Rams Quick Hits: 3 Offensive Keys for the Coming Campaign
By Shane Gray
With the NFL draft in the books and the bulk of free-agency work finalized, a clearer vision has emerged in regard to what the St. Louis Rams need to do to maximize their level of offensive output in the coming campaign.
In the draft, St. Louis adroitly addressed every major offensive need – at wide receiver, running back and offensive line – with four of its seven selections.
During the big-money portion of free agency, the Rams added two big-ticket additions to help optimize the offense: four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins and the explosively athletic Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans, a hybrid tight end who shared two seasons with head coach Jeff Fisher in Nashville.
With the vast majority of pieces in place – and the corresponding offensive scheme and playbook being adapted where necessary to best fit the personnel that will be deployed this fall – it is time to take a brief look at three of the critical offensive keys that will greatly impact the approaching season.
Sam Bradford must take another step forward
Sam Bradford’s name is a consistent magnet for intense debate among Rams forums throughout cyberspace. As both a quarterback and a former No. 1 overall pick, that is expected.
In 2012, Bradford made positive progress in a multitude of areas – including completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, TD percentage, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt and quarterback rating, among other statistical measures.
Furthermore, Bradford showed encouraging improvement in areas that were in dire need of enhancement: pocket awareness and read progressions.
During Bradford’s first two seasons, the young QB sometimes seemed oblivious to the collapsing pocket and corresponding rush around him. This would cause a myriad of problems, including but not limited to his taking unnecessary hits and sacks rather than recognizing an opening to escape the pocket or an opportunity to connect on a quick check-down. Additionally, Bradford would far too often lock onto his primary receiver, staring his man down as if the play only allowed for option one and … option one.
To be fair, however, Bradford consistently played behind patchwork offensive lines in 2010 and 2011. These groups struggled to consistently provide adequate pass protection. Furthermore, the Rams’ receiving corps was largely pedestrian during the aforementioned seasons. That fact – along with the reality that protection was too often flawed and plays were too often rushed – would naturally make it more difficult to avoid locking onto a first or second option. In a nutshell, Bradford’s confidence to expect a third or fourth option to be open and the time to regularly do so were both lacking.
If St. Louis is to succeed offensively, Bradford must ascend once again. His play, however, will be difficult to accurately assess.
Yes, he will have his most dynamic and talented collection of pass catchers to work with since entering the league four seasons ago. However, the group will be extremely inexperienced and could be prone to all sorts of inconsistencies. And although he will be working under the same offensive coordinator for a second straight year for the first time professionally, this offense figures to be much different than last year’s.
Regardless of all that, Bradford must find a way to get this offense jumping if St. Louis is to succeed. In this era of exceptional offensive proficiency, the Rams must better last fall’s figure of 18.7 points per game, a mark that placed No. 25 at season’s end. With Steven Jackson gone, this is Bradford’s offense now. He must find a way, regardless of what limiting circumstances he is still dealing with.
Should Bradford be expected to win an MVP throwing almost entirely to rookies or newcomers (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Cook) and second-year targets (Chris Givens, Brian Quick and his running backs)? Obviously, no.
On the other hand, should Bradford be expected to show a second consecutive year of reasonable progress after being equipped with dramatically enhanced weaponry and a better offensive line even under what will still constitute less-than-ideal circumstances due to lacking a proven No. 1 wideout again and the aforementioned extremity of youth at wide receiver (and running back, too)? Yes, absolutely.
Brian Schottenheimer must adapt to his new personnel
If the Rams are to thrive offensively, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must exhibit some terrific imagination and flexibility.
Can he and will he do so? Obviously, St. Louis general manager Les Snead and head coach Fisher believe he can, having adding weapons best suited for a run-and-gun, up-tempo, spread-it-out, fast-break offense during the offseason.
Will Schottenheimer – brought up under his father Marty’s typically conservative approach – be up to the task?
Can he take a plethora of raw, young talents and mold them and this offense into an efficient attack? Can he find ways to exploit mismatches for his suddenly athletic and fleet-footed receiving corps? Can he dial it up for distance and find ways to get three of the fastest players at their respective positions in the entire league – Givens outside, Austin inside and Cook at hybrid tight end – in one-on-one situations deep?
Can Schottenheimer incorporate more of the hurry-up that Bradford seems comfortable running and has excelled within? Can he call the ideal running plays that will aid a yet-to-be-determined hierarchy at running back in finding a way to replace the production lost by the departure of three-time Pro Bowler Jackson?
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Rams’ offense. The talent is there, but it is also remarkably inexperienced. Can Schottenheimer put them in the best positions to consistently succeed? Time will tell.
During Schottenheimer’s tenure as New York Jets OC from 2006 through 2011, the only year he was afforded the opportunity to work with a quarterback as talented as Bradford was in 2008. In that season, his offense finished No. 9 in points per game with 39-year-old Brett Favre under center. In both 2010 and 2011, Schottenheimer orchestrated a Mark Sanchez-led attack that finished both seasons at No. 13 in points per contest.
The Rams’ defense has a great shot at ascending into the top 10. With that, the Rams’ offense will not be required to do the same to post wins. However, a solid jump up from No. 25 to a top-15 unit would greatly aid this team’s chances at competing for an NFC playoff berth.
Can St. Louis manage to do that? Schottenheimer’s ability to exhibit much adaptability – or lack thereof – will play a vital role in determining if that occurs.
Quick development of Quick and running backs is vital
Clearly, if the Rams are to elevate the offense, St. Louis’ youthful collection of wideouts and halfbacks must make a very sudden collective splash come September.
At receiver, the key appears to be whether or not Quick can be quick to progress. Last season, the nearly 6-4 second-round Appalachian State rookie produced just 11 receptions in 15 games. For rookie receivers, that is not uncommon. Receivers, more than most other positions, tend to take time to develop.
When considering that Quick was a product of an FCS school, his relatively slow start should be all the less surprising. Terrell Owens – a fellow former FCS receiver who reminds me a lot of Quick in terms of build, movements and athleticism – tallied just 35 receptions during his rookie year before eventually becoming a five-time first-team All Pro.
We saw enough in fellow 2012 rookie Givens to expect him to significantly produce. After adding first-round rookie Austin and third-rounder Bailey to go along with third-year man Austin Pettis, the Rams are well stocked in the slot even after the departure of Danny Amendola. The slot is usually a little easier to adapt to at the pro level than the outside spots are, so this should aid Austin’s chances to impact in year one.
That brings us back to Quick, who must use his elite size and athletic ability to post solid numbers. The Rams will likely spread the ball around, so it probably won’t be necessary for Quick to collect 70 to 80 catches. However, the Rams need production opposite Givens at starting wideout, so Quick must produce. A 50-catch, eight-touchdown campaign, for example, seems realistic and one that this offense will need from him.
At running back, the starting spot is wide open per the exit of Jackson, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. Will one of the 2012 rookies – Isaiah Pead or Daryl Richardson – win the starting job?
Richardson appears to be the slight favorite at the moment, but Pead could certainly contend strongly if fully adapted to the pro game – both on and off the field. Will rookie Zac Stacy, a player whom ESPN’s Todd McShay said possessed the best patience and vision of any running back in the draft, emerge as the surprise go-to runner? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see if he can beat out a third second-year running back, Terrance Ganaway of Baylor, to win the team’s power back/potential short-yardage specialist job.
A season ago, Jackson posted his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. Rams fans have grown accustomed to assuming ground production will be there. This season, though, that is not nearly the certainly it has been for well over a decade.
Jackson is gone and his Hall of Fame predecessor, Marshall Faulk, is obviously long gone, too.
St. Louis is entering a new era at halfback. If the Rams are to significantly progress on O, they must continue to run the ball effectively to maintain some semblance of balance, to keep opposing defenses off balance.
Do the Rams have a single answer at running back a la Jackson and a single, primary role? Or will the answer come via an almost equally shared delegation of ball-handling duties between two or three guys? How that is answered is yet to be determined, but the key is that a positive answer is ultimately found.
Can Pead become the player the Rams envisioned when they utilized a premium second-round pick on him and spoke of envisioning him as a future feature back?
Or will 2012 seventh-rounder Richardson beat him out and again take on a bigger role than the more highly touted Pead? Will the Chris Johnson-like flashes become more commonplace for D-Rich in 2013? Will Ganaway, the man who doubles as a Jimmy John’s sandwich artist in his free time, step up and show local fans what he displayed against Big 12 foes while playing at Baylor? Or will Stacy – with the build, vision and patience that is at least somewhat reminiscent of a young Emmitt Smith – step up and step out to the forefront of the running back position?
Time will answer all of the preceding questions at running back and those above.
If St. Louis can successfully check these keys off of its 2013 to-do list, the Rams’ offense might show more explosion and production than any we have seen since the Greatest Show days. There will be some tough and frustrating patches, to be sure, but an improved offensive line should aid this O in bettering the output we have seen over the past several seasons. If nothing else, this group promises to be anything but boring. Yes, the Rams’ offense is going to be fun again – finally.