Every NFL team is entitled to dream at this time of year. It is, after all, a league designed specifically to ensure parity – from the structure annual college draft to the weighting of team’s schedules. A league where an average of five new teams have made the playoffs every year since 2000, and where San Francisco could go from 6-10 in 2010, to the NFC title game 12 months later.
Fans in St Louis – or at least those who have been around long enough to remember the last Millennium – know better than most how quickly fortunes can change. In 1998 the hometown Rams won just four games, and any hopes of an improvement the following season appeared to have been dashed when starting quarterback Trent Green, snapped up after an impressive year in Washington, went down hurt in preseason.
Then came Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf, the former NFL Europe quarterback and supermarket shelf-stackerstepping in to replace Green before leading one of the most prolific offences in league history all the way to victory at Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams, who had not posted a winning record in nine seasons, would go on to make the playoffs in four of the ensuing five.
And yet, as those same Rams approach their regular season opener against Detroit this weekend, optimism is hard to come by. Although there is a general consensus that the appointment of Jeff Fisher as the team’s new head coach was a step in the right direction, the feeling is that it is only the first of hundreds required to get this team back to a place where it can be competitive.
Each of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports predict that the Rams will finish last in the NFC West, while ESPN’s AccuScore programme projected that they would not win a single game. The Associated Press placed St Louis 29th out of the league’s 32 teams in their preseason power rankings. Even the St Louis Post-Dispatch’s Bryan Burwell, while proclaiming himself to be highly encouraged by Fisher’s work thus far, suggested he would be delighted if the team could win six games.
But is the picture really that bleak for the team who will make London their home from home this October? The Rams’ combined record over the past five seasons shows a miserable 15 wins against 65 losses, but is it not also true that as recently as a 12 months ago, people were predicting this team would make a run at the NFC West title after narrowly missing out the previous year?
Certainly St Louis have retained their two most critical pieces on offence from that season: namely running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Sam Bradford. But while the former has been among the most consistently excellent performers at his position for the last six years, the latter seemed to regress last season since being named as offensive rookie of the year in 2010.
Then again, the devil may be in the detail. Bradford had lost his favourite target, Danny Amendola, when the receiver suffered a season-ending injury in week one. The quarterback himself was rarely healthy, sacked on almost one in every 10 dropbacks behind a woeful offensive line, and the team’s trade for receiver Brandon Lloyd was a case of too little, too late.
Those issues have been partially addressed. Amendola enters the season fully recovered, and his importance has been obvious throughout preseason practice – Bradford looking his way constantly in team passing drills. The Rams also picked up Brian Quick early in the second round of the draft, as well as Steve Smith through free agency. Although disrupted greatly by injuries these last two years, the latter caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards for the New York Giants in 2009, and is still only 27.
The offensive line remains a concern, with Pro Bowl center Scott Wells arriving from Green Bay but the problematic right side of the line only marginally improved by the replacement of tackle Jason Smith with Barry Richardson. Bradford has not looked confident in his pass protection through preseason.
But on defence, too, improvements have been made. The team believe they have upgraded at cornerback with free agent signing Cortland Finnegan and second-round draft pick Janoris Jenkins – though the latter does still need to work on his tackling – while outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbarr
impressed through camp after signing from New Orleans. Robert Quinn, a first-round pick last year, could form a menacing defensive end pairing opposite Pro Bowler Chris Long if he can build on his promising rookie year.
The team’s one frustration is that this year’s top pick, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, will not be available to start the season after suffering a high ankle sprain in their final preseason game against the Ravens. At 6ft 5ins and roughly 320lbs, his ability to occupy blockers and clog up running lanes would have been a big boost to what was statistically the second-worst rush defence in the league last year.
But more than any individual new arrival, what really marks this Rams team apart this year is its youth. From having been one of the oldest teams in the league last season, this year they are by some distance the youngest – with an average age well under 26 and a remarkable 17 rookies among their 53-man roster.
"I'm going to cut the cartoons off at the hotel," quipped Fisher when the subject was raised on Wednesday. "Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Have Froot Loops for the pre-game meal." On a more serious note, he added: “It’s exciting. These guys are anxious and eager, they’ve got confidence. I’d much rather coach a young team than an old team.”
Enthusiasm alone, of course, cannot carry a team to success and all those rookies will be thrown in at the deep end on Sunday with a road game against a Detroit Lions team with big ambitions and an even bigger passing game. Just to stay in touch the Rams will need to show drastic offensive improvement from last year, when their 193 points scored over the course of the season were the fewest of any team in the league.
But while it would be naïve to expect such a young team to win straight away then it would also be foolish to dismiss the possibility. Every NFL team is entitled to dream at this time of year, even if some might not dare to so.
In the news…
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
Five-minute interview: Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar
You just signed for the Rams this offseason after four seasons with the Saints. How are you finding things here in your first year in St Louis?
Definitely a lot different to New Orleans! But the people are awesome, the team’s awesome, it’s becoming a home to me. It’s very welcoming, I’m enjoying some of the things around St Louis and I can’t complain.
How is it different to New Orleans?
New Orleans is a party place. That’s just all they do. They’re really good die-hard fans but they like to enjoy themselves and they like to party. This city’s a little calmer but they still love their fans, I’ve been to a few baseball games and the Cardinals games are awesome.
What’s your favourite thing about St Louis so far?
The Cardinals games and the city museum, both of them are fun.
You went to London with the Saints back in 2008. How did you find that experience?
I cannot find one complaint about it. I think Sean Payton did a really good job in terms of getting us rest when we got over there. We had a real strict schedule, but he gave us enough time to actually see London – it was my first time over there so I had a great time in terms of getting around the city and being able to see a few things. I think he did a really good job of managing the schedule and we were able to win the game, so you can’t complain about that.
What was your favourite thing about London?
Piccadilly Circle. I think that’s what it’s called, right?
Close! It’s actually Piccadilly Circus …
Oh my God, but I was close right? It was awesome. But everything about London, really – the red phone booths were very cool.
Anything about it you didn’t like?
I think it was raining, almost every day.
Yeah, I think you’re going to hear that all the time. But besides that it was awesome!
Why should fans in the UK embrace the Rams?
I think we have a close connection with our owner, and then with London, with him owning Arsenal, and I just think we’re one of those teams that is up and coming, and we’re going to go out there and we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to play fast, and we’re going to play physical for them.
Since you mention them, Stan’s not fixing you all up with tickets to see Arsenal when you’re over there, is he?
Uh … no, he’s not! But if he does I won’t complain. I watch a little bit of soccer. I’m not that into it but I do sit down and watch occasionally. I don’t have a team, but I do have players I like watching – Ronaldo, Messi. The really obvious ones, right?