Strauss: It's time to hold Rams — and Bradford — fully accountable
January 04, 2013 BY JOE STRAUSS
Psychologists warn against making public one’s New Year’s resolutions. The argument holds there is no upside to making such a pronouncement and significant risk of embarrassment.
I get it. There’s little benefit to informing your neighbor on Jan. 1 you plan to drop 20 pounds then a week later have him lay on the horn behind you in the Burger King drive-thru. Have it your way.
But there is one commitment I just can’t keep to myself. It’s not proprietary because I’m convinced many others harbor the same resolution but remain too inhibited to let it rip:
This year I pledge to treat the St. Louis Rams like a grown-up professional sports franchise.
It is every Gateway City sports fan’s obligation to know his significant other’s birthday, his own Social Security number and the fact that the Rams were 15-65 from 2007-11 under the failed regimes of Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo.
That five-year span was the worst for any franchise in NFL history. The Edward Jones Dome became a mausoleum. By mid-November fans’ civic duty was to root for a No. 1 draft pick more than a home win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Playing an opponent to within a touchdown in the second half after trailing by 20 at the half deserved its own gold star. Public policy held that no crevice was too small to contain a germ of “progress.”
The Rams came to be seen as an a team recognized for its random acts of competence while forgiven for its sloppy accounting.
Enough, I say.
Even better, it’s what the team’s coach says.
Jeff Fisher asserted Monday that reaching the postseason was this year’s goal – not next year’s, not 2014, not the next Clinton or Bush administration.
Having built a 7-8-1 record in the aftermath of a scorched-earth 2-14 campaign in Spags’ final season, Fisher put himself on notice this week. He reflected on what was and what will be.
“The biggest improvement in our experience is that, yes, from year one to year two you’re going to see significant improvement,” he said.
The Rams took the NFL’s youngest roster against the league’s third-toughest schedule this season and emerged as a competent — dare we say — “rugged” team.
Two years after producing a deceptive 7-9 record within a paper lion NFC West, the Rams were 2-1-1 against the conference’s Nos. 2 and 5 playoff seeds.
The NFC West no longer is a relegation division. It is ball-control, field-position football. It offers two coaches, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, who take great delight in dropping as many points as possible on an overmatched opponent.
This wasn’t fluff. The Rams no longer proved allergic to the draft. They improved from last season’s 31st-ranked offense to this season’s No. 23. The defense recovered from No. 22 in the NFL to No. 14. It tied for the league lead with 52 sacks.
Though scrutinized for their mid-season inability to force turnovers, the Rams finished minus-1 for the schedule, tied for 11th in the NFL after producing a minus-5 differential in 2011.
Fisher told his players he was proud of them during Monday’s send-off at Rams Park. But he also reminded them of a challenge that belied any sense of satisfaction.
“They understand as we move forward we do things better and we get better; that should also be the case the rest of their careers at the end of seasons,” Fisher said.
It is a franchise and a media following that still appears to swaddle its quarterback three years after making him the No. 1 selection of the NFL draft. In most markets the quarterback is tightly tethered to the team’s success or failure. Here, Sam Bradford represents a Rorshach Test. Critics are described as “haters” on airwaves while justifiably wondering whether Bradford is a quarterback who elevates his team or merely reflects it.
Fair questions persist about Bradford’s ability to sense and respond to pressure and his ability to improvise. He does not offer the running ability of Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III. He does not exude emotion, which, in fairness, can be a false tell.
Still, was Bradford drafted to lift this franchise or is he on campus waiting for the franchise to lift him? His fourth-quarter passer rating is encouraging. But when does Fisher entrust his quarterback to orchestrate a more up-tempo, rolling scheme more in line with what Bradford ran as a collegian?
For too long we’ve heard the narrative that revolving offensive coordinators, turnover on the offensive line and incompetent skill position players have retarded Bradford. The Rams were a better, healthier team this season than during the 2010 mirage.
Bradford threw for 190 more yards and three more touchdowns on 39 fewer attempts this season compared to his 2010 rookie season. Bradford produced a passer rating of at least 90.0 six times at least 80.0 10 times this season compared to four 90.0 or better games and nine 80.0 better games in 2010.
There is growth, but not explosive growth.
Fisher repeatedly heard questions about his young roster potentially hitting a rookie “wall” as the season neared its terminus. Yet this team finished with purpose during the schedule’s final five weeks, beating the division champion San Francisco *****, winning convincingly on the road in Tampa then staying with the steamrolling Seattle Seahawks.
These Rams were not a playoff team. Playoff teams don’t go seven weeks without a win. Despite the misguided notion that penalties equate to toughness and aggression, playoff teams don’t lead the league in infractions. Call it inexperience if one prefers, but it’s mostly lack of discipline.
“The building process is ongoing. We’re not there yet,” Fisher acknowledged when asked about the talent deficit separating his team from the league’s elite.
“Players make the greatest improvement from year one to year two,” he added. “We saw some improvement from our second- and third-year players that had already been on this roster and there’s still room for improvement there. We’ve got guys that have shown they can make plays … given the right opportunity.”
Fisher mentioned receivers such as Austin Pettis and tight end Lance Kendricks, both of whom made major strides this season. However, Fisher realizes that the team needs to find more playmakers, either by further developing its own roster or going outside via free agency or the draft.
For example, the Rams might bring back free agent Danny Amendola, Bradford’s target of choice, but the franchise cannot afford for him to be the roster’s top receiver.
All signs point to Bradford returning to the same offensive coordinator and using the same terminology.
“It’ll be the first time in his career where he’ll come back in the offseason program and be looking at the same playbook,” Fisher said. “That’s helpful. We’re not going to change things here. We’re only going to do things to help him get better.”
Fisher described this year’s Rams as “a very unique team.” It is a team that created expectations and should now be graded accordingly. No more gold stars graded on a curve.
That’s a compliment to a once-destitute organization. It’s my resolution.