Monday, November 28, 2011

Spags Deserves All the Blame

by Bryan Burwell

There have been plenty of times during the course of his struggling run as the Rams' coach that when the smoke cleared on another Sunday afternoon debacle you could always find some thin wisp of promise in Steve Spagnuolo's reclamation project. Sometimes — heck, most of the time — it took a lot of squinting to see the good amidst the disaster of a 10-33 record.

But there always has been something this man's focused, relentlessly optimistic, tunnel-vision public approach and his unwavering "My way or the highway" control-freak personality behind the scenes that convinced me Spagnuolo eventually would find a way to fix this mess of a franchise and turn the Rams into championship contenders.

That faith was shaken hard Sunday. The results we've been waiting to see — the big turnaround after last year's surprising leap from a 1-15 disaster in 2009 to a 7-9 season that had everyone believing the Rams were on the verge of winning the NFC West title — just have not happened. The Rams are getting worse, not better. With a 23-20 loss to Arizona on Sunday, the Rams are now 2-9 and guaranteed of an eighth consecutive non-winning season.

In the midst of all this losing, here's what continues to be so fascinating about Spagnuolo. He does not show any of the normal signs of an embattled head coach. Watch him during and after games. He does not show any of the disturbing body language of a coach on the hot seat. There are no slumped shoulders, no hang-dog expressions, no back-against-the-wall emotional flailing. Spagnuolo did not sound like a coach on the endangered list full of regret and half-baked alibis.

Even while the rest of us are screaming at the results of some of his coaching decisions, Spagnuolo conducts himself with the confident air of a man who firmly believes he still is in complete control of his environment.

"I think our team is passionate," he said. "I mean the work I see when they go out, I don't think there's a lack of effort. We know we're a little short-handed in some spots. ... But my pride and competitiveness says that no matter what, we've got to find a way to win."

But the cold-blooded business of coaching does not reward coaches for their outstanding personality traits or hand out A's for effort. The halls of Canton are full of jerks, reprobates and brow-beating maniacs who have stalked NFL sidelines. This is a bottom-line business and winning is all that matters. What does it mean that his players don't quit? What does it mean that they fight to the bitter end every Sunday? What does it mean that his team is full of real professionals who refuse to use injuries as excuses?

It doesn't buy him much more than the opportunity to let the season play out, giving him the full 16 games to determine his fate.

But on Sunday, Spagnuolo committed the sort of glaring coaching errors that under the best of circumstances get owners looking at you sideways, and in the worst of circumstances — such as a loss that sends your team falling deeper into the abyss of another lost season — gets a giant target plastered on your chest.

Add this to the growing list of games we've seen far too many times this season. This was a game against a bad foe that didn't deserve to win. But it was yet another game the Rams gave away, and they gave it away because of failed decisions by the coach.

In the third quarter, trailing 13-10, they had a fourth-and-1 play on their own 30-yard line and the entire crowd rumbling in anticipation that Spagnuolo would go for the first down. It was one of those moments in which a struggling team already eliminated from playoff contention — with six games left — had nothing to lose. When Spagnuolo asked for a measurement, it showed the Rams were only half the length of a football away from a first down.

But Spagnuolo ordered a punt.

"It was just way too early in the third quarter," Spagnuolo said. "We're on our own 30. I just felt it was too risky in my opinion."

What exactly would 'Spags' have risked by going for it? The expiration date on the season already is long gone. The only thing the Rams are jockeying for is favorable position in the first round of next spring's NFL draft. So where was the risk? Even if they failed to get the first down, you don't second guess the decision to go for it because it was the bold thing to do and the right thing to do.

What happened next was an "out of the frying pan and into the fire" moment for Spagnuolo. He ordered the punt, but instead of Donnie Jones using the directional punt to the sidelines, he hit one right down the middle of the field to Cardinals return man Patrick Peterson, the rookie from LSU who already had three touchdowns of 80 yards or more on punt returns (including the game-winning 99-yarder the last time these teams met).

"The intent was not to go down the middle," said Spagnuolo.

The intent did not match the result. All together now: Arrrrrrrrrrgggggggh! One juke here, one wiggle there and whooooosh. .... Peterson hit top speed and dashed 80 yards untouched for a touchdown that gave the Cards a 20-10 lead.

This might have been the most disastrous sequence of coaching decisions I've seen Spagnuolo make in his three seasons as the Rams' coach. But we only had to wait about 20 more minutes before he made another decision that would produce another agonizing collective groan.

With 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Rams now trailing by three points, Spagnuolo was faced with another fourth-and-1 situation. The ball was on the St. Louis 36 and this time he didn't hesitate. He called for another punt, and that was the ballgame.

"I thought it was (fourth and 2)," Spagnuolo said. "I thought it was 2 yards (not 1). We had three timeouts (and) I thought if we could hold them, didn't let them get the first down, we're going to get the ball right back."

He must have been the only one who thought that because his defense had been shredded by the Cardinals on the ground all game long, giving up a staggering 268 yards rushing, including 228 by Beanie Wells. The Cardinals were averaging more than 7 yards a carry, and there was absolutely a zero shot that the Rams would get the ball back again.

And the Rams never got the ball back. They used all three timeouts and the Cardinals ran out the clock.

There's another clock that is still ticking, and it's the one that measures the time remaining on Spagnuolo's head-coaching life. I still think there's a chance to keep it running, but it's dwindling. Can he control that clock and make this thing work?

We have five weeks to see if he can.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top priority — protect Bradford

by Bernie M

The Rams' primary objective for the rest of the season should be perfectly clear: adjust the offense and do everything possible to protect and preserve QB Sam Bradford. He's been sacked 37 times this season, more than any NFL QB. (And that's with missing two games because of  an ankle injury.) Bradford is near the top of the board for most hits and most hurries. One injury has already taken him out of the lineup. What's the point of allowing Bradford to absorb a needless beating? What is being gained by having Bradford withstand so much physical punishment?
Having Bradford rocked and slammed to the ground would be OK if the Rams actually had something to show for his bruises. Kurt Warner took more hits than any QB during the "Greatest Show" glory days, but the trade-off resulted in one of the greatest performances in NFL history. The Rams threw 116 TD passes and and averaged 32.6 points per game over a three-season period (1999-2001.) All of those hits eventually impacted Warner's health and career, but Kurt and the Rams were willing to pay that price. Bradford is a tough QB; he doesn't complain about getting smacked around.
Bradford -- like Warner and any competitive quarterback -- is willing to stand in, suffer the pain of a nasty hit and make the throw. They will sacrifice if it means making a play. But Sam and the Rams are getting nothing in return for this steady QB abuse. They're last in the NFL in points per game (12), they're last in touchdowns from scrimmage (10), they have the league's worst third-down conversion rate (29.9 pct.) they rank 30th of 32 teams in yards per passing attempt (5.81), they are 27th in average yards at the point of the catch (5.5) and are tied with Jacksonville for the fewest number of TD passes (6).
The Rams aren't making big plays, they aren't scoring, they aren't winning. So again, please tell me: what is possibly being achieved by exposing Bradford and increasing the likelihood of injury or advanced erosion in his play? We've already watched Bradford descend into regression, and in my opinion there's no question that a lot of this is related to the cumulative effects of the punishment he's taking in this offense.
Last season, in the more conservative and cautious West Coast offense coordinated by Pat Shurmur, the Rams did a very good job of protecting Bradford. He played every snap of the 16-game season. He was sacked only 34 times. Only 11 NFL teams had a better rate of sacks per play (5.4 pct.) than the Rams. Shurmur's approach gave Bradford a lot of quick, three-step dropbacks and short throws. The system kept Bradford secure, enhanced his confidence and gave him a chance to take root in the NFL.
Oh, and by the way: the offense that caused so many fans to go wacko in ripping Shurmur also averaged 18.1 points per game. It was more productive than the sputtering Josh McDaniels offense we're seeing now. Shurmur-ball was hardly an air show, and it tended to be bland. But the small-ball Shurmur offense manufactured a lot of long drives, kept the chains moving, and kept the Rams defense fresh. The small-ball offense greatly reduced the number of hits on the QB and gave Bradford a chance to make plays. Last November 11, I wrote a column about the benefits of the Shurmur offense and was ridiculed for it, but I doubt that anyone of sound mind would dispute my premise these days.
The Josh McDaniels offense may not be as boring in terms of philosophy, but it isn't working. Bradford isn't being protected. Bradford isn't getting better. And the Rams aren't rolling up points. The McDaniels offense is averaging six points less a game than the Shurmur offense. With the Shurmur style the Rams ranked 14th in time of possession last season; this season they rank 26th.  
No, the Rams can't reinstall the West Coast Offense.
But they can modify what they have. With the injuries wrecking the team's supply of offensive tackles, it's imperative to take extra measures to limit the damage on Bradford. No more of this empty-backfield nonsense. If a young and inexperienced kid (Kevin Hughes) has to play left offensive tackle, you'd better line up a tight end next to him to help keep the wolves away from Bradford's throat. The Rams have to grind it out on the ground as much as possible with Steven Jackson. McDaniels has to simplify the offense and scale it down -- the way the Rams did for backup A.J. Feeley -- and give Bradford more three-step drops and quick throws.
If it's boring, who cares?
At least this will increase the chances of keeping Bradford safe. It will cut down on the possibility of Bradford becoming the next victim of The Battered Quarterback Syndrome (Marc BulgerDavid Carr, etc.)
Besides, what we've seen through the first 10 games -- an average of 12 points and only 10 TDs from scrimmage -- is hardly exciting. It's statistically  the worst offense in the National Football League. (Talk about boring.)
And it's getting the quarterback killed, for no good reason.
"I'm worried about Sam," Steven Jackson told 101 ESPN on Monday.
If McDaniels won't alter the offense, it's up to head coach Steve Spagnuolo to intervene. That's what good leaders do.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Good fortune shines on Rams in rare win

It was strange and ugly, befitting the status of two teams with a combined record for 4-12 entering the game. But the Rams were beneficiaries of rare good fortune, with a potential game-winning field goal by Cleveland going awry on a fouled up long snap with 2 minutes 13 to play.

The Rams were able to run out the clock and survive for a 13-12 victory over Cleveland. The Rams improved to 2-7 overall with Cleveland falling to 3-6.

The Rams got their first touchdown since the New Orleans game two weeks ago _ and scored in the red zone, no less _ but they missed out on a couple of other opportunities and led by only 10-9 at the half.

Coach Steve Spagnuolo opted against a 52-yard field goal attempt on the Rams' first possession, even though it looked like Josh Brown would've made the kick with the wind at his back. When punter Donnie Jones' subsequent punt rolled into the end zone, the Rams had gained only 14 yards of field position on the change of possession with the Browns taking over on their 20.

With 10 of 11 plays gaining eight yards or less, the Browns got on the scoreboard first, on Phil Dawson's 44-yard field goal with 4:56 to go in the first quarter. This 3-0 lead was practically cause for parade in Cleveland, because the Browns had been outscored 58-6 in their first eight games.

The lead didn't last long. The Rams carved out a long drive of their own, and this one ended up in the end zone on a 7-yard pass from San Bradford to Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd beat Cleveland's best cornerback, Joe Haden, on the play by faking an inside post route and then breaking outside and into the clear.

But the Rams managed only one more score in the first half, and that came on a 29-yard Brown field goal after a drive stalled in _ surprise _ the red zone with 1:07 left in the half.

Earlier in the second quarter, St. Louis also committed a turnover near midfield when a Bradford pass was tipped and intercepted by Browns linebacker Scott Fujita.

Meanwhile, Dawson kept kicking field goals for the Browns. Field goal No. 2 came midway through the second quarter after a trick play. Wide receiver Joshua Cribbs lined up at quarterback in the wildcat formation, and then tossed a handoff to quarterback Colt McCoy, who then threw a 21-yard pass to backup quarterback Seneca Wallace.

After the halftime break, Dawson tacked on two more field goals to give Cleveland a 12-10 lead The Rams were moving the ball well after taking the second-half kickoff, but then came a rare fumble by Steven Jackson, fighting to reach the first-down marking after taking a short pass from Bradford.

Browns linebacker Chris Gocong forced and recovered the fumble, Jackson's first lost fumble of the season and just the 15th in more than 2,300 career touches. The Browns didn't score off that turnover, but it helped them out field position-wise, and Dawson's fourth field goal of the day gave Cleveland a 12-10 lead with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.

With injured players dropping left and right for the Rams, Jackson remained a constant. Jackson topped 100 yards rushing for the third game in a row early in the fourth quarter. But even thought Cleveland entered the game ranked 30th in run defense, most of the yards didn't come easy for Jackson.

A special teams takeaway helped the Rams regain the lead. Linebacker David Nixon, signed four days ago by the Rams to help on special teams because of injuries to Josh Hull and Bryan Kehl, did just that. He stripped punt returner Cribbs of the football, with linebacker Ben Leber recovering the fumble at the Cleveland 5.

Two runs by Jackson gained 11 yards and put the Rams in field goal range. But a third-and-3 pass attempt at the Cleveland 9 resulted in a sack of Bradford. So the Rams settled for a Brown field goal and a tenuous 13-12 lead with 7:42 to play.

Just how tenuous that lead was became apparent on the next play, when Brown's kickoff rolled out of bounds inside the 5-yard line. That's a penalty, with the ball spotted automatically on the Cleveland 40. Three plays later, the Browns had a first down at the Rams' 19, and time dwindling.

On fourth down from the 4, facing little more than an extra point, the Browns lined up for a potential game-winning field goal. Dawson is one of the game's most reliable kickers. But in one of the strangest field goal attempts you'll ever see, long snapper Brian Pontbriand's snap accidentally caroomed off guard Alex Mack's leg. The snap skipped back to holder Brad Maynard, but Dawson's timing was thrown off.

The kick was low and to the left and the Rams hung on for the victory.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rams lose on 99-yard punt return in OT


GLENDALE, ARIZ. -- So much for what happened last week against New 
Orleans. So much for any November momentum.

It all vanished into the desert evening at University of Phoenix Stadium 
with Arizona's Patrick Peterson twisting and turning 99 yards through 
the Rams punt coverage team for his third punt return touchdown of the 
season to defeat the Rams 19-13 in overtime.

The Rams couldn't hold a 13-6 led late in the fourth quarter and thus 
drop to 1-7 on the season. Coach Steve Spagnuolo is now 9-31 in his 
third season as Rams head coach, and the clock is ticking.

A sack by defensive end Chris Long that led to a loss of 16 yards forced 
Arizona to punt with just under a minute to play. Then, Austin Pettis -- 
who had trouble even signaling for a fair catch when he started 
returning punts earlier this season, gave the Rams decent field position 
at their 36 with a 19-yard return. Pettis then caught a 23-yard pass to 
advance the ball into Arizona territory at the 41.

After a short pass to Pettis, a pass interference call against Arizona, 
and an 8-yard run by Steven Jackson, Josh Brown lined up for a 42-yard 
field goal with 4 seconds to play. But 6-foot-8 Arizona defensive end 
Calais Campbell steamed through to block the kick and force overtime at 

The Rams had taken a 13-6 lead on a pair of third-quarter safeties. The 
safeties came on back-to-back defensive plays following Donnie Jones 
punts. On the first, defensive end James Hall split a double team by 
left tackle Levi Brown and left guard Daryn Colledge to sack John 
Skelton, who started in place of the injured Kevin Kolb at quarterback.

That safety gave St. Louis an 11-6 lead with 7:24 to play. The Rams 
could do nothing after the Arizona free kick, with Jones punting out of 
bounds at the Arizona 9. On the Cardinals' first play from scrimmage 
following the Jones punt, C.J. Ah You ran down Skelton and was in the 
process of bringing him down to the ground when Skelton frantically 
tried to throw the ball away.

The play was ruled intentional grounding, and since it took place in the 
end zone, it was another safety. Two safeties, less than 4 minutes 
apart. It was the first time since Minnesota in 2008 that a team had two 
safeties in one game.

But the 13-6 lead disappeared in one fell swoop when Skelton found Larry 
Fitzgerald in the back of the end zone for a 13-yard TD to tie the game 
13-13 with 4:51 to play. Fitzgerald lined up in the slot on the play and 
no Rams cornerback picked him up. He ended up having only a linebacker 
and a safety to beat for the score.

The first half was all about field goals, with Brown kicking three to 
give the Rams a 9-3 halftime lead. Wearing a brace for his high ankle 
sprain that went halfway up his left calf, Bradford moved around well 
enough, surviving three first-half sacks and even scrambling once for a 
couple of yards. Midway through the opening quarter, he nimbly 
sidestepped the Arizona pass rush, stepped up in the pocket and zipped a 
22-yard completion over the middle to Brandon Gibson.

The Rams dominated time of possession (20:02 to 9:58) and piled up the 
yards (189 to 58), but in an all-too-familiar story couldn't get over 
the hump when they got in scoring territory. They settled for the first 
Brown field goal, from 48 yards, after rookie outside linebacker Sam 
Acho got a sack in his third consecutive game by dropping Bradford for a 
three-yard loss on third-and-4 from the Arizona 27.

Midway through the second, the Rams faced a third-and-1 from the Big Red 
17, when Arizona safety Adrian Wilson shot through a gap on a run blitz 
and dropped Jackson for a two-yard loss. The result was a 37-yard Brown 
field goal and a 6-3 lead.

Brown made it 9-3 with a 41-yarder as time expired in the first half. On 
third-and-2 from the Arizona 20, pressure up the middle from Arizona 
cornerback Richard Marshall resulted in another sack.

Arizona couldn't get much going. A 22-yard punt return by Patrick 
Peterson became a 37-yard play when Brit Miller was flagged 15 yards for 
a late hit on Peterson. The Cardinals gained two first downs but had to 
settled for a 27-yard Jay Feely field goal on what was their first 
possession of the game.

The Cardinals crossed midfield only once the rest of the half, and 
reached only the St. Louis 48 at that. But Arizona put together its best 
drive to open the second half marching 58 yards before Feely's 38-yard 
field goal narrowed the Rams' lead to 9-6 with 10:30 left in the third