Monday, December 29, 2008

Rams Fall Short Against Falcons

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

ATLANTA – Any remaining doubt about the Rams’ effort level and intensity in this lost 2008 season was erased Sunday in yet another frustrating, heart wrenching defeat in a season chock full of them.

Unlike last year’s season-ending 48-19 loss at the hands of Arizona, the Rams played every second and every snap against the Falcons as though there was a playoff spot on the line.

Ultimately, like many of the team’s losses of recent vintage, the Rams didn’t quite have enough to pull off the upset as the playoff-bound Falcons pulled off a 31-27 victory in the final minutes.

The loss was the Rams’ 10th straight and dropped them to 2-14, a game below their mark from last season. And the Rams will pick second again in this year’s draft after the strength of schedule tiebreak rendered Kansas City in the third spot.

But this final blow had nothing to do with a lack of effort. Simply put, this season’s failures come down to one simple lacking ingredient: the understanding of what it takes to win.

“I thought we played about as well as we can play,” coach Jim Haslett said. “The guys played their hearts out, we just didn’t get it done again. I am disappointed. I thought these last few games we had an opportunity to win all four of them and this team needs to learn how to win. That’s one thing that has to be accomplished in the offseason. I don’t think you have to worry about effort and all of that but I think this team needs to learn how to win games down the stretch.”

Indeed, any discussion about the head coaching position or the anticipated roster changes won’t hold much meaning unless the Rams can begin to find that little extra something that is the difference between winning and losing.

In a highly entertaining game against an excellent opponent in a raucous atmosphere, the Rams traded blows with the Falcons for 60 minutes.

Much like the Rams of last season and this season, that very Falcons team was in a position where it needed to learn how to win as recently as last season.

Clearly, Atlanta learned that lesson somewhere along the way. On Sunday, it came down to making the plays needed to win the game in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons did just that. After a Jonathan Wade interception put the Rams in position to kick a field goal to take a 27-24 lead in the fourth quarter, the Falcons and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan never panicked.

Atlanta covered 80 yards on just six plays as backup running back Jerious Norwood ripped off a 45-yard touchdown run with just under four minutes to play.

It was another big running play on a day full of them for the Falcons. Norwood scored two touchdowns and had a 92-yard kick return while fellow back Michael Turner scored once and picked up 208 yards on 25 carries.

All told, Atlanta rushed for 263 yards while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Under normal circumstances, that type of production would have spelled blowout against the Rams.

But St. Louis continued to find ways to make plays on both sides of the ball. That’s not something anyone would have said about the team’s performance in the 2007 season finale.

“It’s night and day,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “I know we got our butts kicked a lot this year but like coach Haslett said ‘It’s never been the effort.’ Last year, you could maybe question the heart but the guys that were out there today did everything they could to win this one. We could play good for halves but I think in this league when teams are better than you it shows. We need to maybe upgrade a little bit and get better and be able to play four quarters.”

Early in the fourth quarter, it seemed the Rams had indeed put themselves in position to pull off the upset and were on the verge of putting together a full four quarters that would end with a victory.

Running back Steven Jackson, who matched Turner yard for yard in terms of total yards (he had 215 from scrimmage) scored a 2-yard touchdown with 13:23 to go in the game, tying it at 24.

On the first play of Atlanta’s possession, Turner broke off a 70-yard run up the middle. It appeared Turner was about to score a 74-yard touchdown but, in the play that best exemplifies the Rams’ non stop effort, cornerback Ron Bartell chased him down from out of nowhere and forced a fumble into the end zone.

Bartell recovered and after a lengthy review, the play stood. It was the type of play that can change a game and left Falcons’ fans booing for most of the final quarter.

“Honestly, I knew once they ruled it on the field that it was a fumble, that it was doubtful they’d change it because I knew it was tough to overturn,” Bartell said. “I felt the ball coming loose. I thought it was a good call.”

After trading punts, Wade came up with his interception to set up Josh Brown’s 27-yard field goal to make it 27-24 Rams.

Even after Atlanta scored the go ahead touchdown, the Rams once again were in position to put together a game winning drive.
In four of the team’s final five games, the Rams have lost by a total of 12 points. In three of those games, the offense had the ball at the end with a chance to win.

This time, the Rams moved quickly into Atlanta territory. Facing a second-and-2 at Atlanta’s 29 with two minutes to go, Bulger dropped back to pass.

The Rams held extra blockers back as receivers Torry Holt and Donnie Avery ran a two-man route. Unfortunately for the Rams, the Falcons had the right coverage on, doubling the pair. With his checkdown covered, Bulger didn’t get rid of the ball as Chauncey Davis sacked him for an 8-yard loss.

Bulger threw two incompletions on the next two plays and Atlanta was able to run out the clock for a win.

It was yet another case of close but no cigar for a team that has been in position to win in each of the past three weeks.

As Haslett put it, the Rams must still learn how to win games late.

“Winning is a habit, losing is a habit,” guard Adam Goldberg said. “(That’s) a rough misquote of Vince Lombardi, but it’s so true. You get in a habit of winning, you get things rolling and you end up falling into wins. Unfortunately, we have been falling into losses.”

The silver lining for the Rams, on a day where the Georgia Dome was rocking for the playoff-bound Falcons, was that they were within a play or two of winning.

And no matter what comes of this offseason, the Rams hope, whether they are around or not, that an effort like Sunday’s can be the foundation for a better future.

“I said before the game this will define you as a person and define you as a team going into next year,” Haslett said. “What kind of team do you want to be? Do you want a team that keeps doing what you are doing or do you want a team that is going to break out of this and be competitive with the rest of the league? I think those guys proved what they want to get accomplished next year.”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Zygmunt to quit soon, sources say

It may not happen today as has been speculated, but an announcement on Jay
Zygmunt's resignation is imminent, according to Rams team sources.

Zygmunt is the Rams' president of football operations-general manager and has
worked in some capacity with the organization for 27 seasons. Even if it
doesn't come today, team sources said it will definitely come at some point
this week.

It is expected to be the first of several moves that will result in a major
restructuring of the Rams' front office. Billy Devaney, the team's executive
vice president of personnel, will receive a new title and broader powers in the
organization. And John Shaw, who has been with the club for 29 years, is
expected to relinquish his team president title while remaining with the club
as a consultant to ownership, particularly owner and chairman Chip Rosenbloom.

Zygmunt joined the Rams as a general counsel in 1982. He was named vice
president in 1988, senior vice president in 1991 and executive vice president
in 1996. But on Feb. 4, 2000, just days after the team's 23-16 victory over
Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV, Zygmunt was elevated to president of football
operations. (The general manager title was added several years later.) It was
that post-Super Bowl XXXIV promotion that put Zygmunt in charge of the club's
day-to-day football operations.

Two years later, following the Rams' Super Bowl runner-up finish in the 2001
season, Zygmunt was runner-up in voting for The Sporting News NFL executive of
the year award. But in recent years, he has come under increasing criticism as
the losses have mounted on the football field.

Zygmunt has had some health issues the past couple of years. In September of
2007 he was hospitalized briefly after suffering what doctors later called a
"mini-stroke." And this past summer, he had three stents inserted into coronary

Monday, December 15, 2008

Big stars are failing the Rams

Considering the huge financial investments the Rams have made in their contracts, running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Marc Bulger continue to come up short with the game on the line.

They are supposed to be two of the Rams’ key franchises pieces, right?

Then again, maybe that explains why the team is 2-12 this season and has the league’s worst record (5-25) since the beginning of the 2007 season.

First, Bulger:

The Rams have suffered three close losses this season, going down by 7 points at New England, 4 points to Miami, and 3 points on Sunday to Seattle.

Obviously victories were there, waiting to be claimed. The winning QBs make plays to get that done. It’s not an easy job, but that’s why many veteran starting QBs make the big money. Bulger included.

And here’s what Bulger has done in the second half of the three narrow losses:

56 attempts

28 completions

298 yards

0 TDs

4 INTs

That computes to a quarterback rating of 36.1

In the fourth quarter of those losses, it’s even worse. Bulger has connected on only 17 of 37 passes (45.9 %) for 131 yards and three INTs with no TDs for a passer rating of 21.3.

That’s right: a QB rating of 21.3 when it’s late and close and tight.

That’s remarkably poor. I don’t know what else to say. Bulger hasn’t had the best protection or receivers or rushing attack or game plans, but the Rams had a chance to win all three games, and that usually comes down to your top guns making plays, making the save. And Bulger hasn’t delivered. (I should also point out that the pass rush wasn’t an issue in the Miami and Seattle losses; Bulger had time to deal).

Sunday against the Seahawks, the Rams were protecting a 20-13 lead and had two late possessions that could have sealed a victory. But the Rams offense couldn’t stay on the field. On the next-to-last drive, Bulger needed 9 yards on third down and threw a 7-yard pass to the tight end. What’s the point of that? After the punt the Seahawks drove for the tying (20-20) TD. Then on the final series, Bulger went back to pass three times, and all three throws failed to connect. After the punt, Seattle scooted downfield for the winning FG. With the game on the line, No. 2 Seattle QB Seneca Wallace made plays for his team. Wallace isn’t making Bulger money, but he made money plays late Sunday afternoon.

Now, onto Jackson…

A trend has emerged over the last two seasons, and especially this season:

When in the lineup, Jackson starts fast, but he isn’t a finisher.

Since the start of the 2007 season, Jackson has 1,170 yards rushing in the first half and 606 yards rushing in the second half of games. Now to be fair to Jackson, those numbers are misleading on the surface because the Rams have trailed in so many games. They must throw the ball in the second half. But that said, he’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry in the first half, and 3.4 yards per carry in the second half.

This season, Jackson has rushed 118 times for 502 yards in the first half (4.2 per rush). And he has 74 carries for 272 yards (3.6 per rush) in the second half.

It’s more glaring in the fourth quarter of games this season; Jackson has 75 yards on 27 rushes for an average of only 2.7 yards per carry. Wow.

The real conversation starter is this: will Jackson ever be able to hold up as a feature back?

Can he go strong to the finish line?

Or will he continue to crawl to the finish line?

The Rams last two home losses were close. The 16-12 loss to the Dolphins and the 23-20 setback to the Seahawks were crying out for a Rams’ leader to take charge. Jackson is supposed to be a game-changing, franchise-altering back. A dominator. But against the Dolphins and Seahawks, Jackson faded in the fourth quarter.

Against Miami, though Jackson rushed for 94 yards overall, he had one fourth-quarter carry.

Against Seattle, though Jackson rushed for 91 yards overall, he had 4 carries for 5 yards in the fourth quarter.

In the Miami game, Jackson either pulled himself from the game (coach Jim Haslett’s original version) or was pulled from the game by the coaches (Jackson’s version) due to lingering stiffness from a thigh injury. To this day, the reason for Jackson being on the sideline still isn’t clear. No one will say whether he begged out, or if the coaches yanked him as a precautionary measure.

Sunday against Seattle, Haslett described Jackson as “lightheaded” late in the game. Haslett said the doctors told him that Jackson wasn’t cleared to play. That’s why Jackson wasn’t on the field for the first two plays of the Rams’ final possession when the Rams had a chance to put the Seahawks away. He entered on third down, to serve as a decoy. But the Rams went 3-and-out and punted. Jackson hinted after the game that he wanted to be on the field but wasn’t allowed to enter the game.

I don’t doubt that Jackson wants to play.

But again, this comes down to durability and stamina.

The great backs are as strong, fresh and effective in the fourth quarter as they are in the first quarter. Some of the Hall of Fame RBs even seemed to get better as the game went on; Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith come to mind.

Jackson is a very talented back. But this is his fifth NFL season, and Jackson is already into his second big contract. The Rams are still waiting for him to be the kind of back who takes over games, and Jackson still isn’t close to making that happen.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ironies aplenty in Arizona win over Rams


In an embarrassing season marked by ritual humiliations, the Rams suffered further indignity Sunday.

They literally handed the Arizona Cardinals the NFC West title with another mistake-prone performance.

Losing to the Cardinals was nothing new. Our Town’s old team, still owned by William V. (For Victory) Bidwill, spanked the Rams 34-13 earlier this season at The Ed.

Coming into this “showdown,” Arizona had won its previous four games against the Rams by a combined 150-83 score.

This time, though, the stakes were greater. Their 34-10 victory vaulted the Cardinals back into the NFL playoffs.

The Gridbirds (8-5) clinched their first division crown since 1975. They shook off gruesome losses to Philadelphia and the New York Giants and got back to enjoying their breakthrough season.

Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, the old Rams hero, continued his MVP quest at the expense of his old team. He completed 24 of 33 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown.

He put receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston to work, along with speedy running back Tim Hightower. This isn’t quite the “Greatest Show on Turf,” but it’s better than any football the Valley of the Sun had seen before.

The Cardinals stormed to a 20-7 lead at the half and 27-7 after three quarters. This was never much of a game, obviously.

The Rams, now 2-11, made huge blunders on both sides of the ball. And place-kicker Josh Brown contributed a missed field goal at the worst possible time.

“I thought the missed field goal started all this stuff, a chip shot for him,” Rams interim head coach Jim Haslett told Rams Radio. “The offense moved the ball well, we just have to capitalize. We can’t turn the ball over.”

Running back Steven Jackson fumbled twice, killing a would-be scoring drive with the first and handing the Cardinals a TD with the second. Jackson proved the Rams are just as bad with him as without him.

Marc Bulger did his part, too, getting intercepted late for a touchdown -– a 99-yard romp by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The pass was supposed to go to Torry Holt in the end zone, but, hey, bad things happen to bad teams.

“Three turnovers and a missed field goal – to me, that is another turnover – is a killer,” Haslett grumbled. “The defense, after the first drive, settled down and played pretty good.”

The sole Rams touchdown came on a 6-yard “drive” after cornerback Ron Bartell intercepted a Warner pass and nearly ran it all the way back. Otherwise, the visitors didn’t get much done.

So this became a day of celebration in Glendale, one shared by former Cardinal greats like Jim Hart and a house full of long-suffering fans.

This celebration could have belonged to the Rams. They could have exploited the weak division this year and returned to the playoffs.

But for a host of reasons -– some out of their control, most within their control -– they failed horribly.

Theoretically, Haslett could extend his stay by beating division also-rans Seattle and San Francisco at home. Pragmatically, though, co-owner Chip Rosenbloom must order a complete overhaul of the football operation and get new eyes looking at all the problems.

Dramatic franchise turnarounds are possible in the NFL. In fact, they happen all the time.

Just ask the Arizona Cardinals, the champions of the NFC West.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hopes of upset dashed

It wasn't a blowout. It wasn't an embarrassment. But for the sixth Sunday in a
row, it was a loss.

Any hope of a Rams upset victory Sunday vanished when wide receiver Derek
Stanley couldn't catch up with Marc Bulger's deep ball. Dolphins cornerback
Andre' Goodman could, however. Goodman's interception at the Miami 10 with 35
seconds to go preserved a 16-12 victory for Miami (7-5) at the Edward Jones

As a result, the Rams (2-10) "clinched" their sixth season of double-digit
losses in 14 seasons in St. Louis — and the third in the past four years.

This was a day when the Rams did a lot of things right. In one of its best
performances of the season, the defense yielded only one touchdown, forcing
three Dan Carpenter field goals by the Dolphins.

The maligned Rams offensive line allowed no sacks for the first time this
season, keeping NFL sack leader Joey Porter quiet. On the ground, they blocked
their way to 129 yards rushing, the

third-best total this season.

And that was with center Brett Romberg making just his second start of 2008,
left tackle Orlando Pace gutting it out on a bad right knee and rookie John
Greco playing most of the second half at right guard because of lightheadedness
by Richie Incognito.

The offense received a big boost from the return of running back Steven
Jackson, who rushed for 94 yards on 21 carries and had a 16-yard reception.

But the improved execution brought the same old result. Bulger threw three
interceptions in the final 17½ minutes of the game. And once again, the Rams
couldn't get anything done in the red zone.

There was a little bit of controversy as well, with Jackson getting only one
carry in the fourth quarter. And some questionable strategy, with coach Jim
Haslett opting not to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 40 with 4:43
to go.

"He was gassed, and his leg had started bothering him," Haslett said of
Jackson's late-game disappearing act. "We told him before the game — 'Go as far
as you can go. We'll play these other guys.' That's basically what happened."

Afterward, Jackson begged to differ.

"No, I wasn't gassed," Jackson said. "I had 21 carries, and I felt great. So it
wasn't my conditioning. I wish he would stop saying that."

The Dolphins controlled the ball for almost nine minutes in the final quarter,
and the Rams were in their 2-minute offense on their final two possessions,
situations where they planned to use Kenneth Darby going into the game. Still,
it might have been tempting to use Jackson on that fourth-and-1 play — except
Haslett wasn't tempted.

"No, because we had the three timeouts," Haslett said. "I thought we could get
the ball back. That's basically why we (punted). We felt we could stop 'em; we
were playing good enough on defense that we could get the ball back."

But by the time the Rams got the ball back, Miami had gained two first downs,
the Rams had expended all their timeouts and only 1:50 remained on the clock.
Taking over on their 25, the Rams managed one first down and reached their 47
before Bulger's deep ball was intercepted by Goodman. Stanley was maybe a step
and a half away from making a legitimate play on the ball.

"I couldn't feel exactly where their defender was," Stanley said. "I knew he
was close to me, but I felt like I was going to lay out and dive for that ball
and maybe catch it. But he had better position than me, and he made a great
play. … So for that, I feel like I kind of let (the team) down a little bit,
not making that play."

In terms of letdowns, the same could be said for Bulger's first two

"The first one, I didn't see (the defender)," Bulger said. "The second one, I
was throwing to Anthony (Becht); I just didn't get enough on the ball."

The sequence surrounding the first interception was a microcosm of the Rams'
season. St. Louis had a nice drive going in the third quarter when Bulger
completed a 17-yard pass to Torry Holt to the Miami 14.

Much to Holt's chagrin, he was called for offensive pass interference, for
allegedly pushing off on the defender.

"I was just trying to get his hands off me," a frustrated Holt said.
(Television replays didn't show what happened.)

On the next play, Bulger's pass over the middle was intercepted by linebacker
Akin Ayodele, who jammed a receiver on the play, then peeled off to intercept
the pass intended for Jackson.

Two possessions later, with the Rams trailing 13-12, safety Renaldo Hill jammed
tight end Joe Klopfenstein over the middle, then peeled off to intercept the
pass intended for Becht.

The Dolphins converted that turnover into Carpenter's third field goal of the
day and a 16-12 lead, a key three points because it meant the Rams would have
to score a touchdown to win.

"The picks didn't really hurt us," Haslett said, unconvincingly. "The defense
did a great job. … But obviously, three interceptions are three interceptions.
Our problem is, we've got to score touchdowns."

Despite advancing to the Miami 5, 15 and 20 on separate drives, the Rams
managed only four Josh Brown field goals.

"You're not going to win kicking field goals in this league," Haslett said.

Monday, November 24, 2008

2-9 Rams have number of concerns

Posted Nov 23, 2008

ST. LOUIS — The numbers don’t lie. Rams coach Jim Haslett won’t lie.

Following the St. Louis Rams’ fifth consecutive loss, a 27-3 drubbing by the 6-5 Chicago Bears on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, Haslett was asked what he could possibly say to convince frustrated Rams fans that his 2-9 team really is not as bad as it seems to be.

“Who would say I want to?” responded Haslett. “They look pretty bad to me. The last three games they haven’t played anywhere like they did the first couple of games.

“That would be hard to convince somebody of that, don’t you think?”

The Rams were 0-4 when Haslett replaced Scott Linehan as coach at the end of September. After winning his first two decisions as coach over Washington and Dallas, Haslett’s Rams reverted to their losing ways in the next five games.

And in the last four, they have been humiliated, blown away before the halftime shows could assemble along the sidelines.

Over their last four games, the Rams have been outscored 123-13 in the first half. And if you think their first-quarter margin of futility — getting outscored 38-7 — has been bad, consider that opposing teams have outscored the Rams 85-6 in the second quarter during that span.

On Sunday, the Bears built a 24-3 halftime lead, and the second half was a mere informality.
“You know what?” snapped Haslett, a former NFL linebacker. “Here’s what it comes down to, and I can’t help them.

“I would do anything I can to help these guys be successful. Anything, to put them in positions to be successful individually and as a team. But I can’t tackle for them. I can’t do it any more. I can’t take care of a football for them.

“And the penalties. Special teams had a bunch of penalties that put the offense in bad field position. And I don’t know if the offense would have scored anyway, as bad as they were playing. We get something going on offense and we get a penalty or turnover.

“So those three things I can’t help them with,” restated Haslett. “We can emphasize it; we can work on it, but if they’re going to go out and they’re going to hold or get a pre-snap penalty, I can’t help them.

“I’m helpless on the sideline with that stuff. That’s what they’re paid for.”

Extremely overpaid, many would argue, because these Rams have become so inept they can even dredge up disasterin the face of prosperity.

Such as on Sunday, when Derek Stanley returned a Bears kickoff 75 yards to set up first and 10 at the Chicago 23. The Rams, trailing 14-0 with a great chance to climb back into the game as the second quarter unfolded, got as close as the 12 before three failed plays resulted in a 40-yard Josh Brown field goal attempt that sailed wide left.

And so it went all day long for the hapless Rams. Even before the game started, center Nick Leckey was lost to an ankle injury during warmups. On the Rams’ fifth offensive play, quarterback Marc Bulger went out for keeps with a concussion after the first of five sacks by the Bears, who entered the game averaging just 1.7 sacks per game.

Then the Rams offense, already without starting tackle Orlando Pace and starting running back Steven Jackson, kicked it into under-drive. The Rams rushed for 14 yards on 19 carries, led by Kenneth Darby’s 10 yards on seven attempts.

Antonio Pittman, who started again in place of Jackson, had eight yards on nine carries. Quarterback Trent Green completed 16 of 30 passes for 219 yards, but in addition to getting sacked four times, he threw four interceptions and had two other passes tipped and dropped by defenders. He finished with a QB rating of 37.4.

And the Rams defense allowed a Bears team that had been embarassed 37-3 last week at Green Bay to total 334 yards of offense, including 201 rushing — 132 by rookie Matt Forte.

So, at this point, exactly what CAN Haslett do?

“Maybe I’ve got to just keep playing guys till I find somebody who’s going to do it,” he said. “I don’t know. The focus is not very good; the execution is not very good. We’ll just keep working on it.

“It wasn’t effort today,” Haslett emphasized. “It had nothing to do with effort today.”
If the effort is there, the talent is not.

And Haslett knows it.

“There’s not much you’ve got to work with now,” he said. “You got what you got, right? I’ve got 45 guys, because we’ve got about eight of them injured. And that’s the guys that are playing. We went through (three) quarterbacks today.

Anybody else got another quarterback?

“It’s not like we’re not trying to win these games, I can promise you that. And I’m not trying to be an idiot — it’s just the truth.”

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, the Rams have at least one thing to be thankful for.

Their season ends next month.

Monday, November 17, 2008

St. Louis Rams lose to San Francisco 49ers after another bad first half

AWFUL FIRST CHAPTER • San Francisco puts the Rams in a 32-point hole after the
first half.
A PREDICTABLE ENDING • The Rams experienced similar troubles while losing to
the Jets last week.

* * * * * * *

SAN FRANCISCO — Costly turnovers on offense, missed tackles on defense, and a
huge halftime deficit.

"It was terrible," coach Jim Haslett said. "You turn the ball over three times
in the first half … and then we do nothing on defense to stop 'em. They scored
every time they touched the ball except for the turnover in the first half."

Sound familiar? It should.

At least the Rams showed marked improvement over the first half of last week's
Meltdown in the Meadowlands, a 47-3 loss to the New York Jets. They trailed by
40 points in that one at the half.

In Sunday's 35-16 loss to San Francisco, the Rams trailed by a mere 32 at
halftime in the Collapse at Candlestick.

"The first halves have been devastating to us as a football team, and it's
tough," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "It's tough to recover, when you go in
at half with a team up 40, up 35, on you."

Last week in the Meadowlands, the Jets scored on all seven of their first-half

Sunday at Candlestick Park, the 49ers scored on only five of their six
first-half possessions. (Only a fumble by 49ers running back Frank Gore deep in
St. Louis territory prevented it from being six for six.)

"Coach (Haslett) emphasized all week to come out strong," quarterback Marc
Bulger said. "And he said it again (Saturday) during our walkthrough that we
need to come out fast. We can't have a little adversity hurt us. That was our
(problem) earlier in the year and it seems to have crept back a little bit."

A little bit?

The Rams did manage a couple of first downs off the opening kickoff, advancing
to the San Francisco 30. But then, Josh Brown missed a 48-yard field goal, his
first miss inside 50 yards in 12 such attempts this season.

"That's really not the way you want to start," Haslett said. "Move the ball
down and miss the field goal. And then it led to disaster after that. It just

San Francisco's first possession ended when Gore had the ball poked out from
behind by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe at the end of a 37-yard run. Cornerback
Jason Craft snatched the ball in the air just before stepping out of bounds for
the Rams' first takeaway since the Oct. 26 New England game.

But starting from their 13, the Rams went three-and-out. A short and low punt
by Donnie Jones was returned 29 yards by Allen Rossum, allowing San Francisco
to take over at the St. Louis 34. Four plays and one pass interception penalty
later, the 49ers were in the end zone. (The flag was against Craft, who was
trying to cover longtime Ram Isaac Bruce.)

Gore scored untouched on a 5-yard touchdown run. Two Rams defensive linemen
were knocked down on the play.

Begin snowball effect.

After a St. Louis field goal, a 42-yard pass play from Shaun Hill to Bryant
Johnson set up San Francisco's second TD. (Cornerback Fakhir Brown fell down in
coverage on the play.) The score became 14-3 San Francisco on Hill's 2-yard TD
pass to Vernon Davis, who was strangely open in the middle of the end zone —
where were the Rams' linebackers and safeties?

Now the avalanche began in earnest. Bulger was involved in turnovers on the
Rams' next three possessions — first on a botched center exchange with Nick
Leckey, and then throwing two interceptions.

The St. Louis defense did absolutely nothing to stem the momentum, yielding
touchdowns after each of those three turnovers. A frequent sight was Rams
defenders falling to the ground as one attempted arm tackle after another went

"You can't explain it, you can't make excuses for it," defensive tackle Clifton
Ryan said. "That's what we get paid to do on defense — to tackle the ball

And don't be fooled by San Francisco's relatively modest total of 334 yards
offense. The game was lost in the first half, when the Rams' defense coughed up
259 yards — a pace that would have yielded 518 yards at game's end.

Gore (106 yards) became the sixth opposing running back to top 100 yards
against St. Louis this season. Hill, making just his fourth career start,
became the sixth opposing quarterback to have a 100-plus passer rating (142.3).

So it was more than just the Bulger turnovers that led to another disastrous
first half. Even so, Bulger now has eight turnovers in the last three games:
five interceptions and three lost fumbles.

He was uncharacteristically terse when it came to discussing the botched
exchange with Leckey.

"Those things happen," Bulger said. "It's up to me and him to make it work. And
I'll just leave it at that."

Similarly, Haslett wasn't very expansive when asked about a possible
quarterback change. Last week, Haslett pulled Bulger out of a 40-0 game, later
saying he did so because the contest was over at halftime. Why not this week,
trailing 35-3 at the half?

"I just felt that Marc needed to go in there and try to score some points,"
Haslett said.

Did he think about switching to Trent Green against the 49ers?

"No, not at all," Haslett replied.

Will he switch to Green next week against Chicago?

"Well, we'll see," Haslett replied.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What to Watch Answered: Jets

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer


What to Watch Answered: New York Jets

1. Favre’s Flubs

THE SITUATION: Rams coach Jim Haslett has been around the NFL for a long time. And for his money, there’s not been a better player to suit up than New York quarterback Brett Favre.

Even though Favre has a reputation as a gunslinger who will make risky throws that can lead to turnovers, Haslett says he’d take his chances.

“I think he may be the best player that ever played the game at least the most competitive player that ever played the game,” Haslett said. “I love the guy. If I was building a football team and somebody said you could have one player, I guess you could go back in history, that’s the guy I would take because I love his competitiveness, his arm strength, his mobility, the guy, I don’t even know how old he is now, 39, and you can still see it. Does he throw the ball up once in a while? Yeah, that’s just because he’s competitive. The guy’s a great leader, you see him jumping around on the sideline, he’s everything you want in a quarterback.”

Even in his advanced age with a new team, Favre has found a way to adapt to his new surroundings. Jets coach Eric Mangini has asked Favre to manage the game and take fewer risks.

That has worked in some instanced but Favre has still thrown 12 interceptions to his 15 touchdowns.

For the Rams to have a shot to win on the road Sunday, they must find a way to get Favre to make some of those mistakes and take advantage when he does put the ball up.

In 2006, the Rams got a win in Green Bay when Leonard Little forced a Favre fumble in the closing moments so there are plenty of players on the roster aware of what can happen with a risk take like Favre handling the ball.

“A couple of years we were admiring who he was and he coughed up that fumble for us to win the game,” guard Richie Incognito said. “It’s great to play guys like that but it’s better to go out and get a win against a legend like that.”

THE ANSWER: The Rams had so many problems stopping the run that it almost made Favre obsolete. But on the few occasions where Favre did put the ball up for grabs, the Rams simply didn’t make the plays. The Rams blew some coverages for big plays for tight end Dustin Keller and Fakhir Brown and Jason Craft dropped easy interceptions. The Jets had no turnovers as Favre finished with 167 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-19 passing and most important zero interceptions.

2. An Anonymous Duo

THE SITUATION: It’s a near certainty that running back Steven Jackson won’t play against the Jets because of continued complications from a thigh injury.

Injuries to Antonio Pittman and Travis Minor have left the Rams to rely on little known Kenneth Darby and Samkon Gado.

Gado has more experience but just signed on Tuesday and Darby has two carries in his NFL career.

“Whoever goes this week, we think we have capable guys,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on our line to make those holes and we might have to simplify the game plan a little bit, but I think they are definitely capable.”

The Jets have one of the league’s best rush defenses, ranking fourth in the league at the halfway point of the season. Most teams play against Jackson and the Rams with an eighth defender in the box but that isn’t likely to happen with the Jets because of the injury to Jackson.

Most likely, the Jets will protect against the pass, daring the Rams to run.

“If we can’t run the ball versus Cover 2, then that presents a big problem, because they can double both outside guys and we can’t run,” Bulger said. “It’s not a good situation, so when they are in Cover 2; we have to be able to run the ball.”

THE ANSWER: The Rams surprised some by starting Pittman, who bounced back late in the week and practiced. But there wasn’t much room to run for any of the Rams’ backs against New York’s No. 4 rush defense. As a team, the Rams rushed for 80 yards on 21 attempts. Darby looked the best running the ball, carrying four times for 32 yards but he coughed up a pair of fumbles, one of which the Jets recovered and turned into points. Pittman had 13 attempts for 28 yards and Gado carried twice for 4 yards.

3. Air Saunders

The SITUATION: Earlier this week, Haslett jokingly referred to the Rams offense without a running game as ‘Air Saunders.’ Last week when the Rams ran out of running backs, that description wasn’t too far off as offensive coordinator Al Saunders had to dial up pass play after pass play.

This week, it’s clearly going to be difficult for the Rams to run the ball but no matter what type of defensive game plan the Jets have, they must find a way to stretch the field and give Bulger time to throw the ball.

“You have to simplify it for our young guys, but at the same time you can’t go too simple because we don’t know if they’re going to put eight guys in the box, we don’t know if there are just going to say, ‘Hey, they have young guys at running back, we’ll play Cover Two and stop the run and be able to stop the pass.’ There are a lot of things you have to be ready for,” Bulger said. “I think with Steven (Jackson) back there, you know that it’s going to be eight in the box, pretty much every week. With one of these guys, like I said, we’re not sure, so it’s going to put a lot of responsibility on our line. If we can get our running game going, you can dictate the defense a little bit, but it’s going to be up to us to prove that we can get more than two yards a carry against them.”

If indeed the Rams are able to create some running lanes and at least keep the Jets honest, there should be some more opportunities for speedy young receivers Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton and Derek Stanley to make plays down the field. This could also be the type of game where a precision route runner like Torry Holt could finally break loose for a big game. The Jets are vulnerable in pass defense.

THE ANSWER: The lack of a running game and the large early deficit made the Rams take to the air earlier than they would have liked but it didn’t matter much as they continued to struggle to complete passes and protect the quarterback. Bulger finished six-of-13 for 65 yards with an interception in the first half before giving way to Trent Green. Green fared better, going five-of-10 for 70 yards but threw a costly interception deep in New York territory.

4. Monster in the Middle

THE SITUATION: Of all of the offseason acquisitions the Jets made this year, none was bigger in a literal and physical sense than mammoth defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.

The Panthers gave up on Jenkins as an overweight malcontent but apparently Jenkins didn’t take kindly to being dismissed for the low price of a third and fifth round draft choice.

Now, Jenkins is making the rest of the league pay.

“I think probably based off what I see; he’s probably one of the most dominant guys in the league right now,” Haslett said. “The guy is an unbelievable force, two, three guys can’t block him, stays in on passing situations, he’s quick, he’s powerful, to me he’s one the best players in the league right now that I’ve seen.”

Jenkins is the anchor in the middle of New York’s 3-4 defense and has a propensity for taking on multiple blockers and allowing the other defenders to run free.

But Jenkins also has the ability to make plays and push the pocket. At 6’4, 349 pounds, Jenkins is more athletic than he looks and has found a way to compile 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks while taking on two or three blockers at a time.

The mission of slowing Jenkins falls to the interior line where Incognito, center Nick Leckey and left guard Jacob Bell reside.

Incognito has been playing some of his best football since Haslett took over and relishes the chance to face some of the bigger, more imposing defensive tackles. Bell and Leckey are on the small side and don’t match up as well with Jenkins.

“Jenkins is a great player,” Incognito said. “He’s playing dominant football right now and there’s no better test of where we’re at as an offensive line than going up against a stud like him.”

THE ANSWER: Maybe it didn’t show up in terms of tackles (he wasn’t credited with any in the unofficial press box stats), but Jenkins was stout in the middle, taking on multiple blockers and allowing the guys behind him to make tackles. Was a major force in limiting the Rams’ rushing attack.

5. Sturdy Special Teams

THE SITUATION: The Rams special teams has been the most consistent unit on the field for most of the season and the coverage units have been especially strong in recent weeks.

Helping matters has been the lack of top tier returners they’ve had to face but this week they will face one of the best returners in the league in New York’s Leon Washington.

Washington returned three kicks for touchdowns in 2007 and is fourth in punt returns and sixth in kick returns this season.

If the Rams can control Washington and find a way to win the field position battle, they will have a much better chance of pulling off the upset.

THE ANSWER: Perhaps the only area in the game where the Rams didn’t struggle. Coverage was good and Washington didn’t get loose for any significant returns.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Edward Jones Dome is Kurt Warner’s House

In Kurt Warner’s first NFL start, he threw three touchdown passes in the 1999 season opener to air lift the Rams past the Baltimore Ravens. Little did we know what this would lead to. The game was played at The Edward Jones Dome, and nearly 10 years later, Warner is still ripping the place up.

Sunday Warner completed 23 of 34 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns and no INTs as his Arizona Cardinals owned the Rams 34-13. Warner’s passer rating for the game was 120.0 I did a quick check and this was one of Warner’s best games at The Ed. The 342 yards represented his eighth-highest total in the venue.

In 31 games at the Edward Jones Dome, Warner has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 8,731 yards and 66 TDs for a passer rating of 102.5. And how about this stat? Warner’s team has a 27-4 record at The Ed. As a Ram, Kurt was 24-4 in home games (23-4 as the starter), and the Cardinals are 3-0 when Warner plays in St. Louis.

The Edward Jones Dome is to Warner what Asbury Park is to Springsteen.

Moving on …

– It was awesome to see Dick Vermeil, and inspiring to see the way the crowd responded to him during Sunday’s halftime ceremony. Definitely the highlight of the day. And DV, bless him, came through by having to pause to choke back the tears when he addressed the audience. What a great human being he is.

– Since the start of the 2007 season, Rams QB Marc Bulger has a passer rating of 72.4. He’s moving into Tony Banks territory. During Banks’ three seasons as the Rams starter (1996-1998), he had a QB rating of 70.2. As the starter, Bulger is 1-7 in home games since the start of last season.

– Excluding the early 80-yard TD grab by Derek Stanley, the Rams netted only 106 yards passing on their other 32 passing attempts Sunday. And Bulger’s QB rating for the game was 60.9. And the Cardinals had been poor against the pass this season. Before Sunday, they’d given up an average of 230 yards passing per game (21st in the NFL) and quarterbacks had a whopping 108.6 passer rating against them. But the Rams couldn’t get much going through the air. Bulger was terrible, the blocking was awful, the receivers had some drops, the play calls were puzzling,

– Did anyone understand the Rams’ play-calling strategy on Sunday? I sure didn’t. I have no idea what Al Saunders was up to. The Rams opened the game by trying to pass to the tight ends and the fullback. They do not have tight ends who can reliably get open or catch the football. And the fullback, Dan Kreider, has caught 16 passes since the end of the 2004 season. Meanwhile, the Rams ignored wideout Torry Holt for the entire first half. And after falling behind 31-7, the Rams clearly needed to pick up the tempo and go no-huddle and pass the ball. Instead, Saunders apparently decided that it was time to establish the run. They ran Antonio Pittman on three consecutive plays on the next drive, which ended with a punt.

– Since Steven Jackson became a Ram in 2004, he’s averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Not great, but consider this: all other Rams running backs from 2004-2008 have averaged 3.6 yards per carry.

– It happened again Sunday, when AZ safety Adrian Wilson whipped Krieder for a sack. Krieder, supposedly a blocking specialist, has now missed two blocks this season that led to a sack and lost fumble and points for the opponent. Isn’t that the reason why Krieder is here, to block? And if he can’t block, then why is he here?

– That sluggish Rams running game doesn’t help Bulger any. But when receivers are open, you’ve got to get them the ball. And you don’t see many throws worse than Bulger’s INT that was returned for a touchdown by CB Antrel Rolle.

– By the way, ex-Ram QB Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 31 passes for 162 yards and two TDs to lead the Cincinnato Bengals to an upset win over the Jax Jaguars.

– Very disappointing performance against the run by the STL defense. Arizona came into the game averaging onky 81.6 yards per game on the ground, with a pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry. Sunday, the Cardinals smashed the Rams for 177 yards rushing on 33 carries, averaging 5.4 yards per run. The 177 yards was the 15th-highest rushing total in a game for the Cardinals since they moved to Arizona in 1988. They hadn’t rushed for more than 175 yards in a game since Oct. 3, 2004.

– Look, I’m no Jim Hanifan … but I find it hard to believe that Brett Romberg wouldn’t be a better option than the undersized Nick Leckey at center for the Rams.

– Can we please see Donnie Avery and Derek Stanley return some kickoffs and punts?

– Fans were sniping at Rams coach Jim Haslett on the Internet boards, and I understand the frustration, but after all he is 2-2 as the head coach. Which beats 0-4. And 3-13 for that matter. This is going to take some time, folks. Even with the hideous outcome on Sunday, this team has reponded well to Haslett.

– Vermeil on Haslett: “I really like him and respect him. Boy, does he have some fire in his belly.”

– From 1999 through 2004, the Rams were 43-10 at the Edward Jones Dome. Since the start of the 2005 season, they’re 9-19 at home.

– Guard Jacob Bell, who was injured Sunday, is having a rough season. He hasn’t played well. The Rams threw a lot of money, $36 million, at Bell last offseason to get him away from Tennessee. The last time the Rams tossed big cash at a free agent from Tennessee, the object of their affection was the $30 million WR, Drew Bennett. That’s right: $66 million for these two duds. You think Jeff Fisher is laughing? Might be a good idea to avoid those FAs from Tennessee from now on. Put it this way: the Bell signing isn’t going to make anyone forget the free-agent signing of guard Adam Timmerman before the 1999 season.

– What an impressive first NFL start by Arizona rookie RB Tim Hightower, who slashed for 109 yards rushing on 22 carries. Hightower was the a fifth-round pick and the 149th selection overall; 14 backs were drafted before him.

– Now, keep that in mind and think about this: the Rams have an awful offensive line, and they used a third-round pick (the 65th overall) on tackle-guard John Greco. And Greco can’t get on the field. The Cardinals didn’t hesitate to bench Edgerrin James, who had been a top back for a long time until starting to show his age. But the Rams, afflicted with this bad O-line, can’t find any game clock for Greco. Hmmm…

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rams get sidetracked, but not derailed


The Rams didn’t extend their winning streak Sunday afternoon, but they continued their transformation.

They are becoming a much, much better football team. The Rams showed this by taking 3-0, 10-7 and 16-13 leads over the Patriots in New England.

Running back Steven Jackson sat out the game with his thigh injury. Defensive end Leonard Little and cornerback Ron Bartell departed with injuries.

But Jim Haslett kept his team on the attack. With a cleaner performance -– fewer penalties, better special teams play, more third-down conversions on offense -– this Rams team could have pulled the upset.

“We need to clean up some things, obviously,” Haslett told the Rams Radio Network after the game. “We can’t do some of the things we did today and win.

“The game boiled down to field position. The whole second half -– and some of the second quarter, too -– the offense had long fields and the defense had short fields.”

There were lots of positive signs, however:

• Rookie receiver Donnie Avery starred, catching six passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. His speed forced the Patriots defense to back off the line of scrimmage.

• Safety O.J. Atogwe and cornerback Fakhir Brown intercepted Matt Cassel passes.

• Rookie defensive end Chris Long delivered two fourth-quarter sacks, including one that snuffed out another Patriots possession.

• Defensive tackle Clifton Ryan broke through the line to make a huge fourth-and-one tackle, turning the ball back to the offense.

• Defensive end Eric Moore, filling in for Little as a pass rusher, delivered a big fourth-quarter sack.

• Fill-in running back Antonio Pittman performed well in Jackson’s absence, gained 105 yards rushing and receiving. This was his first game back since recovering from his broken leg.

Dante Hall, who had just seven catches all season, caught four passes for 47 yards. Suddenly he had a place in this offense.

Marc Bulger threw the longest TD pass of his career, 69 yards, to Avery and passed for 301 yards.

On the down side:

• Bulger suffered four sacks, struggled in third-down situations and threw the late interception that doomed this team.

• The Rams were flagged for nine penalties for 63 yards and had other penalties declined.

• Rams coverage teams allowed 151 return yards.

For the first time this season, this team ACTUALLY SCORED FIRST. They came out on the road, marched downfield and converted with a 20-yard Josh Brown field goal.

Faced with a fourth-and-one situation deep in their own zone, the Rams got the green light from Haslett. Pittman barged for a first down and the gamble paid off.

That aggressive coaching decision set the tone for a good fight Sunday afternoon. Later, Haslett signed off on a successful onside kick to start the second half.

The Rams did not come to New England to play a competitive game and keep the score close. They came to win.

“We felt we could come up here and win this game, to be honest with you,” Haslett said.

A month ago, that would not have been the case.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rams Run Through Cowboys

Even on the road, the chorus of "Romo!, Romo!" from Dallas Cowboys' fans was
easily audible at the start of the second half.

But they were stuck with Brad Johnson.

The 40-year-old backup quarterback couldn't keep up with a suddenly potent, opportunistic Rams' offense, throwing three interceptions. Steven Jackson ran for 160 yards on 25 carries with three touchdowns and the Rams (2-4) looked like contenders instead of sad sacks for the second straight game under new coach Jim Haslett in a surprisingly easy 34-14 victory on Sunday.

The Rams won 19-17 at Washington last week in their first game since
replacing Scott Linehan, ending a run of 17 losses in 20 games and four blowout losses to start the season.

Their response to Haslett, beginning his second stint as a head coach, has exceeded expectations.

St. Louis' defense did its part, forcing four turnovers for the second
straight game.

Oshiomogho Atogwe, who had two interceptions, scored the lone touchdown against the Redskins last week on a fumble recovery.

Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware tied an NFL record with a sack in his 10th straight game and enjoyed his first multiple sack game of the season with three, giving him nine on the season.

Ware matched the mark set by Denver's Simon Fletcher from Nov. 15, 1992 to Sept. 20, 1993, although he remained one game shy of the franchise mark by Harvey Martin in 1976-77 -- which ended five years before the sack was officially recognized.

Marion Barber had 100 yards on 18 carries and the game's opening touchdown for Dallas.

There were not many more highlights for the Cowboys (4-3), who lost for the third time in four games.

Romo looked fine throwing in pre-game warmups with his hand wrapped, and dressed as the backup. But he ended up staying on the sideline with an injury the team originally believed would sideline him a month.

Johnson was 6-for-18 for 66 yards in the first half while the Cowboys fell behind 24-7. He finished 17-for-34 for 234 yards and throwing his only touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett inside the 2-minute warning.

The Rams' 21-point first quarter dwarfed their season output of just 10
points in the first five games. They asserted themselves after Barber accounted for 45 yards on the Cowboys' opening drive, quickly answering on Marc Bulger's first touchdown pass in two starts with a 42-yarder to wide open rookie Donnie Avery.

Jackson added runs of 8 and 1 yards, the Rams' first two touchdowns all
season from inside the 20, for a 21-7 lead. The first score capitalized on a short field after Johnson's fumble on a shotgun snap led to a punt from the end zone, and the second came four plays after Will Witherspoon's interception of a tipped pass at the Dallas 18.

Jackson's 56-yard sprint down the right sideline made it 31-7 midway through the third quarter and gave him three rushing scores for the first time since the 2006 finale. After that, Cowboys fans seemed to accept that there would be no Romo rescue.

Bulger had a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the first quarter, going 3-for-3 for 73 yards. He finished 14-for-19 for 173 yards and a touchdown.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Haslett takes huge first step away from Linehan Era


So THAT is why Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom finally made a coaching change.

Given some real leadership for a change, the previously winless Rams responded with a hard-fought 19-17 victory at Washington.

Interim coach Jim Haslett got the Rams to do things Scott Linehan could not. In a messy game marked by mishaps and mistakes, the Rams fought to the final gun.

And Josh Brown’s 49-yard field goal as time expired gave them the upset.

“They deserved to win,” Haslett told Rams Radio shortly after the game. “There was a little bit different atmosphere out there this week. They practiced hard . . . I know they worked their butts off this week. They deserved to win.

The Rams went into one of the most hostile environments in the NFL and faced one of the league’s toughest teams to this point of the season. They were huge underdogs.

But they responded with a startling effort. This were the same Rams which lost 17 of 20 games with a rotating cast of disinterested players.

They forged a 10-7 halftime lead with spirited defensive play. The Redskins hadn’t committed an offensive turnover all season, but the Rams forced three during the first half.

Rookie defensive end Chris Long pounced on a fumble. So did cornerback Jason Craft.

Safety O.J. Atogwe scooped up a fumble (which Pisa Tinoisamoa forced) and raced 75 yards for a touchdown.

These plays offset an early Steven Jackson fumble, which handed the Redskins their first TD of the game.

“We had a bunch of bad stuff happen to us,” Haslett said. “But I said, ‘Who cares, we’re winning.’ Our guys fought hard, played hard. I challenged them at halftime and they responded.”

Leonard Little forced another Redskins fumble, stripping quarterback Jason Campbell of the ball from the back side, but Washington got that one back.

That play forced the Redskins to punt from their own end zone, though, and it led to Brown’s third field goal of the game.

Washington fought back to take a late 17-16 lead, but, against all odds, the sputtering Rams offense responded in the final two minutes of the game.

Jackson set the tone by running hard. He pulled himself together nicely after his disastrous start.

Then rookie receiver Donnie Avery made a tremendous adjustment on Marc Bulger’s desperate 43-yard heave on the final possession. He came back for the ball and made a difficult catch, trapping the ball to his chest with one hand.

That is why the Rams made him the first receiver taken in the 2008 draft.

“Donnie is kind of a poised kid,” Haslett said. “Nothing bothers him. He has the ability to make big plays.”

That clutch play set up Brown’s winning field goal, although Richie Incognito made it interesting with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for swearing at the officials.

During the Linehan Era, that 15-yard loss would have cost the Rams the game. That is just way things went for the Not So Great Scott.

This time, though, a fired-up Brown nailed the kick to win the game and give Rams a reason to care about the rest of this season.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bye Bye Liney Hello Haslett

Rams fire Linehan; D-coordinator Haslett tapped as interim coach

ST. LOUIS -- After experiencing the wild highs and lows of the Mike Martz years, the winless St. Louis Rams opted for cool, calm, reserved Scott Linehan as their next coach.

On Monday, they admitted their mistake and fired Linehan after four consecutive lopsided losses to open the season. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a fiery type and polar opposite in terms of demeanor, was hired as interim coach, given the unenviable task of trying to revive a franchise that has become an NFL doormat.

The Rams have lost 17 of their last 20 games, most of them routs. But no matter how dire the situation appears, Haslett said it'll never be as bad as in his final season as head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"This is nothing," Haslett said, "compared to that."

Linehan, 45, was 11-25 in the third season of a four-year contract that paid him about $8 million. The Rams have been outscored 147-43 this season, and have allowed at least 30 points in seven straight games dating back to last year.

The move was made heading into the Rams' bye week and in the early morning hours Monday, several hours after the Buffalo Bills outscored them 25-0 in the second half of a 31-14 victory.

The Rams were 3-13 in 2007 and have lost eight in a row dating to last season. Dissension had been building after unsuccessful stabs by Linehan at a makeover: several new assistants; a remote training camp site; a higher-energy, upbeat delivery by the coach to project confidence and enthusiasm.

Linehan turned to desperation after the Rams were outscored 116-29 the first three games. Quarterback Marc Bulger, the highest-paid player in franchise history, was benched in favor of 38-year-old Trent Green. Starting cornerback Fakhir Brown, a Haslett favorite, was released and there were four other lineup changes.

Running back Steven Jackson ripped Linehan on his weekly radio show for benching Bulger, and there were reports Bulger no longer wanted to play for Linehan. Bulger has not spoken to media since the benching.

"He took 100 percent responsibility for the failures of this organization, but we're all culpable," owner Chip Rosenbloom said. "We all share in the responsibilities of losing games. That includes the coaches, it includes the players, it includes the administration, it includes the ownership."

That hints at more changes coming down the line. Jay Zygmunt, president of football operations and in his 27th year with the team, is drawing heat for poor draft-day performances. President John Shaw, who spends much of his time on the West Coast, is contemplating retirement after the season.

A sign at Sunday's home game read: "Congress. Now bail out the Rams."

Linehan briefly addressed players for about 10 minutes Monday morning before driving away from Rams Park without speaking to reporters or even making eye contact.

"He just told us that we're winners," said rookie defensive end Chris Long, Linehan's last first-round pick. "We're not winning right now, but there's winners in the room.

"He's going to do well, he's going to find a place where it's going right."

Given the Rams' weak play on defense, the 52-year-old Haslett is an unusual choice on the surface. He has head coaching experience, winning 45 games in six seasons for the Saints from 2000-05, but the defense is ranked 31st out of 32 teams despite a pair of young first-rounders, Long and Adam Carriker, on the line.

Typically blunt, the former NFL linebacker is far from pleased.

"Come on, the first three games we played poorly," Haslett said. "I thought we played pretty good yesterday. It's something we can build on."

Haslett was in bed when Rosenbloom telephoned at 1:15 a.m. Monday to offer the job, including a say in personnel matters. He expects to do a much better job in his second head coaching stint, and will be less secretive, too, opening practices to media. Rick Venturi, assistant head coach and linebackers coach, was elevated to defensive coordinator.

Haslett will convene his first team meeting Tuesday. He wants to discuss matters with the coaching staff before choosing a quarterback for the Rams' next game, Oct. 12 at Washington, and would like to re-sign Brown.

Haslett said the Rams' talent is comparable to that of the Bills, who are 4-0.

"They have a couple of things we don't have right now," Haslett said. "They've got great confidence, they've got great swagger, they've got poise and they think they can win. Right now we're not at that level."

The Linehan era will be remembered as a mostly dreary time for the franchise. Martz helped the Rams win their only Super Bowl after the 1999 season and then led them to a second Super Bowl as coach in the 2001 season with an offense known as the "Greatest Show on Turf."

The Rams were 8-8 in 2006, Linehan's first season, rallying to win four of their last six games after Linehan turned over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Numerous offensive line injuries, beginning with seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace's season-ending shoulder injury in the opener, paved the way for the 2007 disaster. Linehan again relinquished the play-calling before this season, replacing Olson with Al Saunders.

He knew his job was in jeopardy Sunday, having been put on notice by Rosenbloom. So he emptied the playbook, going for first downs twice on fourth down and using a handful of trick plays, energizing the team, but only for one half, when it led 14-6.

The firing was the second in-season coaching change by the Rams this decade. Martz was replaced by interim coach Joe Vitt after five games in 2005 due to medical reasons, and then was fired the day after the season.

The last Rams coach removed during the season for non-medical reasons was Bob Waterfield, replaced by Harland Svare after eight games in 1962 when the franchise was in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

Monday, September 15, 2008

Still-angry Linehan: “I’m scared to death to lose”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteeing victory over the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III. But Scott Linehan was adamant that his downtrodden, 0-2 crew would bounce back Sunday in Seattle.

“I’m not making any guarantees; you can call it what it is,” Linehan said Monday at his weekly day-after gathering with reporters. “But in my mind, we’re going to beat Seattle and we’re going to right this ship. Because we don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice, and neither does anybody else around here.”

Linehan was responding to a question about whether he was concerned about his job security. Here’s the rest of his answer:

“I’ve been concerned about my job security since I started coaching. I’m scared to death to lose. If you lose, you worry about everything. For most of my career, that’s been a positive thing. At this point, we’re not winning enough games. So when you don’t win games, people are going to want the head coach’s head; it’s the way it works. I’ve told you that from the beginning. I’ve accepted that only as part of the job, but not as part of where we’re going.”

Obviously angry in his post-game interview after the 41-13 loss to the Giants, Linehan had plenty of fire still raging Monday afternoon. Here are some more excerpts:

*On the Rams failing to “finish” games:

“Two years ago, we finished games great. Our fourth-quarter scoring and production was outstanding. Last year it was bad, and this year it’s not much better. . . . Over the last six months, we’ve done nothing but try to make adjustments and improvements. We have a new offensive system, we’ve got new defensive players, we’ve got some adjustments we’ve made within the (coaching) staff, and we’ve got a few new offensive players.

“That’s all fine and dandy, but we’ve got to go out there and turn whatever those adjustments were into positive plays and positive drives and positive finishes to the fourth quarter. Right now, that’s not happening.”

*On the defense giving up a six-play, 82-yard TD drive after the Rams made it 20-13 early in the fourth period:

“To be in a position where, bang, we finally get something going offensively when we get the touchdown with Torry (Holt) — great play, one of the best catches I’ve ever seen. To a special-teams play, bang, you have another great play (a jarring tackle by Chris Draft on the 18-yard line on the subsequent kickoff). Now it’s 20-13 and you’re really in a position where defensively, you can go out and sack the quarterback, pick off a ball, go three-and-out, and all of a sudden now it’s a one-score game and you’re playing at home and the place is going nuts.

“That’s where we were. We were in a position where we could’ve just taken that game over right then and there. And instead . . . we went back to where we were — down two scores and the clock running out.”

*On possible lineup changes this week:

“Yeah, I think so. Whether we do them or not remains to be seen as we go through the week. But there could be some adjustments to the lineup, for sure.”

*On other possible changes:

“I’ll tell you what: we could flip-flop, practice at midnight and sleep during the day. We could eat baloney sandwiches on Wednesday, penalize the team for not playing very good. We could try all that stuff. But the bottom line is how we play on Sunday and what we do when we get in those moments in the game that are going to decide our fate. That’s really nothing else you can do.”

Monday, September 8, 2008

Losing is one thing; not trying is another


PHILADELPHIA — And with the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams select ...

The thought came to mind early during Sunday's embarrassing 38-3 wipeout of all things Ram by the fierce Philadelphia Eagles. A loss was expected. But the Rams' failure to compete was stunning.

I don't understand how a team can prepare for months to play its first football game, only to emerge from the locker room looking like dead men walking.

No heart, no guts, no pulse ... nothing.

"To me, and I've been around here 10 years, and this is the most talented team I've ever been around as far as pure talent," defensive end Leonard Little said. "But we've got to find a way to take it to the field. And show more on the field. We needed to come out and win this game. And we'd better win right away and get on the right track, because we don't want to go down that same road that we took last year."

It was an appalling afternoon for a franchise that went 3-13 last season.

And it didn't take long for negative thoughts to metastasize.

Unless the Rams respond with a passionate statement about their competitiveness on Sunday when the New York Giants come to The Ed, how much longer will head coach Scott Linehan be able to keep his job?

Are the players trying to get Linehan fired?

How else do we interpret the dive we saw them take in Philadelphia?

Rams ownership and management are steadfast in their support of Linehan, but can the people upstairs at Rams Park really sit idly and throw another season away? Do the bosses want to destroy the remainder of a deteriorating fan base?

And how much longer can Linehan afford to stick with Marc Bulger at quarterback? From the beginning Sunday, the Eagles got into Bulger's head. He threw off his back foot, or hop-scotching around with a nervous pitter-patter of feet. His passes had no authority. Bulger is clearly carrying the scars of last season's assault to the body and psyche.

I'm not saying Bulger is the only problem. Far from it. But a quarterback plays a large part in forming a team's collective soul. And there is no confidence to Bulger's game.

After being punished by the Eagles for four sacks, at least Bulger was able to stand up after the game and take responsibility.

"There's a lot of blame to go around, but I realize it starts with me," he said. "When the quarterback doesn't play well, the rest of your offense won't. If there's No. 1 blame it should start here."

Bulger cares. He's just battered. But the postgame scene in the Rams locker room was disturbing. There was chatter, shrugs, even some laughter. I saw little to suggest that this team was disgusted or even bothered by a 35-point whipping. I've been covering NFL games since 1982, and I've never seen such a carefree locker room in the aftermath of such a humiliating defeat.

A performance like this should have ignited this team's pride and professionalism. But the Rams didn't fight during the game, and they were hardly fighting mad after the game.

Gee, wasn't that swell to see running back Steven Jackson chuckling and yapping with the Eagles on the field after the game?

Symbolic message: This was just another payday for the same old Rams.

And that attitude is unacceptable. Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett didn't have their men ready to play, and the highly anticipated rollout of offensive coordinator Al Saunders' new attack was a bust.

What went down Sunday was a terrible reflection on all of the Rams' coaches. And the criticism of the staff is warranted.

But don't give the players a free pass. There's no excuse for coming out with a flat-line response in the first game of a brand new season. I don't care if the players dislike Linehan. They owe an honest effort to each other, and their customers. Linehan may not be much of a motivator, but that doesn't mean the players should be allowed to steal game checks in the form of a sorry, no-account, tank job.

"We have to find that magic, whatever it is, that's going to get us a momentum roll," Linehan said. "And we have not. We've built very good chemistry as a group, but we've got to build chemistry as a team playing. And I told them at halftime, 'Someone's got to make a play to create the confidence that you need to have.' Because it's about making plays in this league, and Philadelphia made all the plays today. We didn't make any."

Who will lead the Rams back?

Or does anyone even care?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rams 2008 Preview: Where to start?


Scott Linehan had a black car last year; he has a white one this year.

He had longer hair last year; it became a buzz cut this year.

At home, one of his sons always went downstairs one way; Linehan always went another. This year, they've switched.

"I joked with Jay (Zygmunt) about this," Linehan said. "I said, 'I'm going to find a way to do everything different this year.'"

The Rams went 3-13 last year. So will they go 13-3 this year?

Now that would be a change. But at its most basic level, the Rams' blueprint for success this year is a reverse of the old saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

A lot of things are broken at Rams Park. Much needs to be fixed.

To a large degree, the Rams couldn't score points, couldn't prevent teams from scoring, couldn't stay healthy, couldn't win games, couldn't energize fans.

And the problems go beyond 2007. The Rams haven't been in the playoffs in four years; they haven't had a winning record in five. Over the past three seasons, the Rams are 17-31. Only five teams in the NFL have worse records over that span: Oakland (10-38), Detroit (15-33), Houston (16-32), Miami (16-32) and San Francisco (16-32).

As the core players from the Greatest Show on Turf teams dwindled, the franchise has done a poor job of restocking the shelves. Away from the wins and losses, a messy divorce with Mike Martz in 2005 sapped the organization's energy and focus.

And in January came the death of longtime owner Georgia Frontiere, leading to a whole new layer of issues about the direction of the franchise, the possible sale of the team, and even its future in St. Louis.

No wonder a team official, when told the theme of the Post-Dispatch's 2008 football preview section was "Blueprint for Success," joked: "Could you send us one?"

Actually, backup safety Todd Johnson may have inadvertently planted the seed for one — in Arizona of all places. The Rams were in the process of being shellacked 48-19 by the Cardinals in the season finale last Dec. 30, a crowning blow (to the head) in a 3-13 campaign.

"I remember Todd Johnson walking up, and he said, 'We'll be back,'" Linehan recalled. "'We're going to have a chance to show everybody that this year was not any indication of what kind of people we are. Or what kind of team we are."

But change was needed to make that happen. Lots of change.


"The general theme is things are going to be different, and expect them to be different," Linehan said. "No one's making any promises right now. No one's saying what the record's going to be. No one's saying how many yards we're going to average. But we know what we want to do. We know what our goals are. The expectation is going to be completely different."

So Linehan went well beyond changing his haircut, his car and his "traffic pattern" on the stairs at home. He changed his coaching staff, changed many of his players, changed his approach to training camp, and is attempting to alter his approach to coaching.

In the front office, the response to 3-13 was systematic.

"First of all, we're in a performance business," said Zygmunt, the team's president of football operations-general manager. "And our performance is judged obviously by on-the-field performance.

"We know what we are: a team that won three games last year. We weren't successful. The status quo was not acceptable."

So once the season ended, the evaluation period started.

"You look at everything," Zygmunt said. "I mean, everything. Things that I do. Everybody. You try to start out with what did we do right, and what did we do wrong? And then the question is, well, what is the causation?

"What was wrong about this, and why did we end up doing it wrong? ... Did we just make a mistake? Is this something that's been a trend? Or is this something we really have to fix that requires a longer-term solution?"

After analysis came preparation for the 2008 season. In the NFL, you can't afford to step away from a problem and go into a long, contemplative state. As soon as one season ends, the preparation for the next begins.

Early in the offseason, while Linehan was reshaping his coaching staff, the team hired Billy Devaney as executive vice president of player personnel. In part, it was a concession that hiring Tony Softli to a similar position two years ago wasn't working. (Softli remains with the organization, working under Devaney.) Devaney also brought a strong background in pro personnel, an area in which the Rams had been lacking in recent years.

A strong advocate of building through the draft, Devaney doesn't view free agency as an end-all, cure-all for what ails a franchise.

"You're not going to build a championship team by free agency," Devaney said. "Nobody takes that approach. ... If it works out, you get one or two guys that can start in free agency. I think that's all you can expect."

This has become particularly true in recent years. In part because of significant growth in the salary cap, teams have done a better job of identifying their own core players, re-signing them, and keeping them off the market.

"A few years ago, the pool (of free agents) was much bigger," Devaney said. "Especially now, the number of players involved, it's not a lot to pick from."

The Rams took a measured approach in free agency this offseason. Yes, there was that $36 million splash with guard Jacob Bell. They signed Josh Brown to the biggest contract ever for a place-kicker. There were a couple of more modest purchases in quarterback Trent Green and tight end Anthony Becht, followed by several discount — minimum wage — pickups.

In the draft, the Rams tried to address a glaring need for pass-rush help by selecting Virginia defensive end Chris Long No. 2 overall. They looked for fresh legs in the receiving game in Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton. They looked for depth — and perhaps a future starter or two — at cornerback, on the offensive line, and at linebacker.

The Rams already have lost the corner (Justin King) for the season because of a severe toe injury. But so far, Devaney likes what he has seen from the draft class of '08.

"It is early, but I think the signs are positive," Devaney said. "We're looking for good football players. We think these guys will be. There isn't a guy that we selected in the draft, or that we signed as a free agent, where we've thought, 'Well, we blew it on this guy.'"


But for all the change — with all the new players, new coaches, new approaches — there are no guarantees for 2008. Will doing things differently result in doing things right?

"There's no guarantee with change," Zygmunt said. "You can't guarantee what the performance is going to be. But you can guarantee preparation."

In fact, one of the few guarantees in football is that there will be adversity. It could be in the form of injuries, or illness, or a contract holdout, or a slump.

"The question is, when the adversity comes, you have to plan and be prepared to face the adversity," Zygmunt said. "It's not always easy to have the answers, but it's going to come, and you can't stop it.

"You can never be overwhelmed. You adjust to the situation, you address the adversity as best you can, and move forward. You say, 'OK, we're going to stay focused. We can't stop.'"

As much as anything, Linehan and the Rams got overwhelmed in 2007. But Linehan seems determined — no, make that driven — to avoid a repeat in '08. All of the changes are designed to change the culture at Rams Park. One way or another, the team needs to regain some toughness and confidence and develop a sense of urgency.

"Once you start getting confidence, you start figuring out a way to go on the road and win a tough battle," Linehan said. "Maybe one game, you win it on a defensive score. Next game, you have a shootout offensively. You just figure out ways to win. To me the biggest message is we've got to find that formula, and we've got to do it as a football team."

As to what happens in the future, in terms of ownership and the potential sale of the team, only new owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez — Frontiere's children — know for sure.

"I can only go by this," Zygmunt said. "They have been incredibly supportive, and offered their assistance in whatever way possible. And they've clearly stressed that the most important thing is the team performance."

For better. Or for worse.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bulger's rough start is cause for concern

ST. LOUIS — I don't want to pile on Marc Bulger. Really. He's already been taken down on too many sacks and beaten down by too many hits to the body.

The San Diego Chargers thumped Bulger pretty good a few times Saturday night. Look at it this way: At least the St. Louis Rams are in midseason form. If Bulger is getting rag-dolled, then it must be football season.

Bulger's performance in the first two exhibitions has been alarming: 10 completions in 23 attempts, three interceptions and a passer rating of 14.3. He did connect on some solid throws against the Chargers in the second quarter, so perhaps that will get him going. But the interceptions on the first two series were disturbing. His body language continued to be troubling.

Bulger offered no excuses after the latest dud.

"Nights like this are not acceptable for whatever reason," Bulger told reporters late Saturday. "There are a million reasons that I could tell you for why things happened, but this is a bottom line business.

"They made some plays, but with a little more game planning, things might not have gone like that. What I learned in trying to get through these little ruts is to keep throwing. I promise you, if I came out in the second half, I would have kept throwing. I might have had 10 picks, but I would have kept throwing it down the field."

As a gesture of peace to the Rams-Bulger apologists, please allow me to contribute a few lines to the defense argument:

—It's only the preseason.

—The Rams are running a scaled-down offense.

—Bulger is getting acclimated to the Al Saunders system and his timing is way off.

— Torry Holt and Steven Jackson didn't play Saturday.

—The offensive line ain't exactly the Great Wall of China.

—The receivers dropped some passes again Saturday. Or ran the wrong routes. Or something.

Every point has merit.

But here's the deal for NFL quarterbacks: You complete passes, or you don't. You direct successful drives, or you don't. And it doesn't take long for the wolfpack to form.

It isn't always fair, but then again, that's why Bulger and his QB pals demand, and receive, the big money. Bulger cashed in for a six-year, $65 million deal before the 2007 season, then regressed terribly. With defensive linemen and blitzers zeroing in on his torso, the life soon disappeared from Bulger's game. By the end of the season, the dude was a silhouette of a quarterback a police chalk line.

We're into a new cycle, a fresh start, but does Bulger look right to you? There's a reason the Rams aggressively pursued Trent Green to be a relief pitcher. It isn't just because Green is a respected pro, or that he functioned successfully with Saunders in Kansas City. It's natural to have concerns about Bulger.

Since the start of the 2003 season, Bulger has been sacked 190 times, more than any other NFL quarterback. And that doesn't begin to account for the battering he received while in the act of releasing a throw.

If you've followed the NFL long enough, you've seen quarterbacks take a whipping and really suffer for it. Los Angeles Rams fans will tell you all about Jim Everett. I saw it happen to a faded Danny White in Dallas.

And I've seen this twice before in St. Louis. It took Neil Lomax more than a year to recover from getting sacked 61 times in 1985; he didn't really bounce back until 1987. Kurt Warner, who bravely stood exposed in the pocket to make connections for the "Greatest Show" Rams, absorbed vicious body blows that ultimately reduced his effectiveness. Warner wasn't the same QB for a few years. It took him a long time to heal.

That's why I worry about Bulger. Right now, it's the preseason, and some will insist that we can't truly judge his form until the real games begin. I do not disagree. We'll know soon enough.

And I can only imagine the diabolical blitzes being concocted by antagonistic Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in anticipation of the Rams' opener Sept. 7 in Philadelphia.