By Nick Wagoner
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.”