BY BERNIE MIKLASZ

In the closing weeks and days of the preseason, it seemed that the Rams were creating some excitement in the sporting community. There was considerable chirping over Sam Bradford, and a more optimistic tone in the chattering over the team's on-field prospects for 2010.

This wasn't Green Bay or Pittsburgh, but the fan base surely seemed energized. For the first time in several years Rams fans were looking forward to the season instead of dreading it.

Sunday's home opener was billed as a sellout. And then only 52,440 showed up at the Edward Jones Dome to watch the Rams succumb to the Cardinals 17-13 after an entertaining and fiercely played contest. It was the Rams' fourth-smallest home crowd over the last five seasons.

So what happened here? Were we wrong in gauging the intensity of the fan interest?

Yes.

No.

Both answers are true. The TV ratings for this game were outstanding. According to Post-Dispatch media writer Dan Caesar, 26 percent of the homes in the St. Louis market checked out the Rams-Cards on KTVI (Channel 2). It was the highest rating for a Rams opener since 2004. It was the best overall Rams TV rating since early in the 2006 season. The ratings represented a 37.5 percent increase over last season's highest-rated game.

That's impressive. St. Louis was curious about the latest version of the Rams. Fewer fans were willing to pay for the view inside the stadium, which holds roughly 67,000.

This combination of big TV numbers and thousands of empty seats isn't a contradiction. It makes perfect sense.

The more casual fans are willing to make an emotional investment in the Rams. They were, at least on opening day, charged up to turn on the HD televisions, fire up some chicken wings, ice some cold beverages and watch Rams football at home.

The challenge for the Rams is more daunting: convert the emotional investment into a financial investment.

Motivate fence-sitting fans to buy tickets.

The fans aren't to blame here. The bad economy means a more cautious approach to discretionary spending. The Rams have a 6-43 record since the start of the 2007 season. Fans were offended by the premature destruction of the "Greatest Show" Rams by feuding front-office executives and coaches. A series of horrible drafts and incomprehensibly poor personnel moves only weakened the public's support.

Why give your money to a team that simply cannot get it right? Why sacrifice hard-earned dollars to support and reward a dysfunctional and incompetent operation? The damage inflicted on this franchise was extreme. And it can't be fixed in a short time. This is a good football town, but customers will only put up with so much incompetence and losing. Every fan has a limit.

It's a shame that the Rams' players especially the many rookies and young veterans are paying the price for the epic mistakes of the past. Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and other new members of Rams management have worked hard to be make the organization more fan-friendly. This mess wasn't their fault. But the cure is attainable. There's only one virtually sure way to win the people back: win games.

This young St. Louis team, as constructed, isn't ready to win a lot of games. The Rams have added some talent and they appear to be more competitive. But they'll have to put away some winnable games. The Rams could have, should have, defeated the Cardinals but failed to come through at the end.

This was a missed opportunity. And I don't think there will be much tolerance for close calls, close losses. Fans generally were encouraged by the Rams' tenacity, but that won't last. We expect to see some wins; it's the only measurable sign of true progress.

And I think it's reasonable to demand improvement. It's reasonable to expect the franchise leaders to do better, to speed up the rate of development and advancement.

I don't blame general manager Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo for the decline of the franchise; they weren't here when the Rams cracked and disintegrated in such dramatic, depressing fashion.

But it's fair to expect Devaney and Spagnuolo plus new Rams owner Stan Kroenke to fix things. And there's a limited supply of patience. Devaney and Spagnuolo have to convince skeptical fans that they're the right leaders for this mission.

And you can see why we're still waiting and wondering.

Devaney is in his third year with the Rams, and in his second year as the GM. When will he find a No. 1 receiver? Why, after two-plus years, do the Rams still go into games without a legitimate No. 2 running back to provide injury protection for Steven Jackson? After Sunday's game, Jackson had an MRI on his sore knee. He's OK, but that was a scare. Will Billy D ever answer the alarm?

Spagnuolo is in the second season of his first head-coaching job. Sure, there's a learning curve. Spags is a good motivator with excellent player-relation skills. But it's time to expect a sharper game-day coaching performance. In the first game of his second season, Spagnuolo still struggled with game management. He let too much time run off the clock in the final minute Sunday before using his timeouts. That put even more pressure on rookie Bradford, who was trying to lead a comeback for a win in his first NFL start.

This is one of my favorite quotes from the late Vince Lombardi, perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history:

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing," Lombardi said. "You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

And it's up to Devaney and Spagnuolo to break the losing habit. They have to start winning some games. And if they do, Rams fans will leave their TV sets and fill the stadium again.