When you have waited as long as St. Louis has just for barely respectable football to return to this victory-starved town, it’s often understandable how easily everyone can be seduced into falling for short-term quick fixes.
When you crave something long enough — when you’ve wandered aimlessly through nearly a decade worth of NFL desolation like Rams fans have — you better believe how easily a mirage can be mistaken for a miracle. The Rams recent past is full of those hazy illusions. The hopelessly overmatched Scott Linehan went 8-8 in his first year before descending into a two-year 5-27 free fall that got him fired in midseason. The earnest Steve Spagnuolo went 7-9 in his second year, then bottomed out into a 2-14 nightmare a year later.
So observe these 2012 Rams very carefully as Jeff Fisher and his tag-team partner general manager Les Snead attempt to rebuild this franchise quickly, but without making any foolish quick-fix missteps. The true art to making a rebuilding job stick is to do it quick but without rushing. With two games to play in their first season on the job, Fisher and Snead might truly be on to something, even if you might still be swallowing hard on that seriously disappointing loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday that essentially eliminated the Rams from the NFC playoff picture.
With a 6-7-1 record with two games to go, a remarkable one-season turnaround from 2-14 to 8-7-1 record isn’t out of the question. Even a 7-8-1 finish would be considered by any reasonable measure a wildly successful first year.
But Fisher and Snead aren’t into quick fixes, and the pragmatist in me wouldn’t be all that upset right now if the Rams ended up stuck on six victories for this season for any number of reasons. Let’s begin with the most obvious one, though.
Six victories is just enough to tell you that you’re moving in the right direction without selling you on foolish dreams. After all the bad football we’ve seen around here since 2004, I don’t want to see flash-in-the-pan improvements. I want to see slow, steady and intelligent improvements that will not only certify that the Rams are better off than they were a year ago, but that they’re ascending toward a more permanent place among NFL playoff royalty again.
It was good to see Fisher on Monday standing in front of the Rams Park auditorium doing what he always does, which is stay even keeled and focused on the demanding task at hand. When someone wondered if now that the Rams playoff hopes were over, whether Fisher would treat the final two games of the season like a baseball manager dealing with September call-ups of all the minor-league prospects, the coach sort of chuckled.
“(You mean) to play the younger players?” he said, smirking. “We’ve been playing just about every young player we’ve got. So no, we’re not going to change a thing. We’re going to have fun on the practice field, study, prepare and try to face the next challenge.”
The next challenge is to continue getting a long, hard and unemotional look at the players on this roster because even though the young Rams were technically fighting for a playoff berth with this early December revival, the cold-blooded truth is their very noticeable flaws still made them very much a rebuilding team.
The goal here isn’t to simply build a team that can sneak into the playoffs. It’s to construct something with a deep foundation that will promise years and years of consistent contention and legitimate championship aspirations.
The fact that the Rams were coming off such a wretched 2-14 season usually means that the NFL schedule makers do them a solid by giving them a weaker schedule for this season.
Instead, the schedule makers did just the opposite, sticking the Rams with one of the toughest schedules in football. And you ought to call that a blessing. Going into the 2012 season, based on the 2011 records of their opponents, the Rams schedule was rated as the fourth-toughest in the league. Now after playing 14 games, the Rams schedule turns out to be even tougher based on the current records of their ’12 opponents.
Based on the entire 16-game season, the Rams have the third-toughest schedule in the NFL. And why is this a good thing? Because a fluffy schedule would have done the Rams a disservice in the long run, because that’s how you fall in love with a flawed team, and get fooled into dangerous infatuations with players who aren’t quite as good as you think they are.
But there are no illusions for Fisher and Snead to deal with. The Rams have already played eight games against seven teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Counting the season finale against 9-5 Seattle, that would be nine games against seven potential playoff teams.
By playing such a demanding schedule, the Rams are getting the unfettered truth about their roster. This is the perfect sort of building-block season for a young team with a new coach and general manager trying to get this franchise healthy in a hurry. It’s a season that is showing every bit of promise on this young roster, but also exposing every glaring weakness. By the end of this season, there will be no mysteries, no mirages, no time for bad evaluations.
Now they know that there are still a few deadly holes on that offensive line. They understand that while the cornerback position has been fortified, something needs to be done at safety by next season. They know exactly how good their kiddie corps is with Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers, Trumaine Johnson, Chris Givens, Lance Kendricks, Robert Quinn, Greg Zuerlein, Austin Pettis, Johnny Hekker, Brian Quick, Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead among the rookie and second-year players who spent a ton of time on the field producing in big and small ways.
And by exposing the kids, they also know whom they can trust, which ones are draft-day hits and which ones might not be as good as previously advertised.
Brockers, Jenkins, Givens, Quinn, Kendricks, Zuerlein and Hekker have shown enough to make you believe they can be cornerstone players in the rebuild. Quick is a tantalizing talent, but largely gets an “incomplete” grade for his rookie season. Johnson and Richardson will surely contribute big next season, too.
So don’t be fooled into thinking that the Rams’ playoff chase ended with that flat performance on Sunday against the Vikings. That’s short-term thinking. That awkward stumble just might be part of the crawl these young Rams need to take before they learn how to bust their way into long-term contention.