improved, even though their rivals stocked up as well.
Now to the rest of their schedule: The obvious six games against the Seahawks, 49ers, and Cardinals, then the NFC South: at Atlanta in week 2, at Carolina, hosting New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Then: the AFC south, at Houston, at Indianapolis, hosting Tennessee, and hosting Jacksonville. The other two games are at Dallas, and hosting Chicago. It is definitely not an easy schedule for the leagues’ youngest team. But realistically, they can win anywhere from 7-11 games. I’ll put them at 9-7 to be honest. There is a shot, not a great one, but a shot, that they can be a wild card playoff team, the third NFC West playoff team, behind virtual locks Seattle and San Fran.
It all comes down to Sam Bradford this year. Will he make the leap? He is finally poised to. Because all the core and key positions are inexperienced youngsters, expect growing pains. But expect this team to be a pain to others as well. Bradford can very well throw for 4,000 plus yards, 25 plus touchdowns. And if he keeps his interceptions down, look out. No longer are they walkovers. The Rams are finally back. They are rising in the shadows. The Greatest Show on Turf may be reborn sooner rather than later. Hopefully, they don’t make me eat all these words.