Rams Raised Expectations with Turnaround

Posted Jan 3, 2011

Perhaps the hardest thing about an elimination game is that when you’re the team that gets eliminated, the abrupt, sudden ending can be even more difficult to get over.

“This one always takes a little bit more because it’s the last one of the season,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “There are 19 other teams going through the same meeting we did this morning. A month from now, 11 other teams will do the same thing. There’s only going to be one team standing at the end. So it is hard to lose the last game, especially when you don’t know when the season is going to end. It will take a little while. This one will linger a little bit but we’ll move on.”

As the Rams trudged around the Russell Training Center on Monday, collecting their belongings and saying their goodbyes for the final time this season, they couldn’t help but remain disappointed by Sunday night’s loss to Seattle and the end of a wild ride in 2010.

But, unlike the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s loss, there was a bit more room for introspection for a team that made tremendous strides this season.

“We were right there, right in the midst of things, doing everything that we desired to do,” safety Oshiomogho Atogwe said. “But that’s just the small picture. Big picture, we know we’re on our way. At the beginning of the year, most people wouldn’t say we would even be in that position that we were in yesterday. That’s just a sign and a test to us that we’re heading in a direction that we desire.”

The tangible evidence of what the Rams accomplished this year is easy to find.

You’re talking about a team that went from 1-15 and drafting first in last April’s NFL Draft to one that went 7-9, lost a tiebreaker for the NFC West Division title and will now draft 14th in this year’s NFL Draft.

In a statistical sense, the improvement was also plain to see. The addition of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford helped the passing game improve from 28th in the league to 21st as the total offensive performance improved by 23 yards per game. That unit cut down on turnovers in a major way, going from tied for 27th in the league to tied for eighth.

Defensively, the Rams made even greater strides as that group improved from 29th in the league in total defense to 19th, from 30th in the league in sacks to seventh and from 29th in third down defense to second.

What the Rams got out of the season goes well beyond the numbers, though.

“I think so,” Bradford said. “Obviously this year we were close.  Didn’t quite get it done this year, but I think if we take everything that we went through this year and we learn from everything we went through this year and we use that, for what it’s worth going forward, I think we definitely have a shot to have a good offense and to have a good team next year.”

From the moment Spagnuolo arrived in St. Louis and Billy Devaney was named general manager, the Rams have made the top priority becoming the type of team that isn’t a flash in the pan but rather a consistent, regular playoff contender.

While the lessons of a brutal 2009 campaign might have been hard to swallow at the time, there’s little doubt that the bitter taste of that year helped motivate the Rams for this season.

Likewise, there are more intricate details and lessons gained this season that should serve the Rams well heading into the offseason and the 2011 season.

One thing last year’s edition certainly didn’t get to do was play in the caliber of games that this year’s group did.

In November, many Rams talked about what it was like to be playing meaningful games in that month. That became a familiar refrain in December as well. And then, suddenly, only one game remained on the schedule with all of the marbles on the line.

“Essentially, we played two playoff games,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We won one and lost one. His point was that, win and you have a chance to keep going. Lose and you’re out. It’s kind of the way it was with San Francisco and Seattle, so those type of pressure games, I guess, this will be good experience for the young guys on our football team.”

Perhaps there were nerves involved in the Rams’ struggles against Seattle but just having played in that type of atmosphere could be a boon the next time the Rams find themselves in a similar do or die situation because in the NFL experience is one of the most valuable traits to own.

Even in a game with an outcome as disappointing as the loss to Seattle, the Rams now have a roster loaded with players who have been on the big stage, seen the lights and can now know what succeeding in that moment requires.

“I believe this experience we went through here yesterday will make this football team hungry,” Spagnuolo said. “When you get right there and you get a little bit of a taste of it that only just makes you hunger for that particular feeling going forward.”

Adding to the experience of playing in big games was the number of close games the Rams found themselves in this season, the type of games where a play here or a bounce there could have swung things back toward a Rams victory.
And maybe those bounces didn’t always go their way but it’s enough to ensure that the next time they’re in such a predicament; they can take the steps to ensure that they do.

“You can say what ifs about anything but there’s close games in the NFL every weekend,” Laurinaitis said. “I’m sure all the close games that we ended up winning, those teams that lost to us are probably saying, ‘Gosh, if we could have beaten the St. Louis Rams there, we coulda, shoulda, woulda. But I think it’s something we learn from. I think it’s something that we’ll have in our back pocket going into next year.”

Moving forward, the next steps aren’t much different than they always are.

Spagnuolo went through the film Monday morning after about three hours of sleep then met with the team and delivered the message of how proud he was of what they accomplished and the bond and chemistry this group had.

One by one, Spagnuolo also met with each player individually for a quick thank you, a hand shake and a short discussion of what was to come.

Now, Spagnuolo says he and the coaching staff will begin diving into evaluations of the players already on the roster as well as turning an eye toward what figures to be a busy offseason.

Spagnuolo says it’s too early to make any claims on what might be the team’s biggest needs headed toward an offseason clouded by CBA uncertainty.

However, when those holes do need to be filled, the possibilities for filling them with top caliber talent are more likely than they were a year ago according to running back Steven Jackson.

“Absolutely,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot easier to consider coming to a team that finished 7-9 and one game away from the playoffs than 1-15. It takes a special individual to want to come and help out that sort of situation compared to a team that’s very competitive in their division with some young, promising talent.”

So as the long wait for the next chance to get back on the field and take the next step begins, the Rams will gain even more perspective and clarity as the calendar turns.

The next few months will be saturated with speculation and expectations. But for a group that spent this season proving time and again that the highest standard set for it was the one it set for itself, there’s little doubt that the bar will only continue to rise.

“That’s a good thing,” Spagnuolo said. “We are always going to be about raising the expectations. That’s the way it should be.”