Burwell: Rams coaches need to be evaluated, too

Wednesday, January 5, 2011 11:55 am

In the finicky world of pro football, trying to figure out what passes for success and what constitutes failure can be as elusive as trying to catch a shadow with a butterfly net.

Success is a steadily moving target, forever scooting along to the next bigger, brighter moment. The object isn't to catch it, simply to keep up with it or better yet, always stay ahead of it.

So here we are barely 72 hours past the end of the 2010 Rams season, a true success by any measure, yet very few people who follow this franchise seem to be caught up in savoring the triumphs of this surprising 7-9 season. The line that constitutes success has quickly scooted along to the next big thing. A six-game improvement from last year's 1-15 season was an absolute shocker, and by any measure it resonates how significantly Steve Spagnuolo altered the losing culture around Rams Park.

But the sting of how abruptly the season ended with unsatisfactory results was a jarring reminder of how Spagnuolo's cultural change has altered expectations, too.

People who used to be completely disinterested in the Rams are now angry with them, which I guess is a form of progress.

Internet chat rooms and talk-radio phone lines are buzzing with people who think the only answer to the Rams' surprising improvement and disappointing season-ending loss in Seattle is to fire somebody.

More rational thinkers are taking a less caustic approach.

The Rams are a young team, which was clearly illustrated on Sunday night at Qwest Field. They went into that game against the Seahawks with the NFC West title up for grabs and behaved like a very young team that was not up to the moment.

And when I called the Rams a young team, I wasn't only talking about the players.

The Spagnuolo coaching staff is green but growing too. The real question that owner Stan Kroenke and general manager Billy Devaney will spend time evaluating shouldn't and won't be limited to their players' performances and future potential.

They also will surely exhaust every detail to figure out what sort of growth potential exists on that young staff as well.

What makes all of this evaluation process even more fascinating is the most recent development that happened on Monday, when it was reported that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur the person Rams loyalists want to skewer the most has emerged as a candidate for Cleveland's recently-opened head coaching job.

Throwing that little curveball into the mix raises a great question: What does it say about Shurmur if he's held in such high regard by a truly smart football man such as Browns president Mike Holmgren?

Even if Shurmur doesn't turn out to be Holmgren's guy, he apparently was handpicked by Holmgren for this interview process. And if the well-trained eyes of someone with a proven championship pedigree such as Holmgren are intrigued that much by Shurmur, the question arises:

What has he seen this season that the untrained football eyes of the grumbling masses here in St. Louis haven't seen?

Maybe what Holmgren sees is a potentially impressive work in progress.

This offense progressed dramatically from a year ago, producing 10 more touchdowns, 33 more first downs and nearly 400 more yards than a year ago. Obviously a lot of that has to do with the young quarterback named Sam Bradford, but don't Shurmur and quarterbacks coach Dick Curl deserve credit for the proper development of the No. 1 draft pick?

That progress doesn't automatically mean that the decision- makers at Rams Park should be satisfied with the status quo, either. But maybe Holmgren sees something from afar that a lot of people here are missing.

Without being inside the huddle, inside the meeting rooms or hooked up with a headset on game day, there's no way any of us really know who is making the in-game decisions that sometimes lead to such frustrating outcomes as that loss in Seattle.

We don't know if the head coach is handicapping the offensive coordinator or if the offensive coordinator has the green light on game day and he's the one totally accountable for the poor decisions that caused the offense to sputter on the biggest stage of the season.

I don't know the answer to this little riddle, but I do know that if young players with promise, such as Bradford and Rodger Saffold, Bradley Fletcher and Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola and Jason Smith can be evaluated on their potential, why can't the young coaches, too?

There will be some tough decisions to make in the next few weeks, and some no doubt will be based on the spinning coaching carrousel. With each head coach who has been or will be fired, there will be countless assistants out of work, too.

Quite a few of them will be worth taking a hard look at and could be an upgrade on what Spags already has.

Lovie Smith has made changes in Chicago that not only saved his job but turned the Bears back into championship contenders. In Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio was told by owner Wayne Weaver to ditch his defensive play-calling and hand that duty over to a defensive coordinator and it saved his job. In Houston, it was more of the same as Gary Kubiak fired four members of his defensive staff.

This is a bottom-line business, and if players can be evaluated with such cold-blooded indifference than that has to extend to Spagnuolo's staff as well.