By Jeff Gordon
ONLINE SPORTS COLUMNIST
12/19/2007


As you would expect, STLtoday.com receives no shortage of fan complaints about our hapless Rams.

The “Greatest Show on Turf” has turned into the “Debacle in the Dome.” There is no end to the suffering in sight.

Absentee president John Shaw, de facto GM Jay Zygmunt, beleaguered coach Scott Linehan, battered quarterback Marc Bulger, chatty running back Steven Jackson . . . well, pretty much everybody at Rams Park is taking hits during this lost season.

But when fans whine about wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, well, your cyber-correspondent feels compelled to step in and defend these perennial stars.

Holt just earned his seventh Pro Bowl invitation, proving how widely respected he remains within league circles. His peers haven’t forgotten how good he is.

At some point Thursday night, Bruce will climb into third place the NFL’s career receiving yards list.

Ike is a mortal lock to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame – given his incredible career statistics and his Super Bowl heroics -- and Torry is on pace to become one of the sport’s all-time great players as well.

These are two of the greatest receivers of their era, period. And they can still play.

So why do fans complain?

Their biggest beef is their habit of hitting the deck after catching passes in traffic. Fans apparently want to see them absorb vicious hits and gang tackles while pursuing a few extra yards. Fans want them to cross the border separating bravery from stupidity,

These complaints have increased this season, since Linehan’s safety-first offense hasn’t sprung a lot of big strikes to Bruce and Holt. They aren’t making a lot of catches while hitting defensive seams in stride.

Protection breakdowns, line injuries and quarterback injuries also diminished the passing game. A few untimely fumbles and pass drops also marred Holt’s season.

“I did have some mishaps and I could have done some things better, but I think overall, through the course of the season, I thought I played pretty consistent,” Holt told reporters Tuesday. “Not to the level that I did in the past for numerous reasons but I felt I was staying somewhat consistent.”

Holt is averaging just 2.3 in yardage after catch, the worst “YAC” among leading receivers. But how many of his catches come right at the sideline or in a stationary position in the middle of the field?

Holt and Bruce work very hard to stay on the field and remain productive. They don’t pace themselves, as Randy Moss did in Minnesota and Oakland.

They don’t battle coaches and alienate teammates, as Terrell Owens did in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.

They don’t put show ahead of substance, as Chad Johnson has done in Cincinnati. Holt and Bruce play on, as best they can.

“The one thing I can say about Isaac is he shows up for work everyday,” Linehan said during his Tuesday media session. “He works extremely hard as if it were his first year not his 14th. You won’t see a different type of approach and that is what I respect most about him.”

As for Holt . . .

“Look at Torry’s numbers,” Linehan said. “They’re still right there with all the league leaders. He’s had a very difficult season, as we all have, but he’s had to deal with more of injuries in his setback. I’m impressed with the fact that even with the way the season’s gone, he’s been able to put up the kind of season he’s been able to do. He’ll finish with impressive numbers by season’s end.”

Fans also complain that both players have lost speed, due to injury (Holt’s creaking knee, Bruce’s multiple muscle strains) and advancing age. Both we’ve seen both receivers gain separation during those brief periods when this offense has operated in high gear.

Do the Rams need to add a speedy receiver to help stretch defenses? Sure.

Can the Rams allow Bruce to finish his career here under the terms of his current contract? Perhaps not, due to all the other team needs. The NFL isn’t a very sentimental place.

These are legitimate concerns to be addressed after the season. But they don’t diminish what Holt and Bruce continue to accomplish under difficult circumstances.

The Rams will retire Marshall Faulk’s number Thursday night in the Edward Jones Dome. The franchise will have to the same for No. 80 (for both Bruce and his mentor, Henry Ellard) after this warrior finally packs it in.

“It’s incredible what Isaac’s been able to do in his career,” Linehan said. “I’ve always said it’s because he is a true professional. He takes care of himself. He gets himself ready to play each week. He’s been like a lot of players in this league. He’s gone through some injury setbacks, but it can’t be many of them to be in that kind of company.”

Hear, hear.