Monday, February 7, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

It was supposed to be a celebration of 10 successful seasons in St. Louis. Ideally, the Rams would have celebrated the milestone with a dominating, long playoff run that would result in a Super Bowl championship.

Sometimes, though, the final cut doesn’t match the Script. That isn’t to say that St. Louis’ season was a failure. In fact, the Rams season can’t really be summed up in just a few words.

It was a year of highs and lows, highs and lows that seemed to turn on a dime. By the end of the season, the only predictable thing about this team was how unpredictable it was.

It was only fitting, then, that St. Louis finished 8-8, the perfect balance of ups and downs. Even in the playoffs, the Rams managed a .500 record, beating Seattle and losing to Atlanta. Throughout this week, we will take a look at the Rams’ 2004 season in five parts.

No NFL season actually begins when the games start anymore. In reality, the action starts when the teams hit training camp. The Rams trip to Macomb for this season’s training camp was so eventful that it had many an effect on the way the regular season turned out.

First, right tackle Kyle Turley aggravated a back injury and was declared out for the season. Center Dave Wohlabaugh was forced to retire because of a hip injury and defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy broke his foot.

When the preseason games actually began, matters only got worse. Cornerback Travis Fisher suffered a broken arm and left tackle Orlando Pace still had not reported. The Rams finished the preseason at 1-3 and escaped without any more injuries.

Adding to the injury difficulties, which would prove to be a recurring problem, was the difficult adjustment the defense was making to new coordinator Larry Marmie’s defense.

With an offensive line that had been patched together and Pace reporting just before the first game against Arizona, the Rams opened their 10th season in St. Louis at home.

Expectations were still at a high coming off a 12-4 season in 2003 in which the Rams won the NFC West Division title.

St. Louis started the first meeting with the kind of offensive performance the fans had gotten used to. Although the offense seemingly moved the ball at will against the Cardinals, the Rams could not do what offenses of years past had been so adept at: putting the ball in the end zone.

St. Louis moved the ball well, but found itself settling for field goals and turning the ball over in key situations. The Rams found themselves down by a point heading into the fourth quarter. An 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marc Bulger to receiver Isaac Bruce gave the Rams a rather lackluster 17-10 win in a game that could have gone either way.

There were some encouraging things that came from that game, though. Bruce had nine catches for 112 yards, proving to everyone that he still had plenty of gas in the tank. The offensive line was impressive, allowing zero sacks and the defense held the Cardinals to 260 yards. It wasn’t the best start to the season, but it could have been a lot worse.

Week 2 found the Rams traveling to Atlanta for their first road game of the season. The Falcons featured dynamic quarterback Michael Vick, who is probably more dangerous with his legs than his arm. The Falcons, under first year coach Jim Mora, were entering a period of transition, also.

With two dangerous offensive teams, the Rams with their high-octane passing game and the Falcons with a powerful running attack, this game seemed certain to be a shootout. For three quarters, it was. But when the fourth quarter began, St. Louis appeared to run out of ammunition as Atlanta cruised to a 34-17 win.

The Falcons outscored the Rams 17-0 in the final quarter behind Brady Smith forced fumble and recovery in the Rams’ end zone that made it 31-17 and effectively ending the Rams’ hopes. Bruce had another 100-yard game, finishing with 102 yards on eight grabs.

Vick ran for 109 yards, the most for a Falcon on a day when the team ran for 242 yards. For as many encouraging signs that emerged from the first game, that same number of discouraging things came from this game. None were more disturbing than the Rams’ inability to stop the run. The offensive line struggled; allowing five sacks and St. Louis was unable to force a turnover for the second straight game.

At 1-1, the Rams were happy to head home to face New Orleans, a team that had struggled, especially on defense, heading into the game. Perhaps no contest was more of a microcosm of the Rams’ season than this one.

At various points in the game, St. Louis hit the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Many expected the Rams to come out running against the Saints’ lightly-regard run defense, but it was quite the opposite. Bulger and the Rams marched down the field immediately, scoring on a 32-yrd touchdown strike to receiver Torry Holt to make it 7-0 The Saints answered, though, on the strength of little-known Aaron Stecker’s running.

Stecker scored on a 42-yard touchdown and finished with 106 yards on 18 carries. After falling behind 16-10 in the third quarter, the Rams responded with a 3-yard touchdown run by running back Marshall Faulk. Again, the Saints responded, scoring on a 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Joe Horn. That pass caromed off the hands of safety Aeneas Williams, as the Rams again failed to get a takeaway.

With hope vanishing by the second, Bulger led a breathtaking drive. With 28 seconds to play, Bulger dropped back to pass. With no receivers open and the pocket breaking down, Bulger darted up the middle for a 19-yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion made it 25-22 Rams and appeared to set the stage for St. Louis to move to 2-1 on the season.

On a play that will be remembered simply as “the squib,” the Rams chipped the ball down the field, where New Orleans recovered and returned it, giving the Saints plenty of time to put together a drive. Kicker John Carney booted a 38-yard field goal to send the game to overtime before winning it 28-25 on a 31-yarder.

The stunning loss dropped the Rams to 1-2 and revealed the good and bad trends that developed throughout the season. The squib kick was one of many special teams problems that would haunt St. Louis all season. The inability to stop the run reared its ugly head again and proved to be a trend, not an occasional lapse. The offensive line allowed five sacks for the second week in a row. Once again, the bad came with the good.

Bulger continued his development toward the top tier of the league, throwing for 358 yards and a score. Bruce had his third straight 100-yard game, grabbing eight passes for 134 yards. The offense posted 403 total yards, but there wasn’t much balance in the attack.

With a long trip to San Francisco awaiting them, the Rams at least had the confidence in that they were playing a broken-down 49er team. That confidence translated well to the field, where St. Louis dominated its rival from the beginning.

On their first possession, the Rams marched 80 yards on 14 plays, capped by fullback Joey Goodspeed’s 2-yard touchdown run. On San Francisco’s first play of its possession, linebacker Tommy Polley forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Leonard Little at the *****’ 11. It was the Rams’ first takeaway of the season and set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Bulger to receiver Shaun McDonald.

The Rams had a 24-0 lead at halftime and put it on cruise control for the rest of the way, featuring a healthy dose of Faulk. The future Hall of Famer posted 121 yards on 23 carries, leading St. Louis to a 24-14 win.

One fourth of the way through the season, St. Louis sat at 2-2 with a big divisional matchup awaiting it in week five.