Rams' new culture gets first preseason test

By Jim Thomas

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Preseason or not, winning tonight's exhibition opener against the New York Jets would be tonic for a franchise that has dropped 27 of its last 32 regular-season games. Right?

"I didn't know those stats," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I didn't know that. No, it's the first preseason game."

File those remarks into the tongue-in-cheek bin. They come, after all, from an ultra-organized football coach. A guy who walks around practice with a pencil stuck above his ear, the better to jot down quick notes right on the spot.

But like most NFL coaches, Spagnuolo says player evaluation is just as important as winning this time of year.

"That's probably more important," Spagnuolo said. "In a lot of ways, (preseason) is a continuation of training camp in my opinion, because you're still working.

"But I will say this: It doesn't matter whether you're playing pickup basketball in the backyard, or playing your brother in cards, it's competition and everybody wants to win. We'll approach this thing as if it's a competition. We want to compete, compete at the highest level, and then let it play itself out."

Spagnuolo may not have noticed the won-lost record, but the Rams haven't done much competing lately. In their preseason opener a year ago, the Tennessee Titans kicked sand in their faces for three hours, bullying their way to 340 yards rushing and a whopping 7.9 yards per carry in a 34-13 victory.

And the last time the Rams played the Jets in Giants Stadium (last Nov. 9), they were embarrassed 47-3. It was 40-0 at halftime in that one.

So let the competition begin. These exhibition contests may not count, but they matter. And for those players returning from the sad-sack 2008 Rams squad, it's easy to define how they want to change the team identity.

"Well, winning more than two games," running back Steven Jackson said bluntly.

Tonight, Spagnuolo returns to the place where he had great success for two seasons as Giants defensive coordinator enough success to catapult him into his first head-coaching job.

No big deal. "Probably the first time, the first instant I walk in there, I'll be like, 'Yeah, I remember this place,' " Spagnuolo said. "But after that, it'll be all Rams."

And had things gone differently last January, Spagnuolo might have been standing on the opposite sideline tonight. Considered one of the hot head-coaching candidates once the offseason began, he interviewed for the Jets job at the time. (The Jets' rookie head coach, Rex Ryan, also interviewed with the Rams.)

"I'm here with the Rams," Spagnuolo repeated, unwilling to stroll down memory lane. "I'm not going back there (in time). It was a wonderful time in my life, a humbling time. But I'm lucky I mean, it's about the Rams right now."

It's about a Rams team trying to take the first steps out of a deep hole. This team hasn't had a winning season since 2003 and hasn't made the playoffs since 2004, when it snuck in as an 8-8 wild card.

"I'm really excited to see what this '09 team has," Jackson said. "I think over the last several months, from OTAs till now, we really worked on changing the identity of this team. I think Friday will be showing where we're at so far in this early season."

While reserving the right to change his mind, Spagnuolo plans to play his starters about one quarter, give or take a few plays either way. "Somewhere in that range," Spagnuolo said. "It depends on how many plays they get."

Spagnuolo's staff has done some game-planning for the Jets, but nothing like what would occur for a regular-season game.

"We might throw a couple wrinkles out there," Spagnuolo said. "But no, we're not going to be crazy We're still evaluating talent. I think you have to be very careful in the first preseason game. By that I mean, if you hone in too much on the game, you forget that it's training camp."

Training camp injuries could keep as many as a half-dozen Rams out of uniform tonight. Wide receiver Donnie Avery obviously is sidelined with his fractured foot, and Spagnuolo also has ruled out defensive tackle Adam Carriker (ankle). He's not sure on cornerback Ron Bartell (hamstring), safety Craig Dahl (hamstring), fullback Mike Karney (ankle), and defensive tackle Darell Scott (knee).