Treading Water: Rams hope to shake pattern of mediocrity
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The glory days are gone, and as each Rams season comes and goes, the Greatest Show on Turf becomes a more distant memory. The Rams last appeared in a Super Bowl in February 2002, and only seven players remain from that squad.
After that devastating Super Bowl loss to New England, coach Mike Martz vowed that the Rams would be back in football's biggest game. Instead, the team has settled into a rut of mediocrity.
The Rams have had only one winning season since then, albeit a 12-4 division championship campaign in 2003. They also squeaked into the playoffs at 8-8 in 2004. But they have only one playoff victory over the past five seasons — a wild-card triumph at Seattle in 2004.
The franchise's regular-season record since the Patriots game is 41-39, or 42-41 if you count playoff games. Which is basically mediocrity defined.
"I wouldn't describe it as a level of mediocrity," Rams President John Shaw said. "I would describe it as a team that was in transition and remained competitive. We were in the playoffs a couple of those years. We lost two MVPs between Marshall (Faulk) and Kurt (Warner) — two unbelievable players."
The reasons for the Rams' decline are well documented:
— Faulk's knees gave out. Although his last season on the field was 2005, he wasn't a dominating player after 2001.
— Warner lost his magic. After three incredible seasons from 1999 through 2001, Warner went from difference maker to average quarterback, in part because of injuries.
— Deteriorating special teams. In terms of the return game and coverage units, Rams special teams went from strength to liability.
— Less than stellar drafts. The Rams missed on first-round picks such as Damione Lewis, Jimmy Kennedy and Trung Canidate. And wasted several other picks. See: Eric Crouch, Travis Scott, Steve Bellisari.
— Roster raiding. After going to those two Super Bowls in a three-year span, the Rams' roster was raided by other teams looking for players who had that "winning edge." Kevin Carter, London Fletcher, Grant Wistrom, Fred Miller and Ryan Tucker were all starters on Rams Super Bowl teams who ended up elsewhere for one reason or another.
— The feud. Martz's working relationship with the front office, particularly Jay Zygmunt, became so frayed that it affected not only daily life at Rams Park but the product on the field. Martz was ousted after the 2005 season and replaced by Scott Linehan.
The Rams slipped out of the league's elite, giving way to the likes of New England, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Denver and Pittsburgh. All five of those franchises have won 50 or more regular-season games over the past five seasons, meaning they've averaged at least 10 victories a year.
While far removed from the dregs of the NFL — Detroit, Houston, Arizona, Oakland and Cleveland, all of whom have won 28 games or fewer over the past five seasons — the Rams are in a middle tier of teams that have won about as many as they've lost over the past half decade.
Linehan couldn't break the cycle last season, posting an 8-8 record as a rookie head coach. Poking fun at himself, he quipped, "I'm maintaining the mediocrity."
Of course, as Linehan himself has mentioned several times, he wouldn't be in St. Louis if things had been going great for the Rams. The NFL is an up-and-down league. Over the past five years, 29 teams have had at least one losing season. But 27 teams have made the playoffs at least once.
Nonetheless, the challenge for Linehan is to break through — into the postseason and into the elite tier of teams.
"Every coach in the NFL, there's 32 guys probably saying the same thing: 'We feel very good about the upcoming season and the changes we've made,' " Linehan said. "I guess the league theoretically is full of a bunch of 8-8 teams. The ones that do the best job of coaching and playing, play above the bar. And vice versa for the others."
There's no doubt that Linehan feels more comfortable about his team and his job as he enters his second season with the Rams. He has a much better feel for his players. A much better sense of what the team does well and doesn't do well. And a greater familiarity with his coaching staff, a group that experienced very little turnover in the offseason.
Instead of worrying about where to hold certain drills on the field, where to place the lights during night practices, how security will handle open practices in training camp, Linehan can just worry about football this year.
He may have to worry about improving the team's third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball. He doesn't have to worry about the logistics of holding a news conference.
"Last year, there was so much unknown, whether it be the roster or the coaches," Linehan said. "Now, there's a lot less surprises, I would think."
Linehan feels there are fewer holes on this roster and better depth. The offense has been tweaked schematically to account for newcomers Drew Bennett at wide receiver, Randy McMichael at tight end and even Brian Leonard in the backfield. Ditto for the defense, where end James Hall, tackle Adam Carriker and linebacker Chris Draft are expected to have important roles. The biggest pickup of all may be return man Dante Hall, if, that is, he can regain his Pro Bowl touch or even come close to that on kickoffs and punts.
"We feel very comfortable with our personnel, knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are," Linehan said.
Unlike the AFC, where Indianapolis and New England figure to be dominant again, the NFC looks like a wide-open conference.
"I feel the NFC is pretty close from top to bottom," Shaw said. "And I feel that in our conference, and in our division, we will definitely compete."
Of course, it's one thing to "compete." And quite another to be playing in January at playoff time. It's no secret that improved defense and special teams are the surest ways to bridge the gap between the two for St. Louis.
Re: Treading Water: Rams hope to shake pattern of mediocrity
I think the 'Rams Playoff Express' is getting ready to leave the station, and Thomas better be jumping onboard.
Re: Treading Water: Rams hope to shake pattern of mediocrity
I think that this article is pretty accurate in the reasons for defining why we have mediocore seasons in the past. I think they missed a couple of things though.
-Bulger's injuries. With Martz at the helm Bulger was responsible for throwing the ball downfield alot. As a result he took alot of hits some leading to injury. Hard to lead your team to the playoffs from the sideline.
-Less then stellar defense. You can't win ball games if you can't stop the other team from scoring. That's how simple it is. We could put up as many points as we wanted but if our defense can't stop them, it's going to get ugly real fast.
And I think that we had adressed all of these problems that we had in the past. Usually a team with a head coach has a bad first year but for us to be 8-8 is respectable for a first year coach. Now that he has a chance to draft the players he wants 2 years in a row I expect good things from this team.