Rams Looking Forward to Final Test

Posted Dec 24, 2012

As the longest tenured Ram, closing in on a full decade with the team, running back Steven Jackson has never been part of a team that finished a season with a winning record.

After an 8-8 rookie year in which the Rams sneaked into the playoffs, Jackson was a part of the 2006 team that also went 8-8. But in those nine years, he’s never been able to look at the team’s record and see a larger number on the left side of the ledger than the one on the right.

That’s why the mere implication that Sunday’s 28-13 win against Tampa Bay and this week’s game at Seattle have no meaning would almost certainly chafe Jackson and his teammates.

“We have a lot to play for: a winning season, undefeated in the division and something to build off of and go into the offseason feeling happy and strong about,” Jackson said. “And make it appealing to free agents as well.”

While the one in a million playoff hopes the Rams still harbored entering Sunday’s game against the Bucs were put to rest when Minnesota knocked off Houston, the Rams didn’t waste a second thumping their chest about the win against the Bucs or even discuss the excitement for the Christmas holiday.

No, like so many other occasions this season, the Rams almost immediately turned their attention to what’s to come in Seattle this weekend. There’s plenty of time to get into the matchups and specifics of what that game will bring this week but in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s game, the focus was more on what that game represents.

“Yeah, it’s huge for us,” end Chris Long said. “We haven’t done that since I’ve been here, certainly. It would feel really good. And the Seahawks, it’s no secret we are division rivals so it will be a really festive atmosphere there.”

Considering the lack of a playoff opportunity, it would have been easy for the Rams to pack it in and call it a day last week, let alone this week. But at 7-7-1 with a three-game road winning streak, wins in four of their past five games and an unblemished 4-0-1 record in the NFC West Division, the Rams are unanimously looking forward to the chance to play at Seattle this weekend, a sentiment rarely shared by any team that has to play at one of the league’s most hostile venues.

That isn’t to say the Rams are OK with missing out on the postseason. For all the talk of a long rebuilding process before the season, coach Jeff Fisher remained adamant that this season was more of a remodeling project.

That type of talk wasn’t just media talk, either. Behind closed doors Fisher had discussions with all of his players and let them know he intended to win and win right away.

To come so close and come up short is disappointing.

“Obviously it’s frustrating,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “That’s why you play the game, you play for the opportunity to win championships and you obviously can’t do that if you don’t get into the playoffs so that’s a little bit disappointing but there’s still a lot ahead of us. We could go to Seattle next week and come back with a winning record.”

Riding high with four wins in five games, the Rams have gained much in the season’s final month and a half.

For example, Sunday’s win in Tampa gave the Rams their first three-game road winning streak in nine years and kept them unbeaten in their past four contests away from home. For a team that went the entire first half of the season without a victory away from the Edward Jones Dome, that turnaround has been dramatic, regardless of the opponent.

If you’re looking for signs of progress, winning on the road represents an obvious one.

“(We’re) road warriors or something,” Long said. “Hopefully that trend continues and we can keep getting better. I think it’s all part of our team just growing up. I don’t worry about these guys shutting it down because it’s the last game of the season. This locker room, if any locker room is going to keep playing. We have too much pride on the line. We’ll keep working and try to build toward next season.”

Perhaps most important amongst the potpourri of reasons the Rams still have much on the line in the final week is the basic idea of improvement.

Fisher has consistently preached the idea of day to day, game to game and week to week improvement for his team. As the youngest team in the league, the fact that they are closing the season playing some of their best football is maybe the best signal of all that the worm is starting to turn.

“As a young team, you never know how guys are going to taper off toward the end of the season,” Jackson said. “It’s a very long season and a lot of guys haven’t played football that long before so to see guys not hit a rookie wall or if they did hit a rookie wall go right through it like the guys have. Janoris Jenkins, Givens, Brockers, all the guys; to see them continue to make plays, continue to be standouts week in, week out is very promising for us.”

That consistent level of effort has been uniform throughout the team as well, not just with the rookie class. While effort is essentially the one basic thing expected of every team, it’s also imperative for a team to win on a regular basis.
“I think that’s been there,” Bradford said. “And one of the best things about this team is regardless of the situation of the game, even back to last week when we were down a lot, everyone kept fighting, kept playing and I think the effort has been tremendous this year.”

Taking stock of how his team has fared in 2012, Fisher has been pleased with his team’s improvement and effort all year long. That doesn’t mean that a win in the season’s final game that would it a winning record and an undefeated season in the division and all of those other things would erase some missed opportunities.

There will be plenty of time for Fisher to take the long view when the season is over a week from today but in his earliest view of things, he keeps the same balanced view he has on a week to week basis.

“Well, there’s been some good things but we are playing our final game this weekend,” Fisher said. “That’s not what you set out to do. We had a few in the past that we had a chance to win and didn’t. I think that takes the front page as we’re concerned. But we saw tremendous improvement from our rookie class, got tremendous contributions from the rookies and second-year players and I think we’ve improved in a lot of areas. We still have a long way to go.”