September 30, 2007 -- Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
(Chris Lee /P-D)
The Rams' 3-13 finish was a true team effort. It took "contributions" from every facet of the team — from the front office, to coaching, to every unit on offense, defense and special teams — to achieve the worst record since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995.
The Rams have an aging core of veterans, a handful of whom are remnants of the Greatest Show on Turf. As one veteran after another has departed in recent years, the front office and coaching staff haven't done nearly enough to fill in the blanks via the draft or free agency.
Scott Linehan will be back as head coach, making 2008 very much a make-or-break season for him. But who else returns? There figures to be a lot of player turnover in the offseason — when your team has the second-worst record in the NFL that's a given.
So who stays and who goes? In sorting through the wreckage of 2007, looking at what went wrong can provide a road map on what needs to be done. And who might be brought in to help get the franchise back on its feet.
By halftime of the regular-season opener, Marc Bulger
had a severe rib injury and was missing three of his top six offensive linemen. Hardly a recipe for success. Throw in more injuries, and Bulger didn't have much help. But he's the first to admit he fell into some bad habits. In '08, Bulger needs to clean up his mechanics and quit forcing as many passes. Instead of interceptions and sacks, throw incompletions. Bulger and Linehan also need to work on their relationship. It's not as bad as some have portrayed it: It was Bulger's idea, after all, to present Linehan with a game ball after the New Orleans victory. Nonetheless, Bulger and Linehan need to forge a stronger bond, and if there are issues in terms of scheme, play-calling, or approach — work through them and find a middle ground. Bulger must also realize that with big dollars (in the form of his $65 million contract extension) come big expectations. Gus Frerotte almost certainly will be back as the No. 2 quarterback. But it was a mistake to keep only two QBs on the active roster for most of '07. The team must find and groom a No. 2 QB of the future.
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missed four games with a groin injury, and most of a fifth with a bulging disc in his back. Even so, Jackson topped 1,000 yards rushing for the third season in a row. It is clear that Linehan would like to make Jackson the centerpiece of the offense in '08 and beyond. But running backs tend to get hurt. Did Antonio Pittman really show enough to simply be handed the No. 2 job next season? The fact that Jackson is entering the final year of his contract, coupled with the potential that Arkansas' Darren McFadden may be available at No. 2 overall in the draft, adds considerable offseason intrigue to this position. Brian Leonard settled into a role as a fullback and third down back once Pittman emerged as the No. 2 halfback. As a pass blocker, Leonard needs to spend less time diving at the legs of edge rushers. He has enough value as a runner that he should get the ball at least occasionally even at the fullback position. Richard Owens brought little to the table as a lead blocker. Madison Hedgecock was no Lorenzo Neal at fullback, but he was a significantly better blocker than Owens.
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Sorry, Rams fans, it's no longer 1999, or even 2003. Age and injury are catching up with stalwarts Torry Holt
and Isaac Bruce. Linehan would love to get bigger, faster and younger at the position. Unfortunately, there is no top five-type prospect in the draft this year. So unless the Rams trade down, they'll have to address this need in the second round (or lower) of the draft. Or go to free agency, where Chicago's Bernard Berrian is among the wide receivers scheduled to be on the market. Holt should be commended not only for playing through his knee problems, but maintaining his productivity. But the knee injury appears chronic. And what happens to Bruce, who's scheduled to make $5 million while turning 36 next year? It now appears that the Rams will consider bringing him back, but in a lesser role and possibly at a lesser salary. Even if Bruce is willing to come back under those terms, who becomes the Rams' No. 2 receiver in '08, Drew Bennett? Bennett was a big disappointment in his first year with the club, missing two games because of injuries and falling far short of expectations.
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Unless he suddenly matures by leaps and bounds overnight, Dominique Byrd is a certifiable bust. If you're not dedicated to the game, it's hard to get on the field in the NFL. And there are off-field issues as well, with Byrd facing a trial in March for his role in a nightclub scuffle. Starter Randy McMichael
wasn't as productive as hoped for, but his 39 catches were the most for a Rams tight end since Troy Drayton (47) in 1995. The Rams need to use McMichael more as a safety valve and check-down target when things break down in pass protection or when primary targets are covered. Once Aaron Walker went down with a season-ending shoulder injury during the bye week, the Rams had nothing resembling a blocking tight end on the roster. Joe Klopfenstein regressed in '07, seeming to lose confidence. He improved some as a blocker over the second half of the season, in part because his playing time increased dramatically following Walker's injury. Nonetheless, the Rams need a lot more out of their tight end position in '08; and they need a blocking specialist.
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Injuries make it tough to project what happens up front. Can the Rams count on LT Orlando Pace
for 16 games next season? He's played in only nine of 32 contests in '06 and '07. Even if Pace stays healthy, the team desperately needs a No. 3 tackle. Do the Rams really know what they have in LG Mark Setterstrom, who has nine starts in two years? Or C Brett Romberg, 12 starts in two years? Or RG Richie Incognito, 20 games in three years? Of the group, Romberg is an unrestricted free agent. If the Rams want him back, do they pay him as a starter, a backup or somewhere in between? Early indications are that 37-year-old pending free-agent C Andy McCollum will not be offered a new contract. It's unclear what the team wants to do about 37-year-old pending free-agent RG Todd Steussie. But it's clear the Rams need help on the interior, and guards Alan Faneca (Pittsburgh) and Ryan Lilja (Indianapolis) are possible targets in free agency. Michigan OT Jake Long will be in play as a possible No. 2 overall draft pick.
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Left end Leonard Little
turns 34 in October and will be coming off a one-sack 2007 campaign that ended after seven games because of toe surgery. He's also due a $7.17 million roster bonus before the start of the '08 season. The Rams almost certainly will be seeking a contract re-negotiation in lieu of paying the roster bonus, thus lessening Little's $9.5 million cap count for '08. How much does Little have left? If the Rams make a pay cut part of the re-negotiation, how will Little respond? Right end James Hall was a solid performer who played on a bad ankle much of the season. But Hall made very few plays, with just 2½ sacks and no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. He's scheduled to make $3.5 million in '08 and turns 31 in February. With Virginia's Chris Long probablythere for the taking at No. 2 overall in the draft, the Rams have a lot to think about at end. They desperately need to jack up their pass rush. LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is also a first-round possibility for St. Louis, in which case Adam Carriker could find himself playing more end than tackle.
It looks like strongside LB Brandon Chillar
will be allowed to test the market as an unrestricted free agent. Chillar has improved steadily as a Ram, has some size and is a sure tackler. But Chillar doesn't expect to be back in St. Louis, and the Rams appear willing to explore the market, where Arizona's Karlos Dansby is among the projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have veteran Chris Draft available as a potential replacement for Chillar in the starting lineup, and Quinton Culberson showed enough in his Dec. 30 start for the injured Chillar to suggest that he can help as a run-stopping specialist in '08. Although his play leveled off at the end of the season, Will Witherspoon enjoyed a Pro Bowl-caliber '07, leading the team in tackles (132) and sacks (seven). The Rams need to continue to find ways to get Witherspoon involved as a pass rusher. Weakside LB Pisa Tinoisamoa was playing very well before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Game 11. He also missed two early-season games with an ankle injury. His injury history in recent seasons has to be a concern.
After a breakthrough season, free safety Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe
is scheduled for restricted free agency. Look for the Rams to place a first-round tender on Atogwe to dissuade teams from signing him to an offer sheet. Although it probably won't happen in '08, the Rams need to think about finding and grooming a replacement for strong safety Corey Chavous, who's 32. You can't have enough cornerbacks in today's NFL, and The Rams — who deemed Jerametrius Butler expendable last offseason — paid dearly for their lack of depth once injuries (and a suspension) struck. After missing the first four games of '07 for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, Fakhir Brown is one failed drug test away from being suspended for a year. Tye Hill, whom the Rams selected over Antonio Cromartie in the '06 draft, showed signs of improvement in '07 but also missed eight games with back and wrist injuries. Ron Bartell also showed signs of improvement, but needs to tackle better and be a more physical performer. Unpolished Jonathan Wade is a ways away from being ready to be a regular contributor.
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The early line is that special teams coach Al Roberts will be back in '08. The kickoff coverage unit once again was horrendous, ranking last in the league despite the contributions of newcomers Todd Johnson, Travis Minor, Draft and Culberson. Punt coverage was middle of the pack. But the Rams made huge strides in punt returns (finishing fourth in the NFL), and kickoff returns (ninth). Dante Hall
made that big of an impact, and Derek Stanley was a pleasant late-season surprise on kickoff returns. It looks like Stanley is the front-runner to be Hall's top backup, moving ahead of Marques Hagans and Brandon Williams. Donnie Jones had a couple of off games late in the year but set a franchise record for punting average (47.2 yards). Kicker Jeff Wilkins missed eight field goals in '07, matching his high total over the past 10 seasons. At age 36, he is contemplating retirement and is believed to have some foot and leg issues. Good placekickers are hard to find, so iIf Wilkins calls it quits, the Rams will have an unanticipated hole to fill in their lineup.
One of the most telling moments of the 2007 season was the sight of the normally mild-mannered Holt screaming at Scott Linehan
on the sideline in the waning moments of the loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 20. It was a startling indication of the level of frustration — and even dissatisfaction — by several veterans over the state of the Rams' offense. One of Linehan's top goals in the offseason should be to meet with these veterans, talks things out, smooth things over and get everyone on the same page (Or at least the same chapter.) .This is the NFL, not Fantasy Island, so not everyone is going to get along perfectly at every moment. But more harmony between Linehan and his veterans should make it easier to succeed in 2008. However it happens, The amount of injuries needs to be cut dramatically. And the offense needs to come out of the gate much stronger come September. The play-calling could be more imaginative and creative. Linehan's leadership and motivational skills need to be developed. Otherwise, the 2008 season will be his last as Rams head coach.
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No matter who's making the decisions, the Rams need to do a much better job of drafting players and signing players in free agency. To a large degree, team Presidents John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt
seem committed to a business as usual approach in terms of the decision-making process in player personnel. But just because the Rams have been doing things the same way for a quarter of a century doesn't mean the system can't be tweaked, improved or even overhauled. The fan base is as riled up as it ever has been since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. But it's debatable whether team management realizes the level and breadth of this discontent. They could be in for a shock once the PSL renewals start coming in — or more precisely — NOT coming in. Something needs to be done to re-energize the fan base. But there needs to be more than sizzle this offseason, there needs to be some substance behind the sizzle. Otherwise, the outlook isn't very promising. Rams Nation anxiously awaits.