By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
11/13/2006


Now we’ll find out if Scott Linehan has what it takes to become a good NFL head coach.

His reeling Rams have lost four games in row to fall deep into the NFC pack. A difficult challenge at Carolina looms next on the schedule.

He just lost one of his cornerstone players, left tackle Orlando Pace, for the rest of the season.

He is getting pounded in various local and national media for his ill-fated fourth-down gamble in Seattle, a decision that helped doom the Rams to a painful 24-22 defeat.



Horrified fans are making predictable accusations: Linehan is in over his head as a rookie head coach, Linehan lacks command of his team, Linehan isn’t fiery enough on the sidelines, Linehan is no offensive genius, blah, blah and blah.

Such criticism is harsh but, given the agonizing nature of Sunday’s loss, quite understandable.

So what does Linehan do now?

How he responds to the current crisis – and how his staff and players respond during the challenging weeks ahead – will tell us what we need to know about the first-year coach.

From the outside, he is hard to read. Linehan’s stoicism is a key personality trait. His stability helped him get this gig. He measures his words carefully, loathing to offer the media any opening to create distractions for his team.

When Dick Vermeil was really up against it, he ramped up his rah-rah approach. After shaking off his post-loss fatigue and discouragement, he became furiously upbeat, defiantly optimistic. He was quite a sight, really, a few days after his team took a groin shot.



His unique reaction to failure allowed him to orchestrate the most dramatic turnarounds in the annals of professional sports. With many of the same players, the Rams followed one of the worst seasons in NFL history with one of the best.

Mike Martz became imperious under duress. During his discourse with reporters, he came off as smug and sarcastic. It was not hard to tell when Mad Mike was, well, really mad. In this aroused state, he could be absolutely mercilessly on his players.

But his searing intensity served the team well, since the Rams remained in contention for most of his watch despite suffering a high casualty count and undergoing a couple of complete defensive overhauls.

So who is Linehan? How does he respond to extreme crises? We are about to find out.

The Rams have winnable games left on their schedule, although next stop at Carolina isn’t one of them. And they still have some growth potential, despite the loss of Pace the cumulative effect of losing.

To establish his regime for the long haul, Linehan has to make some good things happen with his core players during the remaining seven games.

Marc Bulger is operating Linehan’s offense with great efficiency. Rams Nation takes his mistake-free play for granted. Almost every other NFL quarterback has been all over the performance map this season, but not Bulger.

Steven Jackson has become the top feature back the Rams were hoping for. As a runner and receiver, he has come into his own.

Torry Holt is Torry Holt, the best low-maintenance player in the league. Kevin Curtis is realizing his potential as an impact receiver. Jeff Wilkins is nearly peerless among placekickers.

Richie Incognito settled down after a rambunctious preseason and became a very promising interior offensive lineman. If Alex Barron can settle down at right tackle, he will become another building block.

One defense, incumbents Leonard Little and Pisa Tinoisamoa are worthy fixtures and it appears Will Witherspoon could join them in that class.

Tye Hill, O.J. Atogwe, Victor Adeyanju . . . the Rams have their share of players with “plus” potential. I still believe this regime is putting down solid foundations on both sides of the ball.

The trick, though, will be containing the damage from the current losing streak while getting the building process back on track.

As we saw again Sunday – in Seattle and across the league, where upsets abounded – the winning/losing margin in the NFL is tiny. Most teams are mediocre. There are a few great squads this season and a few really awful ones.

Every other team, the Rams included, are somewhere in the middle.

Can Linehan and his staff get the Rams back to the high side of .500? Can these coaches build on the Rams’ strong points and fix at least some of their problems on the fly?

We’ll see, and learn, soon enoug