Silver linings can't disperse the cloud over St. Louis Rams

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
[More columns]By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/12/2009

As the worst week in St. Louis sports recent memory was mercifully coming to an end, inside the morgue-like locker room in the depths of the Edward Jones Dome, dutiful locker room attendants quietly scurried about gathering up the remnants of another lost sports day. They stuffed soiled uniforms into laundry bags, scooped up the tattered shreds of discarded athletic tape, then carefully attempted to restore some order to a place that appeared to have been swept up by a chaotic storm.

This was the Rams locker room on Sunday, but it didn't look all that much different than the Cardinals clubhouse one night earlier. After a wretched, seven-day "ohhhhh-fer" disaster that made its way from San Francisco to LA, hop-scotched over to Columbia, then raced through the streets of St. Louis, one losing locker room looked just like another one.

But there was a noticeable difference.

On Saturday evening, the Cardinals were lamenting the end of an unfulfilled title chase, explaining the consequences of being rudely swept out of the postseason. On Sunday afternoon, the Rams — stuck in a 15-game losing streak— were talking about the rather odd subject of progress.

They had just lost their fifth game of the season to the Minnesota Vikings, 38-10, and yet ... yeah, believe it or not, they were talking about making progress.

After spending the season's first month in a sleepy state, the winless Rams actually came alive offensively, racking up 400 yards of offense on one of the NFL's top teams, the unbeaten Vikings. They piled up 27 first downs. Steven Jackson outrushed the NFL's premier running back, Adrian Peterson (84 yards to 69). The QB tag team of Kyle Boller (209 yards) and Marc Bulger (88) had outgunned the indestructible living legend Brett Favre (232 yards).

And they did this against a team most NFL wise guys believe could end up in the Super Bowl. But they still lost. And lost badly, actually; done in once again by the weekly dose of self-destructive turnovers, including three incredible gaffs inside the 10-yard line and four overall, short-circuiting a legitimate shot at pulling off an enormous upset.

"Kind of the same story as the last four games," Jackson said. "Turnovers. Unfortunate turnovers at crucial times. That's what's holding this team back."

Still carrying the NFL's longest current losing streak, unable to crack the end zone except once, despite four trips inside the red zone.

But can you still call this progress nonetheless?

"Of course it's progress," center Jason Brown said. "I know the scoreboard doesn't show it, but you had to watch the whole game."

A few feet away, Richie Incognito was asked if he thought he and his teammates had shown some progress this week. The barrel-chested guard tilted his head slightly, then slowly pondered the question as if it were a complicated conundrum.

"Ahhh," said Incognito, "that's a double-edged sword right there."

Incognito didn't want to go all "Up With People" giddy on us when he knew the scoreboard still registered this as a 38-10 defeat. He didn't want to be too bubbly, but he certainly wasn't willing to ignore what his offense had accomplished against such a tough Vikings defense.

"Did we make progress? Yes and no," Incognito said. "You got to look at them as a very talented defense. They do everything they need to do to win ballgames. They stop the run, they get after the passer, and yet today we were able to run the ball (122 yards, 4.1-yard average) with some success and keep them off of our quarterbacks (only two sacks, none by Pro Bowl madman Jared Allen). So do you chalk that up to a win? No, you can't do that because we lost the game. But the scoreboard just didn't reflect how well we played and that's heartbreaking."

In sports, we all know that all defeats are not created equal.

Some losses sting worse than others. Some defeats carry indelible emotional bruises that can't be explained away by glass-is-half-full optimism. The Cardinals surely know that as they struggle to cope with their inglorious first-round sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Rams are in a different world from the Cards, one full of greatly reduced expectations. They are still taking baby steps toward respectability. When you haven't won in a full calendar year, the bar is set rather low. After so many losses in a row, after so many lopsided defeats that didn't hold even a faint wisp of a minuscule sliver of victory, on Sunday afternoon against easily the best opponent they've faced this season, the Rams deserve to pull something positive from the pile of bad news that normally is associated with a 28-point loss.

Progress?

Absolutely, but with an enormous "YEAH, BUT ... " attached to it.

Bad teams need to cling to "Yeah, but ..."

They need to reach into the muck of defeat, wipe off all the mess, and yes, somehow try to polish up a clunker. But at some point, the bad teams need to learn a lesson or two about what it takes to win while enduring these gut-twisting defeats.

The thing that separates bad teams from the good ones is that the good ones don't repeatedly kill themselves with bad handoffs or ill-advised passes, or running the wrong routes, or missing crucial blocks, or taking your eyes off the ball because you see a defender slashing through the line. Good ones also simply wrap up the ball and aggressively slam into the end zone instead of timidly backpedaling toward it.

Good teams squash bad teams because they don't make those mistakes and punish those who do.

As he stood in front of his locker stall, a disappointed look on his face, Jackson almost sighed as he tried to look into the Rams' not-so-distant future. "We know it's fundamental football that you have to hold on to the football," Jackson said. "I'm not making light of that. But once we turn that around, I think we can play with any football team. That was a very competitive, talented football team we just played, and if we don't (give away) those 21 points it would be interesting to see how that ballgame would have turned out."

"Interesting" doesn't even begin to describe it.