The St. Louis Rams limped into the offseason with a 2-14 record and almost enough players on the injured reserve list to field an entire team on offense and defense. That was the follow-up to a promising 2010 campaign in which the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, quarterback Sam Bradford, took his team to within one game of the playoffs.
St. Louis has not been to the postseason since 2004, and it was clear that they were not going there with Steve Spagnuolo as the head coach and Billy Devaney as general manager. Busted draft picks, throw-away free agents and unmet needs prevented a Rams turnaround that should have started in 2009.
Enter Jeff Fisher.
Owner Stan Kroenke cleaned house in January, firing Spaguolo and Devaney and letting the rest of the coaching staff walk. Kroenke bested Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to hire Fisher, the most prized catch on the coaching market. Why was Fisher so coveted? Experience, stability and a track record for turning around a team. Fisher's value lies in his no-nonsense approach to the game. He brings an intensity, hidden behind an immovable, well-coiffed mustache, that the franchise has lacked since the Greatest Show on Turf era in the middle 1990s.
Fisher and the Rams' brass then went out and hired Les Snead, a Thomas Dimitroff disciple, to be the general manager. A March trade for a heaping helping of draft picks marked the first step toward building and sustaining a winning team in St. Louis.
The Rams plodded through the 2011 season. Injuries wiped out their secondary and the offensive line, as well as random other players here and there on the roster. The most alarming development in St. Louis last season was watching Sam Bradford regress.
Several factors contributed to Bradford's stunted growth. Changing offensive coordinators - the Rams hired Josh McDaniels - in the midst of a lockout shortened season got things off on the wrong foot. Poor offensive line play followed by injuries to the unit got Bradford sacked at very high rate. Eventually, the quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain that put him on the sideline for five games.
Adding to the troubles, the Rams defense proved to be little more than a nuisance for opposing running backs. It was a recipe for disaster, a 2-14 disaster to be exact.
Best Free Agent Pickup
The Rams signed Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan to a $50 million deal in March. Finnegan is the prototypical Fisher player whose passion and skill combine to frustrate opposing receivers. He'll be the heart and soul of the defensive backfield. Finnegan also gives them a top-flight corner to matchup with their opponents' top receivers.
2012 NFL Draft
The Rams went into the draft with high marks after trading the second overall pick to Washington. It loaded them up on draft picks, including an extra second rounder this year and two additional first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
With their top two targets - Justin Blackmon and Trent Richardson - off the board, the Rams swung another deal with Dallas to nab an extra second rounder and draft LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers with the 14th overall pick. Brockers will pair with free agent Kendall Langford to give a strong center to a defensive line bookended by an pair of talented pass rushers in Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
The pick that defined the Rams' draft was North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who they picked with the 39th selection. Jenkins is supremely talented, but off-field concerns pushed him down draft boards. If the Rams can keep the distractions to a minimum, Jenkins can be a star. They beefed up their secondary even more with Montana CB Trumaine Johnson in Round 3, another talented player whose off-field issues dropped his draft stock. A weak secondary looks like the team's best unit now.
The Rams also needed offensive talent, specifically at receiver and a viable backup for 29 year old Steven Jackson. They drafted the lanky, sure-handed Brian Quick from Appalachian State in the second and Wake Forest's Chris Givens, a vertical threat, in the fourth round. Snead and Co. grabbed the versatile Isaiah Pead from Cincinnati with the third of their second-round picks.
From SB Nation's Turf Show Times:
As bad as the Rams were last year, they still musted six sacks in two games against the Cardinals. Levi Brown is still a starter on their offensive line. Kevin Kolb and/or John Skelton is still their quarterback. Backed by a healthy, improved Rams secondary and a fearsome pass rush, they should roll over the Cardinals offense this season.
Seattle is a much better team, admittedly, but they still have a mix of WTFs at quarterback. Keep Sidney Rice in check - no problem for Finnegan - and the Rams defense should give Seattle's offense fits.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Bradford and the offense have to rebound from the unit that averaged 12.1 points per game in 2011. The quarterback needs to stay upright, and the Rams need big leaps forward from guys like TE Lance Kendricks and Steve Smith, as well as the two rookie receivers. If Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead form the one-two punch they're capable of being, the Rams offense will finally start finding the end zone. Unfortunately for the Rams and the other teams in the division, they need the 49ers to trip over their own feet.