Burwell: Young Rams weren't ready for spotlight
BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist | Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 11:10 am

SEATTLE Of all the noise that they expected to hear on Sunday night at Qwest Field, this was the one the young Rams never imagined.

It was the morgue-like silence of a season coming to a sudden end. In the visitors' locker room under the southern end of the stadium, here's what the end sounded like. There was a distant hiss of the showers, not the joyful sound of players laughing. It was the sound of crates of equipment being slammed, with shoulder pads and helmets, dirty laundry bags and dog-eared game plans being tucked away until next year.

But the worst of it was this, the sound of all these players who only a few hours earlier were convinced that their improbable season would stretch on for another week, now trying to explain why it was all over.

"The biggest disappointment is to come into this game, that was a must-win, winner-takes-all and we come up short," said Steven Jackson, his voice as glum as a funeral sermon in the aftermath of a 16-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. "And now the season is over so abruptly."

One season removed from being considered the worst team in football - a 1-15 mess that looked even worse than the record indicated - the Rams were sitting on an opportunity on Sunday night to complete one of the craziest one-season turnarounds you could have imagined.

Beat the Seahawks on the road, finish with an 8-8 record then head home with the NFC West title in your hands and a home playoff game Saturday afternoon in the Edward Jones Dome.

It could have been a turnaround for the ages, but instead they will have to settle for a more appropriate improvement for a franchise that had fallen down so far. Nothing shameful in a 7-9 finish. Nothing shameful about a team that now gives you hope and shows all sorts of promise for the future.

But these young Rams walked out the stadium Sunday night knowing that it could have been so much better. They left knowing that the job was incomplete.

There's no way they should have lost like this, scoring only six points against one of the worst defenses in football. There's no way it should have ended like this, with somebody named Charlie Whitehurst, a journeyman quarterback with no particular NFL pedigree, using his arm and legs to lead the staggering, stumbling, dead-men-walking Seahawks to this ugly victory.

But the longer this night dragged on, the more puzzling it got, the more confusing and frustrating it felt. What happened to the steadily maturing young Rams who seemed primed to rise up to this modest championship moment? What happened to this nationally televised, prime-time coming-out party for a franchise that was aching to show the pro football world just how much better it had become?

This was supposed to be a chance to storm into town, knock off a staggering opponent and sweep out of Qwest Field with the NFC West title firmly in their grip.

But instead of storming, the Rams left with a whimper.

How can you only put up 184 yards of offense against this Seattle defense? How can you put the ball in Steven Jackson's hands for a mere 11 carries when the Seattle defense never proved it could stop him? How could this offense keep sputtering along all night long and never make it feel like they could get into the end zone without a miracle from above, and by "from above" I mean the coaches' box, where it seemed like there was a glaring, major disconnect.

The game was over long before the fourth quarter, even if it felt like any minute the Seahawks would find a way to stumble or bumble and hand the game back to the Rams on a platter. Yet there was Sam Bradford with his shoulders slumped near midfield in the dying moments of the game, and there was Brandon Gibson, slamming his hands on his helmet. And there was Seattle linebacker Will Herring joyfully holding the football in the air, his arms spread out wide enough to embrace the entire rowdy home crowd.

Trailing 13-6 and needing to score a touchdown to send this unsightly game into overtime, the Rams instead gave up an interception that ended an improbable season of change on an unsightly note.

All week long back in St. Louis, these young Rams firmly believed they were ready for this moment, ready to turn aside the memories of last year's disaster and go into Seattle and win the NFC West.

But as it turned out, the final game of the season was the perfect magnifying glass that revealed the young team for exactly what it really is: a work in progress that arrived at the brink of the playoffs a year too soon.

On a night that called for their offense to simply be efficient, not magnificent, the Rams offense was an inexplicable no-show. I can understand the idea of playing it safe, keeping the game close, shortening the game and letting the defense win it for you if you're playing New Orleans or Atlanta or Philly. But this was Seattle, for crying out loud. This was a struggling team that was losing games by double-digit margins every Sunday for months. This was a team that had the grossly inexperienced Whitehurst at quarterback. This was a team that had no fear factor at all, no swagger, no confidence, no visible means of support beyond the ear-splitting roars of the home crowd.

And the Rams played this game like they just weren't ready.

We will spend a great deal of time over the course of the offseason carefully examining why this promising season ended on such a down note, even though I firmly believe a 7-9 record officially makes the 2010 season not only a success, but something just shy of a miracle.

But there are reasons this moment was too big, and that will be second-guessed and picked apart for days, weeks and months. Were the young players not ready for this stage, or did it simply come down to one of the most basic truisms in sports, how big moments not only reveal your strengths, but also expose your weaknesses?

So did those weaknesses like the holes in the receiving corps come back to haunt them at the worst possible time, turning this offense into an inefficient mess?

Or do we have to continue to wonder if it is the play calling that is exacerbating those shortcomings, too?

It's puzzling to understand why this game was called the way it was, not simply conservatively, but truly reluctant, fearful and nervous.

Will that odd play-calling by offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur change with a good draft and free agent class that drastically upgrades this offense? Or did this game put a larger glare on Shurmur, too?

Why did the Rams completely forget about the run and play right into Seattle's way of doing business by flinging these do-nothing passes to the sidelines?

Games like this are always won or lost on the small things. But the little things that matter were all the wrong things for the Rams, like when wide receiver Laurent Robinson dragged down a defender on a Jackson sweep to the 1-yard line. Instead of second and goal at the 1, the Rams were pushed back to the 16 and had to settle for another field goal. Instead of taking a 10-7 lead, the Rams still trailed 7-6.

And all those dropped passes that could have been critical first downs for the Rams, and all those missed sacks by the Rams defense where Whitehurst somehow found a way to escape the heat and produce a back-breaking positive play. And if it wasn't Whitehurst who was playing the great escape artist, it was a long line of Seahawks receivers who kept breaking tackles to keep on picking up drive-sustaining first downs.

The little things mattered Sunday night, and none of those little things - and none of the big ones either - ended up going the Rams way.

This is not the way it should have ended. The Rams were better than this, much better.

But the moment gobbled them up and that's a shame.