Richard Moore assesses the St Louis Rams 2-2 start to the NFL season, ahead of their Wembley encounter with the New England Patriots in Week 8.
With the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ nothing more than a distant, albeit glorious, memory, the Rams faithful have had very little to celebrate since ‘the tackle’, that dramatic moment in Superbowl 34 when an outstretched Kevin Dyson was dramatically thwarted on the one–yard line, thus sealing a 23–16 victory, and the franchises only Championship to date.
Since that dramatic evening in The Georgia Dome, The Rams haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2003, and last year was no exception as St. Louis, under the guidance of former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (10-38 in three seasons), finished the season in the basement of the NFC West with an appalling 2–14 record (1-7 at home), a 22nd ranked defence, and an offence that ranked second but last, boasting an atrocious 12.1 points per game on average, only marginally better than the Jacksonville Jaguars (Posting an average of 15.2).
Quarterback Sam Bradford endured a particularly torrid time, achieving a paltry completion percentage of 53.5, throwing for only 6 touchdowns and an equal number of interceptions, suffered 35 sacks, and offered up a Quarterback rating of 70.5. However, it must be noted that the lingering effects of a high – ankle sprain, suffered in week 5 against the Green Bay Packers, kept him out for a total of six games throughout the duration of the 2011–12, thus massively undermining his contribution to the cause.
Though, when your defence allows 25.4 points per game, it’s hard to see how much difference a full season would have made, if any. So, this begs the question – where on earth do you go from here? Well, the first blocks of what is sure to be a substantial re–building process began with the announcement that on the 13th of January, former Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher had agreed to become the new head coach, after sitting out the entire 2011–12 season, following his dismissal at the conclusion of the 2010-11 campaign.
Although, the Rams faced stiff competition for Fishers services as Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made no secret of his desire to bring the 54 year –old Californian to Florida. However, Miami’s move for Fisher collapsed due to disagreements over the structure of the organization, as despite Fisher showing a willingness to meet some compromises, it’s understood that a desire on the part of Miami’s to retain Jeff Ireland as general manager helped scupper any deal, thus paving the way clear for St. Louis.
So, what persuaded Fisher, who suffered possibly his most agonising experience as a head coach at the hands of his new employers on that incredible night in Georgia, to take on this considerable challenge?
According to Fisher, when questioned by NFL Total Access’ Andrew Siciliano during a January 17th interview, the blueprint for a successful team was already in place (one such ingredient being a franchise Quarterback), and that it was just a matter of developing that “I don’t think there is a whole lot (to change). I looked at numerous games from both years (2010–2011, & 2011–12), and taking into consideration there was a staff change, there was a coordinator change, and in Josh McDaniel’s (offensive coordinator) defence, that’s hard to put an offence in training camp, and then you’ve got injury after injury”. However he went on say “The one thing this team did do, from start to finish was it played very hard, even to the last play of week 17, So I think you’ve got the nucleus here, and you’ve got an opportunity to fill some holes, and you’ve got an opportunity and a great future with a very, very talented young Quarterback in Sam Bradford”.
On the subject of the Quarterback, it’s common knowledge that the success and failure of a franchise is largely dependent on the man under centre, and the offensive weaponry that surrounds him.
Equally important is a new coach’s relationship with his Quarterback, as it’s absolutely paramount to establish an understanding, but crucially, an understanding of what is required when it comes to the needs of the team, something not lost on Fisher who made it a priority to meet with his triggerman, and get a feel for what he felt he needed going into the new season “Well, I think anybody that has crossed paths with Sam, knows what a great young man he is, and how competitive he is, so that was no concern of mine. I knew we were going to get along great, but it was some of the other things, trying to get pulse for this team – what he thought it needed, and as a leader of that team, you want to talk to him. So I did, it was a very valuable conversation. All part of the process” – A process that would go hand in hand with their (the Rams) approach to the upcoming draft, which prompted Andrew Siciliano to state: “They have the number 2 pick, actually you, let’s say it that way, have the number 2 pick, does Sam Bradford need a weapon?”, To which Fisher replied “Well, we’ve got options with that pick, it’s way too soon to determine. We need surround him with better players, there’s no doubt, but, whether we use that pick or not, that remains to be seen”
Before he could even get to the draft however, Fisher had to content with an unfortunate matter concerning his preferred choice for defensive coordinator, as on the 21st of March, Gregg Williams, formally of the New Orleans Saints, had been suspended indefinitely for the implementation of a pay – for – performance incentive, a rather vicious one designed to take out opposing players at any cost. However, it seems that Fisher had braced himself for the eventuality and had drawn up contingency accordingly “I’ve had some contact with some officials at the League office, and was anticipating this suspension to come down the past couple of days. The severity of the suspension does not surprise us as well. As best we can, we have been preparing for that”. He continued – “We’ve got three former coordinators in the building, so I’ve met with the staff today, and informed the staff, when we got the news, that we would make the appropriate adjustments, and we’ll move on. I’m not going to name a defensive coordinator; it will be a collective effort. “I’ll remind you that the playbook Gregg had, has, originated in my office, so I had a pretty good feel for the defence. At this point, I’m not at liberty to say who’s going to make the calls, decisions, but it will get done, and they’ll get done effectively” – A collective consisting of Assistant coach Dave McGuiness, Special Teams coordinator John Fassell, Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer – formally of the New York Jets and responsible for a 65.5% success rate in red–zone conversions, and the likes of Rob Boras, Tight – End coach etc., would perform the role.
So, after such a tumultuous turn of events, how would Jeff Fisher’s re – building plans carry over into the 2012 draft? Well, in all they selected a total of 10 players. Initially, as mentioned previously, courtesy of exerts from the ‘Total Access’ interview, the Rams had the second pick in the draft and they could have selected a Quarterback, possibly in the form of Robert Griffin 111, only for Fisher and general manager Les Snead to opt against the move, by keeping faith with current incumbent, Sam Bradford.
As it turns out, the Rams traded down, therefore paving the way for Washington to snare Baylor’s RG3, although this did allow St. Louis another pick. Before the draft even began, the Rams, traded down still further by allowing the Dallas Cowboys to take their sixth overall pick, who were originally allotted the fourteenth overall selection.
During the course of the three day draft process, the St. Louis Rams selected LSU’s defensive tackle, Michael Brockers (1st round, 14th overall), Appalachian State wide – receiver Brian Quick (2nd round, 33rd overall – although many assumed that the Rams would take Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon, but the Jaguars moved up aggressively and took the talented receiver with the 5th pick), North Carolina’s cornerback, Janoris Jenkins (2nd round, 39th pick overall), Cincinnati’s runningback, Isaiah Pead (2nd round, 50th overall pick) and Montana’s cornerback, Trumaine Johnson (3rd round, 65th overall pick).
In addition to the aforementioned, they proceeded to draft Wake Forest’s receiver, Chris Givens (4th round, 96th overall), South Carolina’s guard, Rokevious Watkins (5th round, 150th overall), Missouri’s kicker, Greg Zuerlein (6th round, 171st overall), Hawaii’s Linebacker, Aaron Brown (7th round, 209th overall) and Abilene Christians runningback, Daryl Richardson (7th round, 252nd overall).
Although many may look at the Rams draft approach and cite a case of ‘quantity over quality’, Fisher was of the opinion that the strategy has allowed for, what he alluded to in his interview with ‘Total Access’ Andrew Siciliano, ‘an opportunity to fill the holes’ thus providing significant strength in depth. Fisher said, courtesy of the Rams official website: “This is one that we are going to be remembered for, in particular because of what we were able to do when we jumped out of the two spot. At two, you don’t know what’s going to happen but when you get down to six and pick up more picks and then continue to pick up more picks, It allows us to get more players.”
After all the hoopla of the draft it was time to get down to business, and the Rams began their season in Motor City against a vastly improved Lions outfit, who look a completely different animal to the infamous 0–16 outfit of 2008–09. Though on the face of it, the result hardly points at change on the fortune front, the manner of the performance does hint at better things to come. In particular, the defence, despite giving up the game clinching touchdown with 10–seconds remaining, scored 13 points off Mathew Stafford turnovers, one of which resulted in a Cortland Finnegan pick that was returned 31–yards for a touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, Sam Bradford offered a competent display overall, going 17–of-25 for 198–yards with a 23–yard strike to Brandon Gibson, and conjured what was so nearly the game winning drive when he set up kicker Greg Zuerlein, who delivered a 46 – yarder with 1:55 left, but the Rams couldn’t hold out, and Detroit posted a narrow 27 – 23 win.
Week 2 brought the Rams face to face with the man they traded away for, the precocious Robert Griffin 111, as his Redskins outfit came to town on a real high following their stunning 40 – 32 at the Mercedes Benz dome in week 1.
Sadly for Rams fans, it seemed for a while that RG3 was about to offer a repeat performance of his demolition job in New Orleans, where he put 320–yards and two touchdowns on the Saints defence (although, given the fact that their defence is getting pulverised on a regular basis, as recently as week 3, this time against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, it’s not that difficult a task), as he led the Skins to a 21 – 6 lead. However, as half – time approached, the Rams came back strongly courtesy of Danny Amendola’s 1 – yard touchdown , which reduced the deficit to 21 – 13, and the Rams would go on to take the lead 24 – 21 on Bradford’s touchdown pass to Mathew Mulligan, and Daryl Richardson’s 2 – point conversion on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Although things very nearly went awry when the impressive Richardson, in for the injured Steven Jackson (although at the time, many thought that Jackson was on the end of a benching due to un-sportsman like conduct, when he spiked the ball and not as the result of an injury) fumbled and DeAngelo Hall recovered at the Washington 37, with 2:40 to go. But when 4 th year receiver Josh Morgan was called for un–sportsmanlike conduct for petulantly tossing the ball in the direction of his provocateur Cortland Finnegan, which left Billy Cundiff with the unenviable task of making a 62-yarder to take the game into overtime. Fortunately, for the Rams anyway, he shanked his kick well wide with 1:13 remaining.
All in all, despite conceding 28 points, three more than the average 25.4 conceded during Steve Spagnuolo’s last term in charge, Sam Bradford with help from his offence, easily surpassed their previous season’s average of 12. 1 points per game, and amassed a hugely impressive 310 – yards (160 courtesy of Danny Amendola) inspired his team to a victory that could give the team serious impetus down the stretch.
Week 3 however, provided a vivid reminder that despite obvious improvements, much work remains as the Bears brought the Rams down to earth with an emphatic thud. Major Wright setting the tone in a dominant defensive display, capped by an interception returned 45 – yards for a touchdown, in a 23-6 victory for the Bears.
It was a dismal afternoon for the Rams (1- 2) and Sam Bradford in particular, marking a stark contrast to his previous weeks work, as he and his offence were held to 160 yards and was sacked six times.
That was enough on a day when Jay Cutler struggled, and the Bears (2-1) came away with the win after an ugly loss to the Green Bay Packers the previous week. The Bears had just kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 13-6 in the fourth quarter when Wright came up with the big return. Bradford had been hit hard by Israel Idonije and Stephen Paea on the previous play when Tim Jennings deflected a slant intended for Danny Amendola.
Wright caught the ball at the 45 and ran untouched to the end zone, making it a 14-point game and icing a game that quite simply blew the Rams away in ‘The windy City’. Would a home game in week 4 against the Seahawks provide a calmer breeze…
As it transpires, it did just that, as Greg Zuerlein kicked four field goals, including a 58-yarder and a club-record 60-yarder, to help the St. Louis Rams to a 19-13 win over Pete Carroll’s Seattle. Special teams led the way for the Rams (2-2), with a fake field goal turning into a 2-yard touchdown pass from punter Johnny Hekker to Danny Amendola to put St. Louis 10-7 in front late in the first half.
The loss came six days after Seattle (2-2) beat Green Bay on a botched call by replacement officials on a final-play touchdown pass into the end zone. Regular officials were back this weekend. Marshawn Lynch led Seattle with 118 yards on 20 carries, including an 18-yard score to cap the game’s first possession.
The Rams intercepted rookie Russell Wilson on three separate occasions, with Bradley Fletcher clinching the most decisive one at the St. Louis 25 with a minute to go. So, on reflection their 2 – 2 record at the quarter mark would suggest that this new, re-modelled Rams outfit are very much work in progress, however it would appear the Fisher influence is beginning to ring true, as there’s an aggression about this side that has been dearly lacking over the past couple of seasons, one that will make them a markedly more competitive side. One that if stays on its current course, will be a force to be reckoned with, and not the irrelevance it has been for so long, even in the much maligned NFC West.
And, who knows, by the time St. Louis takes residency on Wembley’s hallowed turf, we may even see ‘The greatest Show on Turf’…
image: © Herkie