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Rams miss the playoffs but gain valuable insight for next season
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
On the one hand, the 2006 season was an opportunity lost for the Rams. Two last-second losses to Seattle were killers.
Even factoring in the improvement made by NFC West rivals Arizona and San Francisco, they had to do better than split four games with them to entertain legitimate playoff hopes.
As veteran safety Corey Chavous aptly put it, "You can't get the season back. And I guess for me, it's added because every year is one year closer to being done."
Not just Chavous, who turns 32 Friday, but many of the team's core players are in that 30-something range. Simply stated, they're getting no younger.
"I just wanted a chance to get in there (in the playoffs), and I know everybody else in here did," Chavous said. "That's got to make you extremely hungry."
But at 8-8, there will be no postseason for the Rams. Just an offseason. An offseason in which the Rams must retool their defense. A pass-rushing complement opposite defensive end Leonard Little is an absolute must. So is a true nose tackle, a wide body to stuff the run.
In the secondary, the late-season play of youngsters Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ron Bartell and Tye Hill was encouraging.
But don't the Rams need one more cornerback, particularly since Jerametrius Butler almost certainly won't be back?
On offense, it looks like the Rams have found their line of the future with Orlando Pace and Alex Barron at tackle, Mark Setterstrom and Richie Incognito at guard and Brett Romberg at center. But what becomes of center Andy McCollum and Adam Timmerman?
The Rams' Nos. 3 and 4 wide receivers, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald, are eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. Curtis figures to draw significant interest. At running back, will the Rams bring back Stephen Davis as Steven Jackson's top backup? Even if that's the case, they probably still need a young set of legs to develop as the No. 2 behind Jackson.
On special teams, the Rams finally found a punter in Matt Turk and should make every effort to re-sign him. But the Rams still need to upgrade their return game, and do something about kickoff coverage. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky could be on the hot seat, but firing special teams coaches in the past has done nothing to improve the situation.
The Rams have the 13th overall pick in the draft this April and obviously need to have a strong draft weekend.
But even with the shortcomings of 2006, and some obvious personnel issues for 2007, the Rams learned a lot about themselves and their head coach this season.
For one, the Rams found resiliency in rebounding from a 15-0 debacle in Carolina, winning four of their final six games. The aftermath of that game was the acid test of Scott Linehan's rookie season as an NFL head coach. He never wavered.
"If you looked back at the record, it could've easily been a roller-coaster ride," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "But when we were 4-1, (Linehan) came in and preached the same things. When we lost five straight, he was preaching the same things. And after the (Minnesota) game, he was preaching the same things. We're going in the right direction. I think that's a testament to him that he got everyone in here to (believe)."
That held true right down to the season finale against Minnesota, played just 14 hours after the Rams learned they were eliminated from playoff contention.
"We knew this game wasn't for anything," Bulger said. "It's easy to say, 'We're professionals; we have to play.' But obviously, I think Coach Linehan got us up more than they did over there."
The Rams also discovered they have a true leader in Bulger, who answered questions about his durability and his ability to make the transition to a new offensive system.
Most of all, the Rams learned they have a franchise back in Steven Jackson, a fitting successor to Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Eric Dickerson and Lawrence McCutcheon, among others.
"I do think we have the core guys here," Bulger said. "I think we have a back, a Super Bowl back. One that can run the ball and win games for you. To get to the Super Bowl in this league, I think you need that. We have the receivers. I think our line's starting to gel. I think we're just a couple positions away. I'm excited about next year already."