By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Bryan Burwell

Here's the trouble with the NFL preseason. Looks can be deceiving.

To the uneducated consumer, a stroll through pro football's summer dress rehearsals can be about as enlightening as a ride through a carnival's hall of mirrors. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, everything that flashes in front of you is a wildly distorted mirage. First-unit offenses play against second-unit defenses. Lineup combinations shuffle like a deck of cards. Offensive play calling and defensive strategies are random acts performed with little regard for what the opponent is doing. While one head coach's agenda might be to experiment with a new set of schemes under game conditions, the guy on the other sideline could be far more interested in indoctrinating his high-priced rookies or auditioning his low-priced street free agents into the demanding world of NFL competition.

So the truth be told, the NFL's preseason dry runs force you to squint a bit and simply imagine the possibilities, and the Rams are proof positive of that. Over the past six seasons, they've reached the postseason five times. In those five playoff seasons, only once did St. Louis post a winning preseason record (3-2 in 2001).

So what truths have we been able to glean from the impressive victories over the rebuilding Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions and a dispirited loss to the championship-ready San Diego Chargers? A week ago, the supposedly new and improved Rams defense looked a lot like the old one it was intended to replace, as the Chargers' potent offense gashed them all day long with long run after long run. A week later, going against the Lions' supposedly upgraded offense, the defense limited Detroit to 13 points, one rushing first down and only 66 yards on 17 carries.

So what does it all mean?

"The first two games we look at almost like scrimmages," head coach Mike Martz said Tuesday at Rams Park. In other words, those games were used for specific purposes, such as testing out in live conditions how certain plays (and for that matter, certain players) function. And while winning was important, it was not the primary goal. However, the truest test of what the Rams might look like when the games begin to count could be drawn from Monday night in Detroit, when Martz put all his starters out there for nearly three quarters. On both sides of the ball, you began to see a perfect reflection of the new Rams. It was not necessarily the 2005 Rams with all the bells and whistles, but what you saw was a team that was taking a preseason game very seriously.

What you saw was an offense that should give a lot of folks in the NFC West reason to be a bit nervous. Steven Jackson has brought an aggressive smash-mouth attitude to Martz's fast and furious attack. The offensive balance that we've all been hankering for is finally upon us. Watch carefully, because this team is prepared to take on an unpredictable offensive attitude.

But here's another hint that might solve the mystery of what lies ahead. Martz promised that the defensive schemes that were so glaringly unsuccessful in San Diego would be tossed out of coordinator Larry Marmie's playbook, and they apparently were.

One preseason game does not a season make, but it does show me enough to draw a few important conclusions. The Rams' strength of schedule is the easiest in the NFL. The NFC West is one of the weakest divisions in football. The Rams' offense, which was already potent, is even scarier now. The defense, which couldn't get worse, should be significantly improved in stopping the run.

So if the special teams, which were the dregs of the NFL a year ago, can make even the faintest improvement to just horrible, doesn't this logically make the Rams a better team than a year ago?

I guess we're about to come out of the hall of mirrors and discover whether this is the real deal or just a frustrating distortion.