BY BRYAN BURWELL Friday, October 8, 2010 12:10 am

For far too long, observing the public and private habits of this Rams franchise has been an exhausting exercise in repetitive torment. Once, all we could gather from this NFL case study was a peculiar species that seemed to be permanently stuck on stupid. But now, not exactly in the blink of an eye, the wheel-spinning in the sludge seems to have stopped.

At this one surprising moment in time, the Rams are 2-2, tied for first place in the NFC West, and by all public appearances, transforming themselves from woebegone losers to the cusp of NFL respectability. Whether this is the start of a delightful permanent condition or merely a brief flirtation with life on the sunny side of the street remains to be seen.

As original NFL wise guy Al Davis used to say, becoming good is easy. Staying good takes hard work. So this week, as the Rams began preparing for the next exciting step along their new fantastic journey, coach Steve Spagnuolo wasted little time reminding his young team how to buttress itself against the many deadly sins of "overnight" success.

"I led the (team) meeting Wednesday morning off with that," Spagnuolo said Thursday as he stood along the edge of the practice field. "That was the motto. We're still trying to validate what we are, or what we think we have become. But all it takes is one game to get knocked off that mountain we're trying to climb. So we want to keep going forward, not backward."

In short, he reminded them that there are still worlds to conquer. "How many more games do we have?" he said, with a wicked smile. "Twelve more, right?"

The message was clear. Even though it does appear that the Rams 1-15 a year ago have crossed some significant thresholds over the past few weeks, there is still work to do. In the NFL, every week there is a new lesson to learn for a team in search of validation.

This week, the validation can come by not being young and dumb enough to think that going into Detroit to face the 0-4 Lions is an automatic W. The Lions are not much different from the Rams. They are a rebuilding franchise that is taking the unsure baby steps to go from woebegone to winning. They are close to figuring things out, but still making the sort of annoying mistakes that keep them frustrating losers. They are making the same sort of errors the Rams got out of their system after those first two frustrating defeats.

"If any other football team in the National Football League understands where Detroit is, I think we (do)," Steven Jackson said. "They're an 0-4 team that's very good. They've been in every contest that they've been a part of. I know they're going to be feisty and upset with us about stealing one last year in their stadium, so we have to stay focused. We have not arrived yet, and although we're getting good, we're not in position to overlook anyone."

That has to be the mind-set, not just for this week in Detroit, but every week as this season transpires. The first quarter of this '10 season has already given the Rams enough success to prove they are better than most of us thought. But it also provided enough sobering setbacks to remind them how short the walk is from the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. Weeks 1 and 2 were symbolic snapshots of every bitter defeat since Spagnuolo arrived last season promising to teach his young players how to become winners. Week after week of great effort, but sorry results.

Weeks 3 and 4 were the tangible results of something much greater. But each week, a young team must remember that it has something new to prove. Each week, it must travel into new territory and make it all look familiar and comfortable. This week, the Rams ought to be able to go into Ford Field and win because they are a better team.

But that all depends on their work habits. That all depends on how they deal with this first whiff of success that has finally come their way. On Thursday, there were lots of good signs that they not only like the taste of success, but haven't let it go to their heads. After practice, you could see a familiar sight around Rams Park these days: several clusters of players spread across three practice fields putting in extra work. On the middle field, the quarterbacks and receivers were working on pass routes. On another field, offensive tackle Jason Smith was doing his daily tutoring of rookie tight end Fendi Onobun on the finer points of blocking. In another corner, safety O.J. Atogwe was catching high-speed passes from the JUGS machine, and other players were practicing a myriad of special-teams techniques.

Later in the locker room, Jason Brown, one of the few players in here who has some pelts on his wall from his playoff days in Baltimore, smiled when asked how his young teammates were handling the newest tests.

"I see the right signs," he said, "because it's being preached a lot around here that you can't take advantage of your success. It's too hard to win in this league. If anyone catches you slipping, that's it. Week in and week out, someone is gunning for you."

And then he smiled again.

"They get it," he said. "Oh yeah, they get it.