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.