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.

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