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.

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