Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rams offense is historically impotent


It's not an illusion, the Rams' offense is as bad as it looks. In fact, with just two games remaining in the 2011 season, the Rams' lack of production has reached historic proportions.

With a league-low 166 points scored, the Rams are on pace to score less than 200 points for only the second time since World II. If the Rams stay on their average of 11.9 points per game, they will complete the 2011 season with 190 points scored.

And given the caliber of the defensive competition in their final two games, the Rams might be lucky to score at all.

Entering their Monday night game at Candlestick Park, Pittsburgh was ranked No. 1 in the league in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense. The Steelers' foe, San Francisco, was No. 4 in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense.

The Rams travel to Pittsburgh for a Christmas Eve game at Heinz Field. Then on Jan. 1, they ring in the New Year by playing host to San Francisco in the season finale at the Edward Jones Dome.

The Steelers are in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Baltimore for the AFC North title. The 49ers, who beat the Rams 26-0 on Dec. 4, still could be in the running for a first-round playoffs bye when they face the Rams. So neither team might be resting any regulars when they play St. Louis.

Before coach Steve Spagnuolo's arrival in 2009, you had to go back 65 years and two cities in franchise history to find a Rams team that scored fewer than 200 points. From 1937 through 1944, the Cleveland Rams never scored more than 196 points in any of the franchise's first seven seasons. (The Rams didn't field a team in 1943.)

But in those days, the Rams played only 10 or 11 games a season, not 16. Even the 1982 Rams during that strike-shortened nine-game season managed to score exactly 200 points.

So from the '44 Rams, who scored 188 points in a 4-6 campaign, one must go all the way forward in time to the '09 club —which scored 175 points — to find another Rams team that scored fewer than 200 in a season.

In '09, Spagnuolo stepped into the considerable mess left by predecessor Scott Linehan, one replete with bad draft picks and failed free agents.

The 2010 offense under rookie quarterback Sam Bradford was much improved, scoring 114 more points than the '09 squad, marking the second-best improvement in points scored in the NFL by a team from '09 to 2010.

But despite the signing of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the drafting of two wide receivers and a tight end in Rounds 2-4, the trade for Brandon Lloyd and the signing of offensive lineman Harvey Dahl in free agency, the Rams have regressed noticeably in this injury-plagued 2011 season.

As Dahl said after the Rams' 20-13 loss Sunday to Cincinnati, "We just can't get it all connected on offense."

Not even close.

The Rams rank last in the league in third-down conversion rate (26.9 percent) and are 30th in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 35.7 percent of their possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

"It's hard to move the ball when you're not converting on third down," Spagnuolo said following the loss to Cincinnati. "We haven't been able to generate those explosive plays, and that's kind of been the story a lot.

"For whatever reason (defenses) are taking away certain weapons that they defend a certain way. We've got to try to manufacture some points working our way down the field. It's hard to be perfect for however number of plays, but one thing we've got to do is convert on third down."

With a tattered offensive and no true fullback on the roster, the Rams had trouble gaining inches — much less yards — on third down against the Bengals.

In going 0-for-eight on third-down conversions through three quarters, the Rams never faced any situation longer than third-and-7.

They had a third-and-1, third-and-2, third-and-3, and third-and-four plays — all very manageable down-and-distance situations. But they had minus-10 yards to show for those eight third-down plays:

• Steven Jackson was stopped for 1- and 2-yard losses on runs.

• Kellen Clemens was sacked twice.

• Clemens threw incomplete once and scrambled once for one yard (on third-and-2).

• The only other plays to gain positive yardage besides Clemens' scramble were a 1-yard completion to Lloyd on third-and-4 and a 5-yard completion to Danario Alexander on third-and-6.

A facemask penalty against the Bengals' defense did give the Rams a first down on third-and-1 in the second quarter, but because it came on a penalty it wasn't counted in the conversion stats. On the actual play, Lloyd lined up in the backfield took a pitch from Clemens, and was nailed for a 3-yard loss.

So the red zone remains the dead zone for the Rams, and the act of actually crossing the goal line remains a rarity.

The Rams have scored only 15 TDs this season, and if that number doesn't change against Pittsburgh and San Francisco, it will be the second-lowest total in franchise history — trailing only the 10 TDs scored by the Cleveland Rams in 1937.

And if the Rams don't score at least 34 points over their final two games, they will become just the 15th team in the NFL since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to score fewer than 200 points.

Those hardly are "milestones" a team wants to reach.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kroenke plotting changes for Rams

by Bryan Burwell

SAN FRANCISCO • By now the details are no longer very important. Let's just say that Sunday in Candlestick Park for the Rams was just like any other NFL Sunday — another bad loss in another lost season that makes every game day feel like a regurgitated Groundhog's Day nightmare for this really bad football team.

By the end of this 26-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the 2-10 Rams were doing what they always do, marching glumly off the field while another team celebrated. The Niners were prancing around Candlestick doing all sorts of silly dances and waving and blowing kisses to their giddy fans after clinching the NFC West title. And while the Niners partied, the Rams were forced to ponder their increasingly sorry state, which appears to be getting more hopeless as the weeks go by.

This may have been the worst loss of all, because the Rams had absolutely no chance of ever winning this game. Seriously. No chance at all. Not when your injury-plagued, patchwork offense is physically incapable of scoring. I'm not trying to be flippant, either. The Rams' offense is now averaging less than a touchdown per game, which should not be possible in professional football. But on Sunday, the Rams' offense had one offensive possession (out of 12) all game that was over five plays and never came within 37 yards of the end zone all day long.
Oops, I said I wouldn't bore you with details.

At this point in this franchise's unsteady history, the only thing that any of you really want to know is when and how this bad football will ever end. There's only one man who can provide those answers and his name is Stan Kroenke, the majority owner, who is not exactly reclusive but does not particularly regard public attention as essential as air or water.

While it's popular to characterize Kroenke as some indifferent absentee owner, nothing could be further from the truth. As I've told you before, he's almost always around on game days but usually slips out some back door in the locker room before reporters can get close. But Sunday, Kroenke decided not to make a hasty exit. Instead, he lingered in the cramped visitors' locker room, slowly navigating his way over and around half-filled equipment bags, discarded balls of tape, helmets and shoulder pads. The man who hasn't said very much publicly about the state of his woeful football team quietly moved from locker stall to locker stall, shaking hands and whispering in the ears of his dispirited employees.

With some players, it was nothing more than a firm handshake and a quick word. With others, Kroenke lingered a bit longer, placing a hand on a shoulder, maybe holding on to a forearm, too. But each time, he looked them all square in their eyes and spoke to nearly every player in the room.

"I just wanted them to know that I appreciated their efforts," Kroenke would say a few minutes later as he stood in a narrow hallway just outside the locker room. "I know they don't count that in the NFL, but I wanted to make sure the players knew I do appreciate their effort."
And that was pretty much it. He chatted politely for a few more minutes before making a retreat into the parking lot where a car was waiting to whisk him off to a waiting jet at the nearby airport.

Is he mad or frustrated? Is he about to lose his mind and fire everyone in sight, and quite a few who aren't? Is he plotting the complete overthrow of the front office and coaching staff or does he have a more surgical renovation in mind?

I'd like to tell you that Kroenke unburdened his mind like he was on a therapist's couch. But that's not Kroenke's style.

"As you know we don't discuss or make these kinds of decisions during the season," is all he was willing to say at this point.

But understand this. The man is not taking all this losing lightly. You could see it in his expressions as he moved around the locker room. People who know him well say he is extremely frustrated by what has transpired in his second season as majority owner and at the proper time — which is not in the middle of the season — he will decide what needs to be done. They say he is paying very close attention but feels no overwhelming need to prove that he is some boisterous ownership tough guy who needs to stand in front of microphones and TV cameras calling subordinates on the carpet.

Just because he's not going all George Steinbrenner on us doesn't mean he's playing the role of indifferent absentee owner.

In his typical "Silent Stanley" style, he prefers the low-key approach. The people who know him best say he has been gathering every snippet of information for the past two seasons — probably longer than that, really, since he's been around this franchise since 1995 — and when the season is over, he will be able to intelligently evaluate who, what, when, where and how things didn't work.

Of equal importance, his fact finding must also sort out who and what is working.

I've told you this before and I will continue to maintain this: Kroenke will not automatically utilize the scorched earth approach when all is said and done. People who he believes are part of the solution could survive regardless of popular opinion, and those who he believes are part of the problem will be gone.

There will be evaluations about the current operating structure of the football organization. There will be appraisals about how decisions are made, who makes them, when they make them, and if they should be making them.

There will be accountability in every aspect of the operation of this organization, and in the end, changes will be made.

But do not be surprised or disappointed if he does not follow the whims of popular opinion.
Quite frankly, draw comfort from that.