Nick Wagoner

Standing before his team for the final get together of the 2012 season, Rams coach Jeff Fisher didn’t have to pass on the week to week message he’s regularly used this year to make sure his team was focused on the next task and not looking too far ahead.

No, the bittersweet final day of the season brings with it the rare opportunity for a NFL head coach to focus on the macro and ignore the micro. While Fisher and his team were not pleased with the final result of Sunday’s game against the Seahawks or the season as a whole, Fisher said the normal gloom that might come with such a meeting was nowhere to be found.

“(Those meetings) are never easy,” Fisher said. “This one, however, was a little different in that we felt like when the guys left the auditorium they left with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for what’s ahead. We talked more about the big picture and what we accomplished in a short period of time…Our focus now goes into continuing to build this football team, making good decisions and moving forward.”

There will be plenty of time to look ahead in the coming weeks but on Monday, there was at least a small window in which to see how far the Rams came in 2012. Although they came up short of their goals for the 2012 season, a simple survey of team leaders, the guys who have been around the longest, reveals a sense of unending optimism about the steps forward the team took this season.

As though that progress wasn’t obvious in a simple glance at the standings, the team’s record or by watching it play, the guys who would know what true progress means acknowledged that this Rams team was unlike any that’s played in St. Louis in a long time.

Even in the aftermath of a disappointing near-miss against Seattle on Sunday, the Rams weren’t about to use that 20-13 loss as some sort of referendum on their season.

“I’m not playing the ‘there’s nothing good to say if we lose’ card,” defensive end Chris Long said. “That’s not me. I really am very proud of this team. Let’s be realistic, we are better than we were last year by a mile and we are going to continue to get better. I am very proud of these guys. A lot of teams would have just shut it down and bought their tickets for the offseason, these guys fought and we’ll get better and better.”

Considering that the Rams finished the 2011 season with a dismal 2-14 record, the latest in a series of disappointing seasons, the jump to a 7-8-1 record in 2012 showed immense progress but looking even deeper into the numbers reveals an even more significant step forward.

In 2010, the Rams finished 7-9, just a half game different than this season but in retrospect, that season had a little bit of a smoke and mirrors feel to it. Quarterback Sam Bradford acknowledged as much on Monday and linebacker James Laurinaitis said this was “by far” the best he’s felt about a Rams team going into the offseason since he was drafted.

“I see the way, I see how fast we jelled together and to see how quickly the culture changed in one offseason, it’s been night and day,” Laurinaitis said. “I have been a part of games where we are down at halftime and you are hoping for a miracle. With Coach Fisher, we are never out of this thing. Keep clawing, keep fighting and really that’s the expectation every time we come into a stadium to win.”

Digging deeper into the numbers, the Rams had a number of other notable signs of progress. To wit, the Rams won four of their final six games including three of four on the road, finished 4-1-1 in a NFC West Division that by the numbers is the toughest in the league and made significant improvement in a number of key statistical areas.

All of that came against the third most difficult schedule in the NFL.

“Winning four out of our last six is obviously a very positive thing and before today we won three in a row on the road which is something we hadn’t done in quite a while,” Bradford said. “I am excited for the offseason and just to build on what we were able to do this year.”

In terms of statistical building blocks, the Rams have plenty to use to lay the foundation heading into the offseason. A quick look at the improvement in some important facets of the game:

- In 2011, the Rams ranked 31st in the league in total offense, averaging 283.6 yards per game. In 2012, they finished 23rd with an average of 329 yards per game.
- In the passing game, the Rams were 30th in 2011 at 179.4 yards per game. They finished 18th this year with an average of 221.9 yards per game.
- Part of that improvement was directly correlated to better pass protection where the Rams went from last in the league in sacks allowed with 55 to 14th in the league in giving up 35 sacks, including none in the final two games.
- On defense, the Rams improved from 22nd in total yards (358.4) to 14th (342.6).
- Like on offense, the defense made a big jump in terms of sacks as well, racking up a league best 52 in 2012 after finishing with 39 a season ago.

Even after any hopes of the playoffs slipped away, the Rams continued to battle in the season’s final two games and nearly finished with five wins in the final six games.

That continued resolve spoke volumes to Long and his teammates.

“We have got a tough team,” Long said. “We have taken steps forward. I am pissed off we lost the game. I am upset, we are all upset, we wanted to win that game as much as anyone. I think guys looked at that like it was the Super Bowl. It’s a credit to the tough guys we have in this locker room. That in and of itself is enough to be proud of and give you something to look forward to for next year. I know we’ve got a good nucleus of guys.”

Looking back on the year, the Rams know they missed some opportunities that could have helped them continue playing into January, notably games at Detroit, Miami and San Francisco.

But Fisher preached improvement week to week, day to day, minute to minute and based on the way the team finished the season, it’s impossible not to think they were a much better team at the end of the year than they were at the beginning.

“I think the first eight games of the year you saw a young team that was learning how to win on the road, a team trying to learn how to find their identity,” Jackson said. “The second eight games of the season, the second half of the season you saw the team mature. You saw young guys step up and make plays, the continuity of the team continued to grow week in and week out. We started learning how to pull out tough games on the road so the way we finished off this season the second half of the season is something to be very proud of and something we can definitely build off of.”

Before parting ways with his team for the season, Fisher called up a picture on the giant screen in the auditorium.

The picture was the field at the Edward Jones Dome with playoff graphics
superimposed on the field in the appropriate places. Fisher told his team that a year from now it’s a sight he wants to see without the help of Photoshop.

“That was a goal for us this year but next year, yeah,” Fisher said. “We want to build this team so that every year as we move forward in the future that’s a possibility.”


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