How do you judge a Ram?
By Andy Dapron
Well, Keith Null’s debut as a starting quarterback certainly went well. Now that we’ve all watched Null humiliate himself and the Rams with his one-touchdown, five-interception performance in a 47-7 drubbing at the hands of the Tennessee Titans Sunday, I hope everybody can stop clamoring to see him and realize that he just…
Just kidding. I’m just trying to stir people up (because, after all, I don’t think people are riled up enough about the state of the Rams these days). Truth be told, I thought Null acquitted himself pretty well Sunday. No, his numbers (27 of 43 passing, 157 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT, 37.8 QB rating) aren’t going to cause anyone to hail him as “The Answer” to the Rams’ lingering question at quarterback. However, his mentality seemed right. He stayed calm in the pocket. He wasn’t afraid to take shots deep when they were called for (which still wasn’t that often, but given the circumstances yesterday, that’s understandable). He never looked rattled or overwhelmed, and despite getting knocked down repeatedly, he kept getting back up. He kept fighting. That’s about as much as you could ask from the guy.
Besides, Null had the deck stacked against him in just about every conceivable way against the Titans. To begin with, Null’s background hasn’t exactly positioned him to make a big rookie splash in the NFL. He comes from the football factory that is West Texas A&M. He ran a spread offense there, which is notorious for being nowhere near a pro-style offense. As if being a rookie third string quarterback from a small school wasn’t enough, Null had to go on the shortest of notice. He discovered that he was the starter during pregame warmups, when presumptive starter Kyle Boller declared himself insufficiently healed from a deep thigh bruise to play. He had to match up against a Tennessee defense that stakes its entire reputation on punching people in the mouth, and was desperate to win this game to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Worst of all for Null, the offense he was asked to lead was the Rams’ offense. This offense was inept by nearly every measure long before Null was asked to try and run it.
Actually, if anything struck me yesterday, it was how impossible it really is to get a read on Null, or, for that matter, any player or coach on this team. There’s a reason football is known as the the ultimate team sport. All the best teams (think Colts, Saints, Patriots, or even the Rams of a decade ago) have players who achieve a kind of synergy with each other. Each of them does their jobs well, and they can count on their teammates to do their jobs well, too. Good teams have 11 players in the right place at the right time.
When one or two players find themselves overmatched, or out of position, well… think of a string of Christmas tree lights: one light goes out, and the whole strand goes out.
I think it’s safe to say there’s more than one bulb out on the Rams’ strand.
So, how can we judge the Rams, really? Collectively, sure — the word “awful” comes to mind — but on a case-by-case basis, how does one draw the line between players elevating their team (or failing to do so), and vice versa? We can be pretty sure Steven Jackson is awesome, since he’s writing his name in the Rams’ record books even as the rest of the team reaches new heights in futility.
(By the way, if Jackson’s injury is as serious as a herniated disc, WHY is he still playing? The only purposes these remaining three games serve for the Rams are to evaluate for the future and to salvage some pride. It’s not worth the potential long term damage to the heart and soul of the franchise. I’m just sayin’)
For the rest of the team, it’s not so clear-cut.
The quarterbacks are the clearest example of this nagging “the chicken or the egg” issue. They’re also the most discussed, so I won’t beat it to death. Let me just offer this as a talking point: We all assume that Marc Bulger is on his way out of town after this season, thanks to his steep decline in production in recent years. Back in 2002, Bulger found himself in a similar circumstance to what Null faced yesterday. Heading into game 6 against the 4-0 (and soon to be NFC Champion) Oakland Raiders, the Rams were winless, and Bulger was the third string QB, behind Kurt Warner and Jamie Martin. With both Warner and Martin nursing injuries, Bulger got the start, went 14 of 21 passing for 186 yards with 3 TD’s and no picks, and sparked the Rams to a 28-13 win.
Granted, there are a handful of differences between then and now, but one of the biggest was ithat, back then, Bulger was guiding a seasoned group of talented veterans who were able to understand and execute their roles to perfection. Null was guiding an aching star and exactly one wideout, Donnie Avery, who was on the opening day roster. Not exactly a level playing field.
Avery is another example of how difficult it is to assess the Rams individually within their broader context. A lot of people are down on Avery right now, especially after watching him catch two balls for 14 yards Sunday, while fellow 2008 second round draftee DeSean Jackson had six receptions for 178 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown catch, to go along with a 72-yard punt return for a score, later that day for the Philadelphia Eagles.
But here’s the thing: D. Jackson was catching balls from Donovan McNabb. That’s a whole lot different then grabbing them off Null, or Boller, or Bulger. D. Jackson also had the benefit of a defense that, while it did give up some points, also made some plays. Things tend to open up for you when you’re not down 14-0 before you can blink.
I’m not saying that I think Avery is on D. Jackson’s level, and I realize that the relationship between player performance and team performance is a two-way street. D. Jackson stepped up and made some things happen for his team, and it’d be nice if Avery were doing the same for the Rams. But, I can’t help but wonder how many plays Avery would make if he had wings on his helmet instead of horns.
The same issue applies to the coaching staff, too. I was hard on Coach Steve Spagnuolo and his staff in my blog last week, and I stand by what I said. I think the Rams would be better off if they tried to push the ball down the field more. However, Spagnuolo has a team that’s finding it difficult to execute even this blandest of bland offenses. I can see where he might be reluctant to add many wrinkles. Can you imagine the litany of errors if this gang had to digest even a fifth of the old Mike Martz playbook? Thus, Spagnuolo’s struggles need to be viewed in a broader context, too.
When you look at all the issues the Rams are facing, and how they affect each other, you realize, it may be quite awhile before the Rams get their lights flashing again.