Rams find more ways to extend frustration

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/21/2009

LANDOVER, Md. On one end of FedEx Field were the Washington Redskins, trotting off the home field to an unsettled chorus of 87,780 ambivalent fans. There were few ringing endorsements in the throes of this unsightly 9-7 victory over the visiting Rams, only relief that their imperfect heroes had been resourceful enough or darned lucky to barely find enough ways not to lose.

And while there may be no ringing endorsements descending from the stands in FedEx for the home team, these football-savvy folks are wise enough to know that what they have flawed as it may be sure does beat the alternative. The alternative was your St. Louis Rams winless in 11 months who keep working hard as ever for their new boss, the resiliently positive Steve Spagnuolo, but so far have nothing to show for it but a proficiency for administering gut-twisting, self-inflicted wounds.

Two weeks into his first season as the Rams coach, Spagnuolo is 0-2, and his team has not exactly practiced what the inspirational new coach has been preaching.

He said he wanted a tough, passionate, smart team that would find ways every Sunday to compete and win ballgames. So far, Spags' Rams have gotten the tough and passionate part down cold. But it's been an excruciating challenge watching them as they attempt to nail down Step No. 3. For the second week in a row, the Rams found just enough maddening ways to lose a game that they could have realistically won.

"We have some work to do," an obviously disappointed Spagnuolo said after the game. "It doesn't happen overnight. I never expected it to happen just like that. Just because you preach it and worked on it in the offseason in training camp, there's no guarantee it's going to happen in the game. A game's different. The speed of the game's different. Guys think differently and coaches think differently."

Unlike a week ago, it wasn't penalties that killed the game-winning opportunities for the Rams. They cleaned that up fairly well (six penalties for 45 yards). Instead, this time it was the untimely matter of bad execution and questionable strategies that turned a potential victory into the Rams' 12th consecutive loss.

Donnie Avery was the most obvious goat of the day, but he certainly wasn't the only one. The first wide receiver picked in the 2008 draft, and the guy who was a hero in last year's 19-17 upset victory over the Redskins, had major ball security issues, dropping at least two passes and fumbling the ball inside the 5-yard line on a potential go-ahead scoring drive early in the fourth quarter.

The dropped passes could have been forgiven if only Avery had just held on to the ball when the Rams needed him the most. Midway through the third quarter and into the early fourth quarter, the Rams had just driven 66 yards to the Washington 9-yard line, with Steven Jackson (17 carries, 104 yards) pounding out 26 of those on eight tough carries. With the defense doing its job all day, keeping the Redskins out of the end zone, this was an opportunity for the Rams trailing 9-7 to take a commanding (well, in this game with these two sputtering offenses, it could have been called "commanding") 14-9 lead.

On third and 4, Marc Bulger whipped a bullet to Avery on the far right side of the field, and as the speedy receiver tried to spin out of a tackle by Washington's Chris Horton and collect those all-important yards after the catch, the Redskins' safety stuck his hand in and popped the ball out of Avery's grasp.

What happened next was a slow-motion bad dream.

The ball went sailing high into the air. Avery fell to the ground, lurching vainly to recover the loose ball. There was a mad scrum of bodies as the ball did a backspin, bouncing to the 7-yard line, where cornerback Carlos Rogers leaped on the ball. And while the near-capacity crowd erupted, all Avery could do was groan and face the music after the game.

"I should have kept (the ball) high and tight," Avery said. "I know better than that. It's all on me. I lost it for the team. They did everything possible to help us win, and I let them down."

Avery was the most obvious villain, but there were other mistakes that would undo the Rams (and just for the record, none of them by the normally combustible Richie Incognito, who played a rather clean game).

Spagnuolo registered a few head-scratching coaching decisions that easily could go down as contributing factors in this defeat.

After the turnover, the defense got Washington to go three-and-out and the Rams got the ball on Washington's 49-yard line. The way Jackson was running with the ball, it seemed like the strategy would be to keep pounding the ball into the gut of the big tailback and let him grind out the yards and eat up the clock.

First down, 5 yards.

Second down, 3 yards.

With less than 10 minutes to go and looking at a third-and-2 on Washington's 41 and with Jackson averaging 4.3 yards on his last six carries and 6.1 yards for the game how hard would it be for him to get 3 measly yards on two plays?

But on third down, Bulger threw an incomplete pass, and on fourth down, the Rams tried to get real cute and failed miserably.

Punter Donnie Jones shifted out of punt formation to wide receiver and running back Kenneth Darby moved into the wildcat formation in an attempt to draw the Redskins offside. It didn't work, and with only one timeout left in a two-point game, Darby unwisely burned the Rams' last timeout when he should have just taken the delay penalty and given Jones more room to drop a punt down near the goal line.

"During the heat of a game, it's always up to the coach to hit players with reminders," Spagnuolo said, taking the blame for the mistake.

The painful truth is after two weeks, the Rams have shown us two rather significant things: the defense has done more than enough to help them win and the young offense and the neophyte coaching staff have done just enough as they struggle through their growing pains to cause them to lose.

"They've stuck with us through our growing pains," said Bulger. "Now we have to start helping them out."