"For 16 weeks this year, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo has had a laser-like focus on one thing and one thing only: the next game.
That tunnel vision trickled down from Spagnuolo to the rest of the team and any discussion of something beyond the next contest was immediately dismissed upon mention.
When Spagnuolo woke up Monday morning, though, he was left with the sobering realization that there won’t be another game to plan for until the start of the 2010 season, months and months away.
“I wish we were getting ready to play another game,” Spagnuolo said. “I just want to play another game. When you lose, you crave and you hunger for the next opportunity to win. I talked about this a lot during the year. There’s nothing like being in a locker room of an NFL team after winning just because of everything that goes into it during the week and what the guys do together, just the craving for that feeling. Unfortunately, we will have to wait however many months that is to get that feeling again.”
So it is that Spagnuolo and the rest of the Rams have already turned the page on the 2009 season and begun their preparations for the next step. Those steps include preparing for the start of the free agent period, scouting and evaluating college prospects and then making the first selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.
But before any of that can happen, the Rams will review what happened in 2009 and glean as many lessons as possible from what happened to improve their performance on the field in 2010.
To each man in the Rams’ locker room, those lessons were different but the overlying theme remains the same.
“Through all of the adversity we went through, unless I am missing something, the team, there wasn’t anybody jumping ship, pointing fingers, going off the deep end and that is a credit to them,” Spagnuolo said. “To me, that is the biggest thing.”
Indeed, through the difficulties that inherently come with a 1-15 season, it would have been easy for any player or coach to go off the reservation and explode be it in the media, on the field or anywhere else.
Beyond that, though, even when the chips were down and the Rams were long-since removed from contention for the postseason, the team continued to fight and battle as though it were in the thick of the race for the playoffs.
While simply having a good attitude and remaining competitive when it’s tough won’t win you any games it is certainly a big part of the fabric of successful teams.
“I learned something about the guys on this team,” defensive end Chris Long said. “We don’t have any quitters. You see it every week on television. You watch teams and things aren’t going well and people quit sometimes. I don’t feel like we quit. We have to get the football ironed out. That’s execution and stuff like that but I don’t fault anybody for their heart or their intensity or their optimistic attitude going into every game.”
From the moment Spagnuolo took the job, one of his first missions was to build a team. It’s a task that comes with very little in the way of tangible evidence aside from wins. The process of building a team from the ground up can be long and painstaking.
At the midway point of the season, Spagnuolo said he believed the effort and attitude of his team was perhaps the best way to judge how that process was coming along.
By the end of the year, Spagnuolo and the rest of the team believe that at the very least that foundation has been put in place moving forward.
“I knew it wouldn’t be an overnight thing,” cornerback Ron Bartell said. “I got into it for the long haul so I knew it would take time. We haven’t been right the last couple of years so I wasn’t looking for overnight success so I signed a long term deal. I am here for the long haul. We still have the right people in place. I totally and firmly believe that. I think I made the best decision for me and I still think we can turn this thing around.”
Of course, sometimes the best lessons learned can be the ones where you learn about what you need to learn next.
In 2009, the Rams played seven games where the final score came was within a single possession (eight points or less) when time expired. In numerous other games, the Rams were able to battle for a half or three quarters at a time but were unable to close the deal.
Along the way, the Rams won just one of those close games but they got a first hand look at what it takes and what the next step is in finding a way to turn those losses into victories.
“We have got to learn how to win in the fourth quarter,” defensive tackle Clifton Ryan said. “At the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter yesterday it was 7-6 and we just collapsed. That has been kind of our M.O. throughout the season. Once we learn to do that, we will win games. We will beat the Saints and guys like that we have played so tough this season. Until we learn to do that and mature during the course of the season, things won’t happen like that.”
The lessons to be gleaned from this season go beyond the locker room, too. For the decision makers at the Russell Training Center, entering this offseason will be a much different process than a year ago at this time.
Last January, general manager Billy Devaney was faced with the monumental task of finding a new coach, bringing a coaching staff together, finding a contract negotiator, evaluating and scouting college talent, evaluating, courting and signing free agents and then going through a NFL Draft.
This time around, the focus can be exclusive to upgrading the talent. The next step is to evaluate the players already on the roster and determine what the most pressing needs are.
Last year at this time, the types of players being looked at had to be adjusted to the new coaching staff to fit the new schemes. Now, the coaching staff is in place and has learned all that needs to be learned about the guys already in place.
“It’s been great being around these kids the whole year,” Devaney said. “They have been positive, their attitudes have been great. I think that’s what we take more than anything from this season, the kind of guys we have brought in, the guys here that we held over. It’s been a fun, good group to be around. It’s different today with them out of the building. Especially a season like this one, it’s like ‘Thank God the year is over.’ But there are guys that just can’t wait to get going. We don’t need any down time to catch our breath. We want to get going as soon as possible.”
As the players cleaned out their lockers and parted ways until the offseason conditioning program begins on March 15, they said their goodbyes knowing that there will be more changes made to the roster.
Spagnuolo made it a point to meet with nearly all of the guys on the team with specific instructions and words for the each of them.
And then everyone went their separate ways until the process starts all over again in March. When that reunion happens, the most important lesson of all must be implemented.
“I think for anyone that returns back next year, you just can’t let that happen again,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “I hope the guys on this team don’t get used to this feeling. Don’t forget it, but don’t get used to it, either. It’s all about going forward and turning this thing around and doing whatever it takes in the offseason to turn this around.”"--Courtesy of Nick Wagoner, St. Louis Rams.com