By Jeff Gordon

The more you think about this Rams season, the more frustrating their 5-8 record seems.

The Rams proved they could play with the Chicago Bears Monday night. Steven Jackson plowed through their vaunted defense like it was no big deal.

Battered quarterback Marc Bulger made downfield connections with his wide receivers, throwing for 353 yards overall.

“I thought our guys were ready to play,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said. “I thought they competed hard, made a lot of plays against a really, really good defense. I know they were short a couple of player, but we’re short a couple of players. They are a heck of a defense, playing at a high level and shutting some people out 40-something to nothing. I felt really good about how we competed.”

For a half, anyway, the Rams run defense actually held up, too. And yet . . . the Rams ended up taking a 42-27 beating before the national “Monday Night Football” audience.

Once again they found a way to lose. This time, their coverage team – which had been OK most of the season – allowed Devin Hester to run two kickoffs back for touchdowns. Two!

And on the second long return, the Bears didn’t even have a blocking wedge. They moved extra players up, anticipating an onside kick.

This just doesn’t happen in a game, especially when the whole world knew just how dangerous Hester was. Squib kicks anyone? Geesh.

Of course, this loss wasn’t one-dimensional. The Rams rush defense collapsed in the second half.

The Rams didn’t put much pressure on Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, either. So he managed to regain his confidence at the Rams’ expense, earning a 114.4 passer rating one week after he recorded a meager 1.3 rating.

On offense, the Rams suffered a distressing number of dropped passes in critical situations. Bulger could have had a record-setting passing day with just a little more help. Also, his pass protection eroded as the game dragged on.

Then there was the officiating, which seemed slanted toward the 11-2 Bears. At least that is the impression many posters in the Rams Forum have after reviewing some of the televised replays.

“That’s what goes hand in hand when you’re not winning games, too,” Linehan said. “When things are going good and you’re winning these games, yeah, these things come up. But they become a bigger issue, though, because we’re fighting and scratching for anything we can get when we’re having a little down time.

“The recourse is, we have to limit the mistakes we can control, the penalties and things like that.”

Add it all the elements of Monday night’s game and the Rams had their eighth loss in 13 games.

How does this happen? How does a team with this much talent avoid prosperity?

Injuries are an issue, of course, but not a full explanation for the failure of this team. Losing Pisa Tinoisamoa (another broken hand) and Leonard Little (throat injury) was tough Monday night.

Yet game after game after game, the Rams have had opportunities to win. More often than not, they have squandered those opportunities because of penalties, turnovers, tactical blunders and assorted mental breakdowns.

This is coaching, folks, and leadership. Neither has been good enough this season. Blame Linehan and his staff – and blame some of the veterans on this team, the guys who suddenly forgot what it takes to win.

With even a little more effort and somewhat better focus, the Rams would still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Shame on them for knocking themselves out of the race.

“Until something tells me differently, we’re still playing for everything,” Linehan said, insisting his team was still in the playoff race. “Stranger things happen. We’re going to play it out that way.”

Great, but you have no chance. This regime must work to make sure 2007 doesn’t go as poorly as 2006 has.

“It’s very important for our team and our club to improve this week, overcome a tough game,” Linehan said. “We’re finding out a lot about ourselves. We’re still finding out a lot about the players and the people in this organization, how we’re handling things, how we’re handling these tough times, because we see brighter days ahead. By playing well and reacting after this tough game, is something we can build on.”

“We’re constantly evaluating ourselves, being evaluated. We’re evaluating each other and finding out how we can get ourselves on the right track. That’s part of the everyday battle.”