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.