Thursday, January 18, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Soon after the shutout loss to Carolina, Head Coach Scott Linehan decided that a change needed to be made.

The Rams’ team, not just the offense, needed Linehan’s full attention and he needed to be there for them. With that, Linehan did something almost unheard of for a head coach.

In a day and age when many head coaches seek more control, Linehan boldly ceded some of his as he handed over the play calling duties to offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

At 4-6, the Rams were flailing and sitting squarely on the bubble of the playoff picture. But things changed when San Francisco came to town for a Nov. 26 tilt.

As so many of their games had to that point, this game came down to the final moments. And this time, it was the offense putting together the drive necessary to come up with the win.

With Olson handling play calling duties for the first time, the Rams put together a nearly flawless final drive that not only resulted in the winning points, but left San Francisco with little to no chance at re-taking the lead.

After taking a sack on first down, quarterback Marc Bulger took over. He threw a pair of passes to running back Steven Jackson for 19 yards. On fourth down, Jackson converted the first of two fourth down chances he would make on the drive and Bulger continued to pick the ***** apart with surgical precision.

“We are always confident,” Bulger said. “We have done it many times, more here than on the road. I realized that we could get down the field getting checkdowns and 8 or 9 yards a pop. It got us all the way down the field and got us in. We knew we could get down there and finish it off.”

There were no huge plays as Bulger found Stephen Davis for 11 yards here or Isaac Bruce for 20 yards there. Bulger took what was given to him and put the ball on the money on all of his opportunities.

On first-and-goal at San Francisco’s 5, Olson was looking for San Francisco to be in a short defensive zone.

In that defensive scheme, the ***** use a zone to double cover both Torry Holt and Bruce, who are options in the back half of the end zone. That leaves slot receiver Kevin Curtis isolated against the opponent’s nickel back. The play call gives Bulger the option for throws based on the look he gets, whether it be a man look for Holt or Bruce or the expected zone look.

The Rams got the expected zone and Curtis ran a quick out into the flat, just beyond the goal line. Bulger zipped a pass low and to the outside where only Curtis could catch it. Curtis hauled it in as he was falling to the ground and landed safely just beyond the end zone.

A booth review left Curtis waiting breathlessly, but it was clear that he had possession and was just inside the end zone.

The referees confirmed the call and the Rams had a 20-17 lead. Bulger was the picture of calm on the drive, completing all nine of his attempts for 76 yards on a day he finished with 201 yards passing and a rating of 80.6.

“I thought it was just a great job by him of staying (calm),” Linehan said. “He had such a great tempo about him; he has such a great demeanor in that situation that you don’t ever feel like that’s something that is not possible with him. He has ice water in his veins. He stepped up big there and made all of the throws.”

Suddenly, the Rams were back to 5-6 and back in the mix. With Linehan pressing all of the buttons and Olson calling the plays, the Rams seemed poised to get a mini winning streak going with another home game the following week against the hapless Cardinals.

But Arizona, with Matt Leinart developing at quarterback, would not go down without a fight. In fact, it was the Rams who had one of their poorest outings of the season. The Cardinals marched into the Edward Jones Dome and left with a convincing 34-20 victory.

The next week brought yet another tough game, this time under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. The Bears were in town with a truckload of fans and the best record in the NFC.

The Rams fought valiantly for the first half, playing the Bears nearly to a draw. In fact, some would argue that St. Louis outplayed Chicago in the first half, maybe even the game.

But one player denied any chance the Rams had of coming up with the upset win. Kick returner Devin Hester took two returns to the end zone, making up enough for the 42-27 win.

The loss was the second in a row for the Rams and dropped them to 5-8. Mathematically, the Rams were still in the playoff race, but it seemed like an insurmountable task.

At that point of the season, it would have been easy for the Rams to call it quits and simply not show up for the next week’s game at Oakland. The Raiders were one of the worst teams in the league heading in, but what did the Rams have to play for?

What type of St. Louis team would show up with seemingly nothing on the line. St. Louis went to Oakland and answered all of those questions resoundingly.

The Rams so thoroughly dominated the Raiders in a 20-0 win that the only exciting moment of the game came at the end when it appeared the Rams’ shutout was in danger.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” Linehan said. “We have lost some close games, we have lost some not so close games and it would have been easy to pack the sack so to speak, maybe not on purpose but subconsciously. Our guys didn’t do that. Our leadership showed. Regardless of the records of either team, it is hard to go on the road and win and it’s hard to do it when you are struggling. I am very proud of the team.”

The shutout was the first for the Rams since October of 2003 when they put up a 36-0 win against Atlanta at the Edward Jones Dome and their first on the road since 2001 when they handed Detroit a 35-0 loss.

At the heart of the defensive performance was relentless pressure from coordinator Jim Haslett’s various blitz packages and an avalanche of takeaways that turned into a plus-five turnover ratio for the Rams.

Entering the game, Oakland had the lowest-rated offense in the league, mainly because of an inability to protect the quarterback. Knowing that, Haslett devised a scheme that would allow the Rams to exploit those openings and create turnovers.

For most of the day, that’s exactly what the Rams did. Oakland finished with just 260 total yards, most of which came in desperate situations late in the game. The Raiders had just 58 total yards in the first half.

Even at 6-8, the Rams remained in the playoff picture, though it was still a long shot. With that knowledge, the Rams came back to St. Louis for a Christmas Eve game against Washington.

The Redskins had a 5-9 record, but boasted an excellent running game, the Rams’ biggest weakness during the season.

In a game that was the first non-sellout for the Rams since they moved to St. Louis, those who were in attendance got to see one of the most exciting games of the season.

St. Louis pulled out a thrilling. 37-31 overtime victory against Washington at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday and in the process kept its lingering playoff hopes alive heading into the final week of the season.

“We fought our way back,” safety Corey Chavous said. “A couple of weeks ago we were 5-8 and pretty much dead to rights. Anytime you’re in the NFC this season, you’ve got a shot and we never stopped believing that. Now it comes down to one Sunday and we’ll see what happens.”

But before the Rams could look ahead to what could be an exciting and wild final week of the year, they had to find a way to get to 7-8 and put themselves in position to be in the mix.

That was no easy task. It took a complete team effort, including big plays from all three phases for the Rams to get that much-needed seventh win.

Ultimately, it was a 21-yard touchdown run from running back Steven Jackson that sent the Rams home happy for the holidays. But this game came down to many more plays than Jackson’s game winning gallop.

Jackson’s 21-yard touchdown put a cap on one of his finest days as a pro. He led an offensive surge that saw the Rams post 579 total yards as he posted 252 total yards and a pair of scores.

Bulger added 388 yards in the air with four touchdowns and Isaac Bruce chipped in 148 yards on nine catches. Meanwhile, the defense dominated most of the second half. After allowing 72 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter, that unit yielded just 80 yards the rest of the game.

With a 7-8 record, the Rams needed some help from other teams to land in the NFL’s postseason. Of course, none of those games would matter without a New Year ’s Eve win at Minnesota.

By Saturday night, though, the Rams had learned that things were not going to break their way. That left a game Sunday that many would have deemed meaningless. But, judging from the way the team performed, you would have thought they were in a playoff game.

With nothing left to play for except pride and the future, the Rams gave everyone hope that the future is bright and it’s not far away.

St. Louis rolled to a 41-21 win against the Vikings at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

After learning late Saturday night that the playoffs were no longer a possibility because of New York’s win against Washington, the Rams in theory had nothing left to play for against Minnesota.

But the Rams had plenty of incentive to put on a good performance against the Vikings. With an eye toward the future and a shot at improving their record two games from last season, the Rams put on one of their most dominant efforts of the season, beating Minnesota in every facet of the game.

“We talked before (we arrived),” Linehan said. “The whole focus was on whatever happens, happens. We came here to become an 8-8 football team and improve. That was it. We talked about the building blocks of success and regardless of what happens in the other games; we should go out and play well.”

With the win, the Rams finished the 2006 season at 8-8 and on the momentum of a three-game winning streak. Although they won’t be playing in the postseason, there was plenty to be gained from the way St. Louis finished its season.

Perhaps no development in that game or this season for that matter was the breakout year for Jackson. Facing Minnesota’s vaunted run defense, Jackson pieced together another in a long line of impressive performances.

With massive defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams sketching an imposing threat upfront, teams have run into a purple wall against the Vikings for most of the season.

Compounding matters against the Rams was Minnesota’s desire to stop Jackson by adding extra players in the run box. With eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage on almost every play, the Rams stuck with Jackson.

Even with Minnesota’s reputation as run stoppers, Jackson believed in himself and his blockers.

“I definitely thought so,” Jackson said. “The line thought so. All week we prepared to be a balanced offense. We knew we were coming in hot on the ground. The offensive line played so well the last two weeks so we knew if we stayed constantly balanced as an offense we could run the ball at them.”

And run the Rams did. After an opening carry of 18 yards, the confidence in the run was at a high. It was just the beginning of another huge performance from one of the league’s emerging superstars. Jackson finished with 142 yards on 25 carries with a trio of touchdowns and added a 9-yard touchdown catch.

Jackson put a cap on his breakthrough year with a game-breaking 59-yard touchdown run that made it 41-7 in the fourth quarter. It was the final exclamation point on an amazing season for Jackson.

“When you are coming in and the torch is being handed to you as the feature back,” Jackson said. “This organization is known for having talented backs that are in the Hall of Fame or going there, so that is a lot of pressure right there to be a back that can stand on his own two feet and say, ‘I can carry this torch.’”

Jackson did carry the torch to the tune of a season in which he finished with 1,528 rushing yards which is good for fourth all time in team history. His final tally of 2,334 yards from scrimmage is the second best performance by a back in team history. Further, Jackson finished with 17 touchdowns and seemed to only get better as he went along.

Although the playoffs passed them by, there was plenty of good to be taken from the 8-8 performance. The Rams improved two games over last season’s record and the product on the field was much more competitive in 2006 than 2005.

Heading into the offseason, the Rams have holes to plug and help to get, but if anything was clear by the end of the year, it’s that the future is brighter now than it was a year ago.