By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
01/03/2006


Start with the rare circumstance of a head coach taking a leave of absence for two-thirds of the season because of illness. Sprinkle in enough controversy to fuel a soap opera. Then add a heavy dose of injury. So yes, there are several excuses available to explain the Rams' free fall in 2005.

Over the course of time, not much of that will be remembered. But decades from now, the final record - 6-10 - will. The record also will show that this was one of the worst defenses in Rams history. The defense allowed:

* A total of 5,602 yards, a franchise record for ineptitude.

* A total of 429 points scored, the second-worst figure in Rams history.

* A total of 22 rushing touchdowns, tied for second-worst in franchise history.

You can blame some of that on defensive coordinator Larry Marmie and his scheme, which the players never bought into and never really fully understood.

You can blame some of that on personnel. The Rams never fully addressed needs at safety, linebacker and defensive end in the offseason.

And you can blame some of that on technique. This was perhaps the poorest-tackling Rams team since the move to St. Louis in 1995.

Yes, there were problems with special teams. And the offense struggled down the stretch without Mike Martz calling plays and Marc Bulger throwing passes.

But at the end of the day, the defensive failings are what dragged down this team more than anything. Which explains why the Rams are eyeballing a defensive-oriented coach as Martz's successor, and why several defensive regulars have played their last games for St. Louis.

Our final report card for the 2005 Rams reflects those shortcomings:


QUARTERBACKS

GRADE: C +

Until being shelved by his second shoulder injury, Nov. 20 against Arizona, Bulger was on his way to another strong season - perhaps a career year. His accuracy remains underrated, and his toughness is unquestioned. But after four injuries to his throwing shoulder in two seasons, questions about Bulger's durability are only natural.

Rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick had a sensational NFL debut Nov. 27 in Houston. But the more Fitzpatrick played - and he started the next three games - the more his play regressed. He's not the first rookie QB to struggle in the NFL, but the Rams' next coach must decide if Fitzpatrick is a viable option for the No. 2 quarterback job.

Despite his limited arm strength, Jamie Martin was accurate and didn't flinch in the face of pressure.

Any time you go through three starting quarterbacks, the season usually is a wash, and that's what happened in 2005. Bulger is the one player the Rams can least afford to lose to injury, and they lost him for more than half the season.


RUNNING BACKS

GRADE: B

There were several bumps along the road to Steven Jackson's first 1,000-yard season. He was slowed by a rib injury early and a hip pointer late in the season, missing the final game against Dallas. Jackson didn't progress as a blocker this season; his blitz pickup was spotty at best.

At his best, Jackson was a force - combining speed with power. He got plenty of yards after contact. His pass-catching skills showed steady improvement. Jackson needs to refine his run reads, but there's no reason to believe he can't be a centerpiece of the Rams' offense for years to come.

Marshall Faulk expected a sharply reduced role this season but was still underutilized, averaging fewer than seven touches a game. He is contemplating retirement, and his decision to return will be influenced by the hiring of the new head coach.

At fullback, Madison Hedgecock was an upgrade over 2004 starter Joey Goodspeed, both as a blocker and receiver. But he must cut down on mistakes.


RECEIVERS

GRADE: B minus

Torry Holt was one of the team's unsung heroes in a largely forgettable season. He missed two games with a knee injury that limited his play in several other contests. Nonetheless, he finished tied for third in the NFL in receptions (102) and sixth in the league in reception yards (1,331).

Isaac Bruce also played hurt for much of the season, and his totals for receptions (36) and reception yards (525) were his lowest since 1998. Bruce can still get downfield, and he led the team's wide receivers in yards per catch (14.6).

The No. 3 and 4 receivers, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald, enjoyed career years. But Curtis caught only 11 passes over the final eight games, a dropoff partly due to struggles at the quarterback position. McDonald did his best work in the two-minute offense, but he frequently was an afterthought in the passing game.

The overall grade for this unit is lowered because of subpar play by the tight end position. Brandon Manumaleuna caught only 13 passes and regressed as a pass blocker.


OFFENSIVE LINE

GRADE: C minus

Starting two rookies for most of the season, this unit had some growing pains. Despite a penchant for drawing penalties, right tackle Alex Barron and left guard Claude Terrell showed they could play in this league, and play at a fairly high level. Terrell can be a road-grader on running plays, but still needs to do a better job on pass blocking and downfield blocks. Barron showed his toughness by starting the final three games of the season following thumb surgery.

At left tackle, Orlando Pace earned his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl berth despite playing the final third of the season with injuries. There could be cause for concern that before the start of next season, center Andy McCollum will be 36 and right guard Adam Timmerman turns 35.

McCollum combines savvy with toughness, but his play leveled off late in the season. The gritty Timmerman never was right following multiple operations that prevented him from doing conditioning work and training last offeason.


DEFENSIVE LINE

GRADE: D

Ends Leonard Little and Anthony Hargrove combined for 16 sacks, but 10 of them came in the final three games after the Rams had been eliminated from playoff consideration. Little missed two games following the shooting death of his younger brother and was bothered by an ankle problem much of the season. He remains the Rams' only difference-maker on defense, despite attracting extra blocking attention every week. Hargrove's strong finish provides hope that he can be a pass-rushing complement to Little in 2006, but Hargrove's play for the initial two-thirds of the season was disappointing.

On the inside, Ryan Pickett continues to develop into one of the game's better nose tackles. But Pickett didn't get much help at tackle from teammates Jimmy Kennedy and Damione Lewis. Kennedy started the season in strong fashion, then tailed off, and by mid-November was replaced by Lewis in the starting lineup. Lewis was solid, but unspectacular, and had only one sack after registering five in 2004.


LINEBACKERS

GRADE: D

Free-agent pickups Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne weren't flops, but the Rams didn't get the return they expected from this potential $25 million investment. Both players finished the season on injured reserve.

Even when they were healthy, Coakley and Claiborne were on the field for only about half of the defensive plays. Opponents outfoxed the Rams by running the ball out of three- and four-receiver sets, with Coakley and Claiborne on the bench.

Outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa continued to be one of the hardest-working, most productive players on the team. Tinoisamoa still needs to be more disciplined in pursuit and in maintaining gap responsibilities.

Trev Faulk is an overachiever who isn't afraid to take on blockers, and is an effective run defender. He replaced Claiborne at middle linebacker over the final third of the season. Brandon Chillar is a rangy player but lacks coverage instincts and was prone to miss tackles.

As a whole, this unit made very few big plays.


SECONDARY

GRADE: D

The Rams more than doubled their interception total of 2004, but that's hardly cause for celebration. They still had only 13, the third-lowest total in the NFC. Losing their top cornerback, Jerametrius Butler, for the season in August because of a knee injury was a severe blow. The other starting cornerback, Travis Fisher, finished the season on injured reserve.

DeJuan Groce displayed good coverage skills but got outmuscled by bigger receivers and didn't display much tenacity as a tackler. Rookie Ron Bartell improved noticeably over the course of the season but needs to be more aggressive tackling. Nickel back Corey Ivy made some costly mistakes in coverage and took some silly penalties. But he was one of the few defensive backs to show any spunk as a tackler.

At strong safety, Adam Archuleta leveled off as the season progressed, and he missed some tackles. The work of converted wide receiver Mike Furrey was surprising at free safety. But Furrey has yet to show enough consistency as a tackler to be considered a long-term solution.


SPECIAL TEAMS

GRADE: D+

For a change, this unit actually helped win some games. There was the onside kick against Houston that helped take that contest into overtime. Against Jacksonville, Chillar returned Drew Walhroos' blocked punt for a TD. And although it came in a losing effort, Chris Johnson returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score Oct. 9 against Seattle.

Place-kicker Jeff Wilkins had another strong season, connecting on 27 of 31 field goals, including four from 50 yards-plus. Veteran Bryan Barker stabilized the punting situation after a horrendous five-game stint by rookie Reggie Hodges at the start of the season.

But for the most part, this was the same old special teams. The Rams finished near the bottom of the league in punt returns (29th), punt coverage (29th) and kickoff coverage (30th). They weren't much better on kickoff returns (23rd). Put it all together, and the Rams lost more than 27 yards of field position per contest in the coverage and return game. Only the play of Wilkins prevents an F grade.


COACHING

GRADE: C

It's hard to provide an accurate assessment of Mike Martz's five games on the sidelines because of his illness. More often than not, Martz simply wasn't himself. He looked like he belonged in bed during the road game Oct. 2 against the New York Giants.

Nonetheless, the team displayed some familiar tendencies - good and bad - during that time. The offense moved the ball and scored points, but was sidetracked too often by turnovers and struggled at times in the red zone. The defense had trouble creating turnovers, stopping the run and tackling.

When Martz took his leave of absence, interim head coach Joe Vitt was thrown into a no-win situation. He was caught in the middle of the front office feud between Martz and president of football operations Jay Zygmunt, and the Rams were hit hard by injuries.

Several of Vitt's game-day decisions were dubious, particularly when it came to kicking field goals vs. going for first downs. But overall, Vitt did an admirable job of keeping the players focused and the season from disintegrating