With Haslett leading, the cause isn't lost

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
[More columns]By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/27/2008

FOXBOROUGH, MASS. — It has taken less than a month for Jim Haslett to undo the mess that the St. Louis Rams had become. Even in defeat, the Rams are no longer bogged down by the painful defeatist attitude that epitomized the last few years. I am sitting here now in the aftermath of a 23-16 loss to the New England Patriots and instead of harping on why the 2-5 Rams lost, I'm actually far more interested in giving you the "glass is half-full" point of view of a team on the rise.

Let me say this again, loudly and clearly. Haslett has almost overnight turned around a franchise that I once figured was incurably dysfunctional and transformed the same team that once had no life, no hope and no promise under Scott Linehan into a unified organization that is working for the single and suddenly attainable purpose of winning.

I'm telling you this because I've just walked through the visitors' locker room in Gillette Stadium, and for the first time in maybe three years, I can see that this team has a positive and feisty competitive personality.

And that is a direct reflection of the man in charge.

This is no longer a pathetic, sorry, no-account football team. If you thought the road victory against the Washington Redskins two weeks ago was a fluke, Haslett's Rams followed that up with a dominant rout at home against the Dallas Cowboys. For good measure, they followed up those two victories with a near upset of the Patriots on the road that was nearly as illuminating as the previous two victories. Without their best offensive player (Steven Jackson was on the inactive list) or defensive player (Leonard Little spent most of the game on the sidelines after tweaking his hamstring), Haslett's Rams battled the Patriots down to the game's final moments.

Losing to the Patriots was not a devastating setback. In many ways, it was a valuable instructional tool that showed how thin the line is between victory and defeat for this flawed but improving team. They might have squandered a winnable game, but this was not remotely close to those old "sky-is-falling" losses that characterized the team's 0-4 start.

There's some salvation here, because the Rams are competitive again, and Haslett has found a way to do it. He's doing it because he has managed to do what his predecessor could never do: inspire aggressiveness and competitiveness in a team in desperate need of large quantities of both.

The Rams still have plenty of competitive shortcomings, but they have a personality now, and it is Haslett's fighting spirit. Shortly after the game, the new Rams boss told a crowded interview room that had his offense scored a touchdown in the game's closing moments to cut the Patriots' lead to 23-22, he would have gone for the two-point conversion and the victory instead of settling for a one-point PAT and overtime.

I mentioned this to quarterback Marc Bulger, and he chuckled.

"I didn't know that he said that," Bulger said. "But I tell you what, when we were driving the ball at the end, I was starting to think about that, too. I don't think I would have thought that before. But hey, with 'Has' I think we can assume we would (go for two). I think we all believe we would." MORE BURWELL
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If you spend more than five minutes around Haslett, you pick up that aggressive vibe. It's not about X's and O's as much as it is about conjuring things out of his players that spark a belief that nothing is impossible. "Remember now, this is the guy who went for 4th-and-1 in the first half on (the Rams') side of the field," offensive lineman Adam Goldberg said. "Then he ordered an onside kick to start the second half. You know what that says to players when a coach does that sort of stuff? It says he's in it to win. It says he's going all-out, so that's what we do, too."

This doesn't guarantee that the Rams are going to barrel through the rest of an entirely winnable remaining schedule. But at least now there's enough tangible evidence to suggest they have a legitimate chance when they walk onto the field.

Only a blind man or a terminal pessimist can't see the route to redemption. Tell me Haslett hasn't changed your mind about the possibilities for this team. A healthy Jackson would have made a huge difference Sunday. But even without him, you see that rookie receivers Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton are becoming legit threats. A healthy Little would have done wonders for the pass rush, but rookie Chris Long (two sacks) continues to grow as a game-changer on defense.

So if this fragile formula for success can stay together for the stretch run, imagine the possibilities. A win in next Sunday's game vs. the Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome would put the Rams one game out of first place in the mediocre NFC West with half a season to play.

"We have Arizona twice, San Francisco twice, Seattle once again at home," Bulger said. "So as far as our division is concerned, if we take care of business we can get to where we need to get. We're not there yet because we dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole with that 0-4 start. But we know we can get there now."