DETROIT • By the end of the afternoon when things had truly gone downhill for the Rams, there were all these gawdawful moments that let you know just how rotten this little trip to Motown had become.
As the fourth quarter wound down and the scoreboard glared with this ridiculous, mind-boggling score — Lions 44, Rams 6 — many of the 55,714 spectators who hadn't witnessed a victory in nearly a year, were actually leaving early, fully confident that the Lions, winless for the past 11 months, had secured their first victory of the season.
To make matters even worse, there was the utterly disturbing sight of defrocked Rams coach and current Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan attempting a bit of prickly vengeance by dialing up a halfback option pass with his team already holding a 28-point lead. This was soon followed up by somebody named Alphonso Smith doing some goofy touchdown dance in the end zone after returning an interception 42 yards for the final score of the day.
Forty-four to six.
Well, I guess that corner we all thought the Rams had turned wasn't a corner after all.
More like a disturbing U-turn.
"Sometimes you need a butt-whippin' to let you know where you really are," Steven Jackson said with a refreshing bit of brutal honesty.
Just for the record, don't put me in the line with any hysterical folks who believe this error-filled, but extremely predictable loss to the Lions is a symptom of a deeper, darker malaise. The sky isn't falling, at least not yet. Here's what it is: It's a relapse that exposed the Rams for exactly what they are, a fragile young team that can't simply show up on Sundays and expect to frighten anyone.
It's a stern reminder for a young team that apparently had to be reminded that at this stage in its journey toward respectability, you can't play an imperfect game and expect to beat anyone, even an 0-4 team that had exhibited so many of these same self-destructive tendencies, too.
So you can't botch a game-opening onside kick, turn the ball over in the red zone, drop wide open passes, drop wide open interceptions, commit drive-killing penalties, and somehow forget to cover wide-open Lions tight ends and running backs all game long and expect that this will result in anything less than a lopsided defeat.
"We're not at the point where we can just show up," Jackson said. "We're not there yet. We're going to have to fight each and every play. Each and every snap, guys are gong to have to fight for extra yards. ... I don't think guys came in overlooking Detroit (because they were 0-4). But this was an eye opener, a wakeup call that once we get back on another winning streak, which I believe will happen, we won't take anything for granted."
In person, this didn't feel like it was a game where the Rams emotionally took the day off. Instead, it looked like a game where they simply forgot how close to perfect they still have to play to win. They survived the odd game-opening onside kick that gave the Lions the ball only 41 yards away from the end zone, by limiting Detroit to a field goal.
But that kick immediately set into motion a game-long theme that would spell disaster. Midway through the first quarter, Sam Bradford's most reliable receiver, veteran Mark Clayton, went down with a season-ending knee injury (a devastating blow that this offense will feel even more as the season progresses). It seemed to throw off the offensive game plan more than a little bit. Yet even without Clayton, the Rams moved the ball to the Detroit 9-yard line before Danny Amendola fumbled a Bradford pass at the 4, and the Lions recovered.
Then came a special teams breakdown when they Rams allowed a 105-yard kickoff return, followed by two more trips into the red zone in the first half that only resulted in two field goals.
And stop me if you've heard this one before: Rams cornerback Ron Bartell dropped a wide open interception that could have resulted in an easy touchdown.
The game was essentially over by halftime with Detroit leading 24-6.
But if the Rams had played as close to as well as they did the last two weeks, they would have converted at least two of those trips into the red zone into touchdowns, gotten a TD out of Bartell's blown pick, and the score could have just as easily been tied at 24-all.
So now we are about to find out what this developing football team truly is made of. We've seen what happens to the young Rams when they forget just how narrow their margin for success really is. Five games into the 2010 season, we have seen three games full of silly errors that have cost the Rams victories. We have also seen two weekends when the Rams took care of business like seasoned pros, when they capitalized on opportunities and finished games the way good teams should.
"I understand the ebb and flow of momentum," said defensive end Chris Long. "You win a couple of games and all of a sudden we're the favorite to do this and that. And then you lose one and the sky is falling. We're going to try to keep an even keel. We won't get too low off this. We'll take our medicine and move on."
So which team are they? Good or bad? The answer, it seems, is both.
As he stood in front of his locker stall after the game, young Mr. Bradford was like so many of his teammates, angry but not despondent. The room didn't feel like so many losing Rams locker rooms over the past few years.
Somehow, even in defeat, this room felt different.
Next week we'll find out if the Rams were talking a good game or if those old, familiar losing habits are going to take a bit longer to get flushed from this team's system.