Friday, July 27, 2012

A History Lesson from 1998 and Hope for 2012


Tony Banks. Remember that guy? He was the Rams' starting QB in 1998. Banks completed a respectable 59.1 percent of his passes but threw 14 interceptions to only seven touchdowns. To be fair to Banks, he didn't have much to work with.
His leading receiver was Amp Lee, a running back, who caught 64 passes. The team's best receiver, Issac Bruce, only played in five games. Bruce managed only 32 catches in '98 and caught only one touchdown. Ricky Proehl caught 60 passes and looked like a decent third or fourth receiver. Unfortunately for the Rams, Proehl was the top wideout on the team.
The Rams went through five starting running backs, ranging from Robert Holcombe to the immortal Amp Lee. Incredibly, the Rams' leading rusher that season, June Henley, ran for only 313 yards. The Rams were still reeling from the boneheaded decision to draft Lawrence Phillips in in 1996, and we all remember how that turned out.
Yes, the Rams were bad in 1998. They were pitiful, pathetic, a laughingstock. At 4-12, they had the 24th ranked offense in the league (17.8 ppg) and the 24th ranked defense (23.6 ppg). This was a team going nowhere.


So after the debacle that was the 1998 Rams, the team overhauled everything in 1999. They traded for Marshall Faulk, drafted Torry Holt and brought in Trent Green as a free agent. So the Rams filled holes as QB, RB and WR.
The Rams looked good in the preseason, but then Green went down with a season-ending knee injury. Luckily for Rams' fans, the team had a future Hall of Famer and former grocery bagger on the bench in Kurt Warner. Once Warner teamed up with Faulk, Holt and Bruce, "The Greatest Show on Turf" was born.
Orlando Pace, entering his third season and just his second as a full-time starter, emerged as a dominant left tackle. Role players like Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakeem became just that—role players. So instead of being overmatched as starters, they were terrific complementary players.
A team that looked so awful in 1998 took the NFL by storm. The Rams had the No. 1 ranked offense and the No. 4 ranked defense in the NFL. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, they also won the Super Bowl.


The Rams were terrible in 2011. They had the 32nd ranked offense (12.1 points per game) and the 26th ranked defense (25.4 points per game). The Rams finished the season at 2-14, marking the fourth time in five years the team won three or less games.
However, if you look past the numbers, you'll see that this is a team that had a little bit of talent. The problem was, they didn't have any depth. So when the tsunami of injuries hit the Rams, and they lost their front-line talent, they were left exposed.
The Rams lost both starting offensive tackles last season. They lost their top three corners before halftime of Week 1. They also lost their best receiver for the season in the first half of Week 1. To make matters worse, the team was going through all of this while trying to learn a brand new offense when they didn't have a true offseason to learn it.
It was just a mess.
With no protection, and nobody to throw the ball to, starting QB Sam Bradford was beat to a pulp. He ended up missing six games because of injuries, and he never looked like the same player who was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year just a season ago.


So what does all this have to do with the Rams now? Well, just like in 1998, the Rams are coming off of a terrible season, and just like in 1998, the Rams have several new pieces. I'm not saying the Rams will go 13-3 or win the Super Bowl, but they will be a lot better than they were a year ago.
Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Steve Smith were all brought in to upgrade the receivers. Danny Amendola, the most consistent receiver the Rams have, also returns from injury. Steven Jackson is still a beast, and the Rams also brought in Isaiah Pead, a talented rookie, to give Jackson some help.
There is no doubt the Rams are more explosive on offense.
There are still questions on offense. One, just how good is Sam Bradford?
Also, will we ever find out how good Bradford is if the o-line keeps getting him killed? I think Bradford could be really, really good, but this o-line has to play a lot better. With both starting tackles coming back from injuries, and an All Pro center brought in via free agency, the line should be much, much better in 2012.
The defense has a pair of studs at defensive end and two new starting defensive tackles. James Laurinaitis is one of the best MLBs in the NFL. Two talented corners return from injury, but they'll likely be backups to Cortland Finnegan (free agent), Janoris Jenkins (draft), and Trumaine Johnson (draft).
Darian Stewart was a bright spot at safety last year, and he is paired up with veteran Quintin Mickell, who is also a good player.
The Rams' D looks very good on paper. The lone question mark is at OLB, where the Rams are relying on retreads and rookies.
The Rams' offense will be much improved as long as the O Line plays better in 2012. With new head coach Jeff Fisher and new o-line coach Paul Boudreau, these guys are going to play hard-nosed football, or they'll be looking for a new job next year.
So, the Prediction?

The Rams have added Brian Quick, Isaiah Pead, Chris Givens, Scott Wells, Rokevius Watkins and Steve Smith on offense. Danny Amendola, Greg Salas, Jason Smith, and Rodger Saffold are all returning from injury.
On defense, the Rams brought in Cortland Finnegan, Kendall Langford, Jo Lonn Dunbar, Trevor Laws, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Matt Daniels. They have Bradley Fletcher, and Jerome Murphy coming back from injury.
The Rams, needing one starter and a lot of depth at OLB, have brought in Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown, Justin Cole, Mario Haggan, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Josh Hull, Noah Keller and Rocky McIntosh to battle it out in camp. If one or two of these players emerge as reliable players, the Rams will have filled a major team need.
Add it all up, and the Rams have 20-22 "new players" if you consider guys like Amendola and Fletcher didn't even get to play last year. That is a major infusion of talent to this roster, assuming the players we drafted are actually good NFL football players.
So what does it all mean? What's the point?
I believe we are headed for a major improvement over what we saw a year ago. I think the Rams will win as many as nine games, maybe even 10 if everything goes absolutely perfect. Or maybe they'll suffer key injuries, the o-line will struggle again and Bradford will get beat up. Maybe they'll only win four games.
Either way, this is a much better football team than it was in 2011.