By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
SAN FRANCISCO -- On a day when so much went wrong for the Rams, it looked as if there might be a way out.
Storming back from a 28-9 third-quarter deficit, the Rams had the ball on the San Francisco 33 with 59 seconds remaining, trailing 28-25. Plenty of time to get into position for a Jeff Wilkins field goal. The player known as "Money" already had kicked four field goals Sunday at Monster Park.
There might even be enough time for a game-winning touchdown that would have marked quarterback Marc Bulger's 10th fourth-quarter comeback in his NFL career.
But Bulger's 56th pass of the day, which set a franchise record for single-game attempts, was one that he and the Rams would like to have back.
The ball was thrown behind wide receiver Isaac Bruce on a crossing pattern over the middle, and Bruce tried to reach back for the grab. Instead, San Francisco defensive back Mike Adams snared the football, literally grabbing any chance at victory away from St. Louis.
The Rams were out of timeouts, and out of luck. Two kneel-downs by Tim Rattay gave the ***** a 28-25 victory over the Rams.
St. Louis' sixth consecutive regular-season road loss was stunning on several levels.
For openers, the ***** won only two games a year ago. As mentioned, their quarterback is Rattay. Their top receiver is University of Illinois product Brandon Lloyd. With all due respect, we're not talking Joe Montana and Jerry Rice here. Or even Steve Young and Terrell Owens.
For another, all the numbers favored the Rams. They outgained the ***** by nearly two to one - 405 yards to 217. They dominated time of possession - 39 minutes 23 seconds to San Francisco's 20:37. They even won the takeaway-giveaway battle - two to one - something that hasn't happened all that frequently in recent years under coach Mike Martz.
And they still lost.
"It goes to show that the best team doesn't always win," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "I think we were the better team at times today. Stats-wise, we showed we were a better team, but they beat us to the punch. They made more plays to win the ballgame than we did."
Especially on special teams. These may not be the "Same old sorry (bleep) Rams." The days of those woebegone Rams are lost somewhere in the '90s.
But as Sunday showed, they remain the "Same old sorry (bleep) Rams special teams." This is so despite a new-found emphasis on special teams; despite the hiring of not one but two special teams coaches; despite the addition of several players known for their special teams play.
"We had some things on special teams, obviously, that we have to clean up," Martz said. "That I'm not very happy with. . . . Obviously, we need more work on the special teams."
It's hard to imagine a special teams unit getting off to a poorer start:
On the Rams' first kickoff return of the season, return man Chris Johnson stepped out of bounds with the ball at the 1.
"I was going to let it go out of bounds," Johnson said. "But I thought that I had one leg in, one leg out." (Which would have given the Rams the ball on their 40.)
Johnson continued: "But when I reached for the ball, they said I picked my outside leg up. So I should have just let it go out."
On the Rams' first kickoff coverage of the season, Maurice Hicks raced 40 yards, breaking the contain efforts of rookie Oshiomogho Atogwe.
On the Rams' first punt return of the season, Corey Ivy was called for holding, backing the Rams up to their 14.
On the first punt return against the Rams this season, Otis Amey raced 75 yards for a San Francisco touchdown.
As if that weren't bad enough, the ***** followed Amey's touchdown, which gave San Francisco a 14-6 lead midway through the second quarter, with a successful onside kick.
"We've been harping and talking about the special teams for years," said Holt, who led Rams receivers with 10 catches for 125 yards. "I think that's self-explanatory. We cannot continue to give up points on the special teams. ... I think that's the quickest way to break a team down, when the (other) team makes plays on special teams."
All week long, Martz and several veteran players harped on the necessity to stay calm and stay focused on the road when things go bad. But on Sunday, things snowballed in a hurry in the second quarter.
When Wilkins kicked the second of his four field goals with 13:07 remaining in the first half, the Rams had run 28 plays to San Francisco's five. They had outgained the ***** 139 yards to 12, but had only a 6-0 lead to show for it.
Add red zone woes, plus an occasional deep pass against the St. Louis secondary, plus the abysmal special teams play, and the Rams found themselves trailing 28-9 early in the third quarter.
No wonder Bulger, when asked about the interception, said: "There were reasons why things happen. But we shouldn't have been in that position to begin with."
Bruce echoed those thoughts. "That one play didn't define the game," he said.
Bruce, who caught a 29-yard TD pass earlier in the final quarter, did concede that last pass was thrown behind him. "A little bit," Bruce said. "But it's a play I normally make."
As he frequently does, Martz blamed himself for his play calling on the interception.
"That interception was a play I wish I could take back," Martz said. "It's just a bad play call that cost us the game. That's my responsibility. It's hard to look those guys in the eye in the locker room, knowing full well that I could make a better call there. I was proud of the way they fought back."
Martz also blamed himself for the team's red zone woes. The Rams had only those four Wilkins field goals to show for their first four trips inside the San Francisco 20.
"That's coaching," Martz said. "That's just poor play selection on my part. Pure and simple. You get down there and don't score touchdowns. The old coach didn't do a good job in this one."