By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
11/28/2006

The wildly emotional roller-coaster shifts of a 16-game NFL season can make life difficult for the blindly optimistic and darn near impossible to fathom for the incurably impatient football devotee.

The 5-6 Rams show why this is the case.

With their up-one-minute, down-the-next personality, the Rams are the epitome of a .500 team. They tease you with their victories, anger you with their defeats and never leave you sure what you should think of them.

Are they a struggling, dead team walking, putting up a showy but flawed faηade, or a suddenly confident team on the verge of going on an impressive late-season run? Have they re-discovered their winning mojo, or are they just a tease destined to leave us brokenhearted?



Now that the Rams are back on the winning track — and even with their mathematical playoff hopes still very much alive — I'm happy for them, but I'm not ready to drink the blue-and-gold Kool-Aid just yet.



Like basketball coach Chuck Daly used to say, you are what your record says you are. So until further notice, the Rams are a marginal .500 ballclub.

You can see signs of their potential. You can imagine how some blindly optimistic soul might see signs of prosperity just around the corner.

But ...…

Yes, there's always a big "but" with these Rams, who have proved that while they are capable of playing smart, disciplined football (they had a 4-1 start), they are equally susceptible to an ugly, undisciplined relapse (they just ended a five-game losing streak).

So that's the reason the next few weeks could remind you of the last few months of the Cardinals' wild and crazy season.

That is why you might need a large bottle of Tums, warm milk, or an extraordinary quantity of some smooth bourbon to get you through what could be a frustrating and fascinating December in St. Louis.

Of their remaining five games, I see five teams that the Rams surely can beat.

If they play like they did last Sunday, the Rams definitely can beat the likes of the Arizona Cardinals (2-9), Oakland Raiders (2-9), Washington Redskins (4-7) and the Minnesota Vikings (5-6), and maybe even the suddenly not-so-invincible Chicago Bears (9-2).

The Cardinals and Redskins are starting rookie quarterbacks, the Raiders are a dysfunctional mess, the Vikings are nothing special and Chicago surely can be had if the Bears put the game in the hands of the inconsistent Rex Grossman running the Bears offense.

But ...

I also see five teams on the schedule that the Rams can lose to if they morph back into the team we witnessed for most of the past month. You are who your record says you are, and that's precisely how .500 teams perform.

But ...

What if that 20-17 victory over the San Francisco ***** symbolized the beginning for a team ready to embrace its true identity? What if Scott Linehan's epiphany as a rookie coach — shedding the play-calling role and asserting himself as a real NFL boss — is the watershed moment that propels the Rams on some late-season rebirth?

"I felt based on where we were in this season that there needed to be some kind of a change," Linehan said Monday at Rams Park. "Not just offensively, but as a team. I think my leadership needed to be felt in all three phases. It's like I said last week, I felt we lacked a spark or some lack of direction in the Carolina game, and I took that to heart. I basically laid that on me, so some things had to change."

But ...

I want the Rams to prove it. A 5-6 record after 11 games is not a playoff death sentence, but it does give you a room with a view of death row.

In four of their last five seasons, the Rams have been 5-6, and only once did they reach the playoffs — in 2004, with an 8-8 record.

So which way will the Rams go this time?

The rise or fall of a season, and maybe even a franchise, often flows from the head coach. While one game doesn't begin to wipe out the unsightly mess of the past month, Linehan's new attitude could be just the elixir this team needs to propel it toward the improbable playoff dream.

It could happen.

But ...…