Monday, November 30, 2009

Loss is disturbing in many ways


From the moment Steve Spagnuolo was hired as the Rams' head coach to partner with new general manager Billy Devaney, I've preached patience. The new leaders were put in charge of cleaning up the NFL equivalent of a toxic spill. And it would take a lot of time, hard work and smart decisions to get it done.

Those who thought the Rams had a chance to win between seven and nine games this season and contend for the playoffs were more delusional than optimistic.

I didn't expect much, and I'm not asking for much.

All I wanted to see, really, were signs of progress in 2009. And shouldn't this team be getting better, even if the gains are incremental and modest? Instead, the Rams are getting worse. Is there any justification for that?

With Sunday's 27-17 loss to the visiting Seattle Seahawks, the Rams became the first St. Louis NFL team to post a 1-10 record after 11 games in a season. That covers 43 seasons of St. Louis NFL football, 28 with the Cardinals and 15 with the Rams.

This was a winnable game. It was sitting there at 7-7 in the second quarter, and the Rams were only down by seven late in the third quarter. The Seahawks came into The Ed with a 3-7 record and didn't appear to be highly motivated. But as most opponents do, the Seahawks pounced on the Rams' mistakes and sloppy play and bullied the Rams with a physical rushing attack. Taking over, Seattle opened a 17-point lead before the Rams scored a so-what TD with 44 seconds remaining.

The Rams had shown improvement by losing in overtime at Jacksonville, winning at Detroit, and taking the undefeated New Orleans Saints down to the wire with a chance to win. But the Rams didn't build on that brief spell of not-so-hideous football.

Instead, they're regressing.

And I don't think that's acceptable.

"This game was a big step backward," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "I think we've got a long way to go, so we can't afford to take these steps backward."

Agreed. After the game, I asked Spagnuolo if he thought his Rams were slipping and getting worse. After saying he wouldn't cite injuries as an excuse, Spagnuolo sort of did just that.

"The one thing we've got to remember, and I'm not going to use this as an excuse, so bear with me here," Spagnuolo said. "But we have gelled. Since the first time we played Seattle (in the season opener) until now, I believe it's a different football team.

"But we're fighting some injuries right now at some key positions. So the dynamics of working together and getting better and better at certain things, maybe it takes a step back. But this is professional football and guys got to go in there and play. So we'll expect the guys that have to go in there and play when guys get hurt to do the same thing as the guys who were in there."

Look, I realize the Rams are in a tough spot. The bad-luck blitz of injuries continues. The Rams have lost more wide receivers than I can remember. Center Jason Brown left in Sunday's second quarter with a sprained knee. Right offensive tackle Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, didn't play Sunday because of a concussion. There are too many injuries to list. It has affected continuity and cut into the already thin depth. Now the offensive line is getting chopped up.

I do have some sympathy.

But I also have a few questions:

— Why do other bad teams manage to pull off unexpected wins? Kansas City beat Pittsburgh. Oakland took down Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Tampa Bay upset Green Bay. And bad teams have a knack of jumping on falling teams; Detroit and Kansas City took down the dysfunctional Washington Redskins — something the Rams could not do.

— Didn't Spagnuolo earn his reputation on defense? Shouldn't a defensive personality be forming by now?

— Is there any acceptable rationalization for the Rams' pitiful run defense? Over the last six games, the Rams have allowed 1,005 yards rushing at an average of 5.3 yards a carry. During that time, they've given up seven rushing touchdowns and 31 runs of 10 yards or more. If you can't control the likes of Tim Hightower and Justin Forsett, you're not doing your job.

— Spagnuolo continues to defend his team's effort. "I believe in the fight of this team," he said after Sunday's loss. But coach also attributed the collapsing run defense to poor tackling. Isn't the tackling an example of will and determination? If you have a runner in your grasp and let him go, then you aren't physically finishing the tackle. Or you aren't concentrating on executing the proper tackling technique.

Yes, I know the Rams have talent deficiencies at defensive tackle and outside linebacker. But you can't convince me that lousy tackling is unrelated to effort.

After another Sunday bloody Sunday the Rams are 3-24 since the start of last season, and 6-37 since the beginning of 2007. For all of our patience and understanding, at some point we want to see evidence of genuine improvement.

And it's getting tiresome to have Spagnuolo appear after every loss to praise his team for playing hard.

And I don't know if it's even true, that they're playing hard. Many of them are, yes.

But I do know that playing hard isn't enough.

You win games by playing better.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Warner’s fast start leads Cards past Rams 21-13

By R.B. FALLSTROM, AP Sports Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP)—A blow to the head turned Kurt Warner(notes) into a spectator in the second half, still in uniform but shut down for the day.

The Arizona Cardinals quarterback said it was just a precaution for what the team termed concussion-related symptoms. In any case, he’d already done enough to make it three straight victories over his former team in the stadium where he rose to stardom.

Warner threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns while building a 21-3 cushion, and the NFC West leaders hung on late, remaining unbeaten on the road with a 21-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Arizona had a season-high 183 yards rushing, including 110 on 14 carries by Tim Hightower(notes) for the Cardinals’ first 100-yard game of the season.

“I felt pretty good coming out right after halftime, but I just wanted to be smart,” Warner said. “It was one of those situations where I didn’t feel perfect.”

Warner doesn’t recall having a concussion since 2003, when he was hurt in the Rams’ opener. That also was his final start with St. Louis.

“I’ve had a couple of minor concussions, very minor, nothing that’s been prolonged,” Warner said. “So not a state of panic. I feel good. I think I’m going to be just fine, but we’ll take it day by day and we’ll see.”

The Rams drove to the 7 late in the game needing a TD and a 2-point conversion to tie. Marc Bulger(notes) threw incomplete for Donnie Avery(notes) in the end zone on fourth-and-4 after some jostling from Arizona’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes).

“We’ll just go with the ref’s call and hopefully next time it’ll go our way,” Bulger said.

The Cardinals (7-3) have won six of seven.

“We were hitting on all cylinders. We were making some big plays, and I think we had them off-balance a little bit,” Warner said. “When we’re clicking and in rhythm, that’s how we can play.”

Steven Jackson became the first Rams player to post five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, gaining 116 yards on 24 carries with a fourth-quarter touchdown that capitalized on tight end Anthony Becht’s(notes) lost fumble, cutting the deficit to eight points. It’s also the fourth straight 100-yard game for Jackson.

The Rams (1-9) showed life in the second half after a miserable start, but are 0-4 at home after losing to the Cardinals for the sixth straight time. Earlier this season they became the first team in NFL history to face three straight unbeaten teams at home, losing to the Vikings, Colts and Saints, and management purchased more than 4,000 tickets to sell out the game and avoid a local TV blackout.

“We just came out really flat,” Jackson said. “Against a team like Arizona, it’s really hard to overcome that.”

Warner was 15 for 19 and usually had plenty of time in the pocket. The four incompletions came on two balls he threw away, a third that was batted down and a fourth on a left-handed attempt while in the grasp of defensive end Chris Long(notes).

It appeared Warner was hurt by safety O.J. Atogwe’s high hit on a blitz that drove the quarterback’s head into the turf. Warner lay on the field for a few seconds before getting up and stayed in the game for the last six plays of a 90-yard drive capped by Beanie Wells’(notes) 1-yard run.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt was unaware of Warner’s past concussion history, adding, “He’s started over 30 games for us and he hasn’t missed much.”

“What you don’t want to do,” Whisenhunt added, “is jeopardize games down the road.”

Matt Leinart(notes) took over after a late turnover at the end of the half, and Arizona mostly sat on the lead. That was enough to make Warner 5-2 against the Rams, with whom he became a storybook star while leading the team to two Super Bowls in three years from 1999-2001. He’s 26-4 at the Edward Jones Dome, including 4-0 in the playoffs, with 67 touchdown passes and 34 interceptions.

The Cardinals stumbled early when Warner and Wells missed connections on a pitchout for a lost fumble at the Arizona 25, leading to a Rams field goal. The rest of the half was all Arizona, with Hightower gaining 91 yards on eight carries, Anquan Boldin(notes) catching seven passes for 96 yards and his first TD since Week 3, and Larry Fitzgerald(notes) catching six passes for 71 yards and a score.

NOTES: St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols was on the field for the coin toss and wore a Rams cap and jersey while watching from the sideline. … Cardinals CB Bryant McFadden(notes) (right knee bruise) was sidelined in the second quarter. … Eric Dickerson had four straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Rams from 1983-86. … Hightower’s 50-yard carry in the first half was the longest of his career. The previous best was a 30-yarder last November in St. Louis. … The Cardinals entered the game averaging 84 yards rushing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rams Open Up, But Fall Short

The Rams knew they had to score points Sunday to hang with the explosive Saints. They knew they had to come out of their offensive shell to have any chance to hang with New Orleans.

And they did.

The Rams rallied from 7-0 and 14-7 deficits to tie the game 14-14 at the half. Then they rallied from a 28-17 fourth quarter deficit, scoring one touchdown and bidding for a second before finally running out of time.

The moribund Rams offense outscored the Saints offense 23-21.The Rams outgained New Orleans, too, 434-420.

But the difference in the Rams’ 28-23 loss came on special teams. Saints return specialist Courtney Roby opened the second half with a 97-yard TD return – and try as they might, the Rams could never quite overcome that big play.

They had the ball at the end with a chance to win the game, but their final drive made only halting progress down the field.

“The only thing that matters in this league is results,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I’m having trouble with the result.

“But there was progress.”

Here were the signs of that:

Running back Steven Jackson bowled through the Saints as a rusher and a receiver. He rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown and caught nine passes for 45 more yards.

Quarterback Marc Bulger threw the ball downfield for a change. He connected on a 29-yard and 19-yard touchdown passes to Donnie Avery and spread the ball around to most of his targets, throwing for 298 yards.

Receiver Brandon Gibson caught seven passes for 93 yards, demonstrating why the Rams traded linebacker Will Witherspoon to the Eagles to get him and a draft pick.

On the defensive side, safety O.J. Atogwe picked off a pass and forced a goal line fumble that saved the Rams six points. Fellow safety James Butler also had an interception.

Considering that all this happened against one of the NFL’s powerhouse teams, it certainly looked like the Rams were getting better.

Does Spags agree?

“Based on what happened out there today, I’d say yeah,” he said.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Rams Win in a Rush

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

DETROIT – For all 53 men in the Rams locker room and every member of the coaching staff and all of the people that follow the team on a weekly basis, the sight of running back Steven Jackson racing off right tackle for a game-winning 25-yard touchdown Sunday against Detroit was the culmination of weeks and months of blood sweat and tears.

It was what coach Steve Spagnuolo has waited for since he was named the team’s coach in January. It was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a team that has poured its guts into a full offseason of work and a grueling training camp.

And though he was basking in the glow of his first win as an NFL head coach, Spagnuolo couldn’t help but divert the bulk of his own happiness to the players he has long since wanted to see rewarded for their efforts.

“Obviously I am very happy about the win,” Spagnuolo said. “I thought the guys played their guts out. I am just so proud and happy that they now have a reward. It’s just one reward. This isn’t more than that. I prayed for them to have a reward for all the work they put in and finally they got that.”

Jackson’s touchdown scamper gave the Rams a stirring 17-10 lead and after a final defensive stop, the first victory of the Spagnuolo era by that same score. With the win, the Rams improve to 1-7 heading into their bye week. The Lions dropped to 1-6 with the loss.

In a wild game that featured contributions from all three phases, it was only fitting that Jackson was the man to put the exclamation point on the victory.

For every moment of every game and every carry he has had this season, Jackson has run as hard as possible. And his grit and determination has carried over into the locker room where he has evolved into the team’s unquestioned leader.

Still, for all of that work, Jackson had not yet been rewarded with even a touchdown, let alone a win. Until Sunday.

“That was especially special because it was him and the way he did it,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s Steven but just the way he was running, breaking all those tackles and busting out in the open. He was determined to get in the end zone. That’s what he’s all about.”

What Jackson was all about on Sunday was punishing every Lions defender that got in his way. Nobody was safe as Jackson even delivered a blow to umpire Bill Schuster when he found himself on the tracks when the train was coming through late in the fourth quarter.

When all was said and done, Jackson had rolled up 149 yards on 22 carries with the deciding score, adding three catches for 17 yards along the way. That total was about 46 percent of the team’s total offensive production for the day. And many of those yards came after contact as Jackson repeatedly ran through arm tackles and over potential road blocks.

But none were sweeter than the touchdown run that was Jackson’s first of the season and gave his team its first victory.

“That run felt really good,” Jackson said. “At that point of the game we felt like we had to close the game out. We knew that pretty much whoever had the ball last was going to have a pretty good chance of driving the ball and putting the game away. We as an offensive unit really felt like it was our time to take over the game. The offensive line, the fullback, everyone believed in what we were doing and it really showed. That last run was an exclamation point for the way the game went for us.”

While Jackson was busy fulfilling his role as offensive leader and overall tour de force, the Rams were getting plenty of other contributions from the other two phases.

Perhaps no play was bigger to momentum and the end result than a 36-yard touchdown pass from kicker Josh Brown to tight end Daniel Fells on a fake field goal just before the end of the first half.

With 1:03 to go in the second quarter, quarterback Marc Bulger and the offense came to the line for what appeared to be an effort to go for it on fourth-and-8 at Detroit’s 36.

When the Rams broke the huddle, Bulger had an uneasy feeling and opted to call a timeout.

“We got to the line a little late, Danny (Fells) wasn’t quite sure on his route,” Bulger said. “There was a bunch of things going on. I didn’t feel comfortable. I thought it was an important part of the game. Coach Spags and Coach Curl, really hate to waste timeouts or use them at all. I was willing to go over and take the fall for it because I thought it was an important part.”

Given the time to reconsider going for it, the Rams looked to something special teams coach Tom McMahon had noticed on Detroit’s film from earlier in the week. When the Lions want to come for a field goal block, they have a tendency to come extra hard off the edge for the block, especially on long attempts as Brown’s 54-yarder would have been.

In theory, that would make the Lions vulnerable on the outside. Sure enough, Detroit pushed from the edges as the snap went to punter Donnie Jones. Jones flipped the ball back to Brown who rolled to his left, fought off his natural urge to just run it and lobbed a pass across his body to a wide open Fells.

“I’m not worried about how the pass looks,” Brown said. “That has to be the best thing ever to not worry about how pretty it is. The thing is, it has to be effective and it was. Lob it up, let the big guy get it and then just run. That’s all you can do.”

His part done, Brown could only watch as Fells hauled it in and raced down the left sideline. Fells fought off a would-be tackler and crossed the goal line for his team-leading third touchdown.

“I didn’t want to be denied on that,” Fells said. “It was such a great call, it was like ‘OK, everyone checks my speed and wants to see how fast I am,’ so I couldn’t let anybody catch me on this one.”

That touchdown gave the Rams a 10-2 lead going into halftime, a lead that Detroit would erase with a 4-yard touchdown run from quarterback Matthew Stafford.

But aside from that scoring drive, the Rams defense performed its job of keeping the Lions out of the end zone all day.

For most of the first half, the Lions had some success running the ball and hurt the Rams with screen passes and dump offs to the flat. More often than not, that was the result of catching the Rams in blitzes.

At halftime, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole and Co. made the necessary adjustments, lying back a little more.

“We went back to our base defense and when we played our base defense we were able to stop them,” defensive tackle Clifton Ryan said. “We are young; we are starting to jell a little bit.”

The defense held Detroit to 289 yards of total offense and came up huge late in the game by forcing a series of three and outs, including the final four and out to wrap up the win.

As the clock wound down and his team stood in victory formation for the first time in his short tenure, Spagnuolo received a shower from his team.

“It was kind of nice,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s special. I know I will remember it for a long time. What makes it most special is the people that it happened with. It’s a special group of guys. They have been through a lot, they never quit, they bought in, and they stayed with it, never leaning the other way.”

And for one day at least, that patience and work was rewarded with a win.