2 hours ago • Joe Strauss

The Benefit of the Doubt Tour pulled out of Earth City and reached downtown Saturday morning. A team bathed in well-deserved skepticism for so many years walked onto the Edward Jones Dome floor to palpable optimism.

Nothing the Rams did during a two-hour scrimmage actually counted. Isaiah Pead ripped off a coast-to-coast kickoff return virtually untouched. (The drill was intended for nothing more than flag-football contact.) Rookie flash Tavon Austin spun on a blade of pretend grass. Sam Bradford led a successful two-minute drill against a first-team defense sentenced to hard labor had it squared him up.

Still, the experience meant something. Rather than spooning gruel to fans under the guise of caviar, the Rams are selling something plausible: progress stacked atop legitimate progress.

When Bradford zips a perfect pass to tight end Jared Cook over rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree’s fingers to complete a perfect seam route, it’s noticed.

When middle linebacker James Laurinaitis lines head-up against a wideout and creates enough frustration for a cover sack, it stands out.

It also suggests a long-term plan finally in place when the NFL’s youngest roster leaps from 2-14 to 7-8-1 and goes younger rather than reach for a veteran placebo.

“We know what to do. We know how to do it,” head coach Jeff Fisher said after the skirmish about the installed portions of the playbook.

Rather than mimic enthusiasm by pumping insanely loud music into the Dome, the Rams on Saturday turned over the noise to their revived fan base. Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff believes the vibe surrounding the franchise is more “organic than manufactured.”

We’ve witnessed phony. Three years ago the Rams marketed a 7-9 playoff near-miss as something meaningful rather than a schedule-assisted mirage. Too many bought. Media and fans saw what they wanted rather than the reality of a timid front office, a creaky roster, a markedly tougher schedule and an overmatched coaching staff. The Rams hired Fisher and exercised the draft’s No. 2 pick within 18 months of the 2010 illusion.

“Our young guys have to prove they’re worthy of the excitement. That’s the next step,” Demoff notes. “The 7-9 (‘10) team would have been one of the worst teams in playoff history. But last year the way we played (playoff entries) San Francisco and Seattle … I think people could see the pieces coming together. Are there those (fans) on the sidelines still waiting to see if it’s real? Absolutely. But the energy level is noticeably different for everybody who works here.”

Demoff rightly recognizes the local sports market as “very forgiving.” … People here tend to see things half full and we’ve been the benefactors of that for a number of years.” He likewise has no problem feeding this team’s need to deliver.

No one is guaranteeing a division championship or a playoff berth. Divining the franchise blueprint, there’s a tacit three-year plan in place that targets 2014 as The Breakout. But the upcoming schedule at least should consolidate last season’s gains.

“This year I think people have higher expectations,” Demoff says, “and they should.”

The Rams currently operate from more of an experience shortfall than a talent deficit, which is certainly preferable to experience with waning talent.

The offense is this team’s new shiny object. Bradford’s fourth year coincides with an influx of speed unseen in more than a decade. A previously grinding scheme now threatens greater capacity to go vertical. Just as important, the Rams can build on last year’s strength, a defense that ranked 14th in the league in yards and points allowed despite laboring to recover fumbles and to consistently confine the run.

Rather than celebrate defensive potential exhibited while going 2-1-1 against the ***** and Seahawks, a more aggressive “downhill” approach is being emphasized.

“It’s more important to know what you don’t do well than to know what you do well,” says assistant coach Dave McGinness.

The Rams tied for the league lead in sacks but too often were hurt by the run in critical situations. They held their two most potent rivals to 70 points in four games, while allowing the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions and New York Jets 90 in three.

The defensive line, especially tackle Michael Brockers, is now healthier and more robust. Laurinaitis will be asked to make fewer reads, allowing him to react more quickly.

“There were a lot of things I had to deal with, a lot of things on my plate,” Laurinaitis said about the complex scheme he digested in three seasons under Steve Spagnuolo as well as last year’s transition. “I could handle it. But there always comes a time when you have to stop thinking and just play. Sometimes you have to stop thinking about what everybody else is doing and focus on ‘What am I supposed to accomplish on this?’”

Sixth-year defensive end Chris Long believes this defense possesses the capacity to become elite. He sees last season as providing “evidence” with this season’s challenge to find greater consistency. “The difference between teams that have that potential and those that achieve it is execution and attention to detail,” Long says. “I really believe we have the capability – and I know every team is going to say that before camp – but I believe it’s backed by evidence.”

Two rookies, Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald, should add to a mix that includes four first-round draftees, two second-rounders and two thirds.

“The potential is endless. We can be one of the nastiest defenses in the league,” insists outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. “It’s about being consistent.”

Fans have heard this kind of happy talk before. For much of the last decade the Rams resembled August’s Team only to be impaled by September. But the names have changed. There now exists what one player on Saturday described as “organizational synergy.” This better be real, or it will be the cruelest hoax of all.