By NATE LATSCHFOXSportsMidwest.com
Jan. 24, 2011
ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Rams took a big step forward this season, going from six wins total the previous three seasons to a 7-9 record with an opportunity to win the NFC West in their final regular-season game.
The big question now is what comes next for Steve Spagnuolo's squad?
The Rams have plenty to build on with a strong nucleus that includes quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Chris Long.
St. Louis has already made some moves in preparation for the 2011 season, with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur leaving to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and the Rams hiring former Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels as the new offensive coordinator.
Questions abound about how much influence McDaniels, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, will have on the Rams' offense, how much Spagnuolo will allow McDaniels to do his thing and how much different the offense will look next season.
When Spagnuolo met the media to talk about McDaniels' hiring, he made it sound like not too much would change.
"I think there's going to be a natural mesh here," he said. "Keep the things you really like and what you've been doing well and everybody's comfortable with, you add a little bit of something else, and I think it's always great to have a little bit of zip and juice or something new."
When he spoke with reporters on a conference call a few hours later, McDaniels echoed what Spagnuolo had said earlier.
"There's plenty of things that the St. Louis Rams have run last year that we're certainly going to repeat again, and there's plenty of things that we'll probably study this offseason and think that are good ideas that we'll take a look at," he said. "I think you do that every year, and I think that players are really pretty tough in terms of learning. They can figure out what you want them to figure out, and you find ways to do that as coaches. I think it'll be exciting to ultimately figure out now what we're going to make this offense look like in St. Louis."
There is a lot for McDaniels to work with, starting with the quarterback and running back.
Bradford is coming off one of the best rookie seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. The No. 1 overall pick completed 60 percent of his passes (354 of 590) for 3,512 yards, with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 76.5.
The University of Oklahoma product broke the rookie records for attempts and completions and finished second for most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history.
Bradford was third in the NFL in attempts, seventh in completions, 12th in passing yards, 18th in touchdowns, 20th in completion percentage and 25th in quarterback rating.
"I felt like I improved," he said. "I felt like the coaches trusted me more at the end of the year. I felt like they put a lot more on my plate, which is something I take a lot of pride in, the fact I was able to progress in this offense and able to handle more, probably more than I would have expected. Hopefully that continues."
The 27-year-old Jackson was selected for the Pro Bowl for the third time in his seven-year career and finished with 1,241 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 330 carries, an average of 3.8 yards per carry. He also caught 46 passes for 383 receiving yards.
Jackson became the Rams' all-time leading rusher, passing Eric Dickerson, and then became the 12th player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in six consecutive seasons.
The Rams' offense showed marked improvement from the 2009 season, when they were one of the worst in the league on their way to a 1-15 record.
In 2010, with a rookie quarterback and an unproven group of wide receivers, St. Louis was 26th in the NFL in points per game (18.1) and yards per game (302.9). The Rams were 21st in passing yards per game (204.2) and 25th in rushing yards per game (98.6).
The biggest questions surrounding the offense going into the 2011 season are concerning the receiving corps that lost Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton to early season-ending injuries and how the team can add more playmakers for Bradford to work with.
Several early mock drafts predict that the Rams will select University of Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with their first-round pick, No. 14 overall, this spring.
St. Louis' offensive line, which featured youngsters Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith as the bookend tackles, figures to be improved next season but could use a boost with the addition of another guard through free agency or the draft.
The Rams' defense, led by youngsters like Laurinaitis and Long, made an even bigger improvement from the 2009 season to 2010.
The Rams finished 2010 ranked 12th in the NFL in points allowed (20.5 points per game), 19th in yards allowed (336.8 per game) and passing yards allowed (223.6), and 17th in rushing yards allowed (113.1).
St. Louis was seventh in the league in sacks (43) and 19th in interceptions (14) after ranking 30th (25 sacks) and 31st (eight), respectively, in both categories the year before.
There are questions on the defensive side of the ball going into next season.
What impact defensive players can Spagnuolo and the Rams bring in? Will they address the need for outside linebackers through the draft or free agency? Will veteran James Hall, who had a team-high 10.5 sacks in 2010, return and make a similar impact in 2011?
It should be a fun offseason in St. Louis.
When Spagnuolo and his players met with the media the day after their season-ending loss to Seattle, each spoke about being excited for the future of the Rams going forward.
"I do believe we have a lot to build on here," Spagnuolo said. "I firmly believe that. I know the players do. People in this building do. There was a lot of good that came out of this season. It's hard to think about that right now, because we're all still a little scarred from yesterday, but I think as time goes on here we'll all realize that we did some good things. I believe this experience that we went through yesterday will make this football team hungry, because when you get right there and you get a little bit of a taste of it, that only just makes you hunger for that particular feeling going forward."
Laurinaitis, who had just wrapped up his second pro season, was eager to start his third NFL season as soon as possible.
"I'm excited about what's ahead for this franchise," he said.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Let's hand out some "Bernie Bits" awards to the 2010 Rams:
MVP, offense: Sam Bradford. Nothing against Steven Jackson, but it's obvious that no player elevated the franchise more in 2010 than Bradford.
MVP, defense: Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Not many MLBs in this league can stop the run and cover downfield the way Laurinaitis does for the Rams. And he's the brains of the defense.
Rookie of the year: Bradford — but a special mention to left offensive tackle Rodger Saffold.
Most disappointing rookie: wide receiver Mardy Gilyard.
Best coach: head coach Steve Spagnuolo. His leadership was, for the most part, outstanding. The Rams handled adversity pretty well and Spags was a positive factor in this. The coach made the right call to go with Bradford as the immediate starter and in playing a role in fast-forwarding Bradford's development. Spags really shined in getting his defensive system installed and teaching the players to thrive in it.
The Rams went from 31st in the league in points allowed in 2009 to 12th in points allowed this season. They went from 29th in allowing third-down conversions to No. 2 in stopping third downs. They were 31st in passer rating against last season and No. 9 this season. The Rams went from 28th in sacks per passing attempt to No. 8 in sacks per passing attempt. And they were dramatically improved in the red zone. The rushing touchdowns against them dropped from 24 to seven.
Worst coaching: The Rams' running game underachieved. The design wasn't creative. It was predictable. The Rams made it easy for the defense to stop. This is a shared responsibility. The head coach, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, offensive line coach Steve Loney.
Best leader: Tough call, but we'll go with Jackson on offense and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe on defense.
Best free agent pickup: defensive tackle Fred Robbins.
Most improved player: defensive end Chris Long. He had a combined 36 quarterback knockdowns and hurries to go along with his 8.5 sacks.
Most underrated player: defensive end James Hall.
Most overrated player: Take your pick of any interior offensive lineman — center Jason Brown or guards Jacob Bell or Adam Goldberg.
Ram-tough award: Danny Amendola, the WR and return man. How many times did he get flattened this season, only to bounce right up?
The Rams' firing of longtime equipment man Todd Hewitt is disgraceful. He did an outstanding job. He was a loyal, devoted employee for decades. Todd and his father, the late Don Hewitt, were as much the Rams' franchise fabric and history as any player or coach or executive. I like Spagnuolo a lot, but I have to say this: I worry about him. I don't want to see him become a paranoid, control-freak head coach who only wants to be surrounded by "his" guys, guys that he brought in.
Spags can disregard this unsolicited advice if he chooses, but I'd really like to see him succeed and win a lot of football games here. But one thing I've learned from watching the good and the bad at Rams Park for the last 16 years is this: It's never healthy for coaches to worry about things that have nothing to do with winning or losing games. It's never healthy for coaches to be insecure about having "their" guys in place all over the building. Hewitt was loyal to the Rams because he deeply loves the franchise — which means he was loyal to Spagnuolo and to all of the men who have passed through as the head coach.
I would also submit that there are far greater concerns at Rams Park. Matters that, in fact, directly impact winning or losing. OK, fire the equipment man and terminate the Hewitt family's historical connection to the Rams. Spags has the right to do that, sure. But is he going to hold "his" guys to the same standards? What about the assistant coaches and their role in the poorly conceived running game? Or the play-calling? Or the puzzling use of personnel? What about the weak game management that led to Jackson getting only 11 carries against a soft run defense in Seattle? Was that it? Did Jackson only get the ball 11 times because Hewitt gave him ill-fitting cleats that made it impossible to avoid tackles? I don't think so.
Rams fans can vote for Bradford as league rookie of the year online at NFL.com. Good to see that St. Louisan Dan Connolly will return to his starting guard job for the New England Patriots for their playoff opener next weekend; Connolly suffered a mild concussion late in the regular season. He's played well and gained acclaim on NBC's Sunday night football with the now famous 71-yard kickoff return that launched the Patriots' comeback win over Green Bay in Week 15.