Bernie: No excuse for Rams' no-show

2011-01-03T11:50:00Z 2011-01-03T13:30:28Z Bernie: No excuse for Rams' no-showBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

Updated at 12:30 a.m.:

Do you want to talk about the seven wins, and the progress that the Rams made in 2010, and how vital it was to establish QB Sam Bradford as a franchise piece? Do you want to talk about how we'll look back on the last few months and realize that this really was a good season for a franchise that went 1-15 in 2009?

I agree with all of those points. And that would be a good and proper conversation to have. And I am certain we will have that discussion in the coming days. There will be plenty of time for the appreciation that comes with a long-view perspective.

But that's a separate topic. A separate issue.

My focus, for now, is specifically on the Rams' 10-point loss at Seattle. I'm talking about this game. We can talk about the other stuff later. But the 16th and final game -- and a failure to take advantage of such a clear opportunity -- warrants plenty of discussion in the immediate aftermath.

So that's what I'm doing.

It isn't that the Rams lost by 10 points at Seattle on Sunday night.

It's the way it all went down.

I think most reasonable people could accept this with more patience and understanding if the Rams had played well and coached well, only to fall short. But they weren't even close to that. They were embarrassingly bad. Embarrassingly outcoached. Embarrassingly overmatched by a Seattle team that had lost seven of its previous nine games by an average of 22 points.

It's one thing to lose to Atlanta or New Orleans. But to go to Seattle and pull a no-show?

It shouldn't have happened this way. Especially to the offense. And to the coaching staff.

The Rams defense wasn't spectacular. But if you hold the home team to 16 points, three points under Seattle's season scoring average, then you've given the offense a good chance to come out of Qwest Field with a win and the NFC West title. 

Granted, Seattle's first series against the Rams was a nightmare, with the Rams blowing assignments and unable to cover Seattle's receivers down the field. But the defense recovered to control the game for long stretches. The Rams pass defense should have been tighter early in the game, and the run defense should have been tougher late in the game. Giving up 141 yards rushing is too much. But again, I don't believe the defense was the reason why the Rams came up empty.

There was something disturbing about the Rams' attitude and approach.

From the beginning, Seattle attacked. The Seahawks came out on the first drive, with the heretofore underwhelming backup Charlie Whitehurst in charge of their fate. And instead of backing away, and playing scared, the home team immediately went after the Rams' necks. On the game's second play, Whitehurst arched one 61 yards down the right sideline to former Rams WR Ruvell Martin to set up an easy TD. With that quick thunderbolt, the Seahawks sent an immediate message: WE ARE PLAYING THIS GAME TO WIN IT, DAMMIT. And that set the tone for the evening. That attitude gave Whitehurst confidence. Heck, it gave the entire team confidence.

On the other side, the Rams were soft. And confused. And perhaps disoriented. They were a team straight from a Talking Heads' lyric: "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" 

As for the offense, there's one question: what was the plan?

Did the coaches plan to attack Seattle's horrible run defense with Steven Jackson? No, that wasn't it. Jackson's magnitude was reduced by his own coaching staff. He had 7 carries in the first half, 4 in the second half, and 11 overall. And this was a close game up until the end. The Rams were within one score, up until Seattle's late FG that made it 16-6. The game -- and the Seahawks -- invited Jackson to run it, to try and take over. Instead, Jackson became some sort of cameo-appearance player.

OK, so we know the plan wasn't to batter the Seahawks with lots of Steven Jackson. So what was it then? Go after a shaky Seattle secondary with intermediate and long passes? No, that wasn't it, either. Until late in the game, the Rams were content to peck away with 3-yard, 4-yard passes. There was no imagination, no boldness, no form. The Rams were a squeeze tube of paste on offense.

So again: what was the plan? What was the identity that Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur sought to stamp on their team in this crucial game? What did they Rams want to stand for? Like you, I watched this game for more than 3 hours and never once had an idea of what the Rams really wanted to do, or who they wanted to be, on offense.

If you aren't committed to running the ball with Jackson against a rushing defense that was ranked tied for last in the NFL over the previous nine weeks, then at least come up with something better.  Try to push the ball down the field. Try to come up with some innovative plays. Try to catch the Seahawks off guard. Get "Big Mike" involved. (And where was he, anyway? Why did the Rams activate him?) Do something that makes some sense: hit the Seahawks with "seam" passes down the middle, which they've struggled to cover. 

But if you've decided -- for whatever reason -- not to make Jackson's running a major plank of your game plan, then you'd better have a good Plan B. The Rams had no Plan B, not from what I could tell. They had no plan at all. This was one of the strangest things I've seen in covering NFL football for nearly 30 years.

And since we're on the topic ... attacking with Jackson wouldn't have meant that the Rams were playing it safe, or going too conservative. Not at all. Here's the difference: you are guilty of playing it safe and being overly conservative when your passing game is lighting it up, and you pull the plug on it for no logical reason. Playing it safe and conservative is when you force the run and taking the ball out of your quarterback's hot hands when he's really moving the team through the air. It's when you force the run when the run is not working in a game that's been taken over by your QB.

And that wasn't the case in Seattle. The Rams' passing game was dull. Rookie QB Sam Bradford didn't have anything close to his best stuff. It just wasn't happening for him. And on a few occasions when the Rams had a chance to make plays downfield, the receivers couldn't catch the ball. And that's why Jackson had to be a central figure in this NFC West title game.

You see, coming out in a hostile stadium and (metaphorically) punching a team in the mouth by loading up and grinding away with a 235-pound running back is one of the strongest, powerful and confident statements a team can make. In that context it isn't conservative; it's an undeniable mission statement. It's a show of force.

But SJ39 had 11 carries against a team that had yielded nearly 5 yards per carry over the previous nine games. Why did the Rams' coaches shy away from rushing the football on a night when the running lanes were open? Why did they not make full use of Jackson on a night when Bradford and the receivers were malfunctioning?

Pete Carroll and Seattle didn't make that mistake. Heck, the Seahawks' running game has been weak all season -- only 3.4 yards per rush -- and they never abandoned the run against the Rams. Even after the Rams plugged the run in the 1st half -- Seattle averaged only 1.8 yards per carry -- the 'Hawks stayed with it.

Jackson has started 88 games for the Rams. Only six times has he carried the ball fewer times than he did Sunday in Seattle.  And he's their only Pro Bowl selection in 2010. It doesn't add up. If you're going to take the hit and fail on the big stage, shouldn't you at least try to resist by making extensive use of your most decorated offensive player and team leader?

 I'm not saying that the Rams should have run Jackson 35 times, regardless of game situation. If Seattle is stopping Jackson and taking him away, then you have to try something else. You can't be stubborn. But Seattle didn't stop Jackson. He had ample running room when the Rams explored Seattle's defense with him. Look, when plays are being set up for pedestrian fullback Mike Karney in key situations, then you know that something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with the Rams' coaching acumen. 

How do you manage only 184 yards and 10 first downs against a Seattle defense that was ranked 29th in scoring defense and 31st in yards allowed from scrimmage? Look, we know this isn't a glamorous, jazzy, high-octane  St. Louis offense. We know the Rams lack big-time playmakers. But really, now: 184 yards against Seattle? Those 184 yards were the fourth-lowest total by a visiting team at Qwest Field since the place opened in 2003.

I'm thinking Rams owner Stan Kroenke will have some serious questions to pose to Spags when they get together to review the season. And the 16th game.

Spags had at least two chances to challenge some calls made by an officiating crew that was just as bad as any team in the gadawful NFC West team. Spags didn't challenge. It's almost as if Spags and a lot of his players froze in this game. And I don't know why.  

It wasn't all just the coaching. The wideouts dropped passes. The Rams' interior line allowed penetration in the pass rush, and Bradford had multiple passes batted down. The outside linebackers got run over. And Bradford didn't play well. He was outplayed by C. Whitehurst. Sheesh. But Whitehurst had a lot more help from his coaches and receivers in this one. (And it's not as if Seattle has some formidable group of receivers. Not at all.) And by the way: let's not have any more talk about the Rams being OK at wide receiver, and not needing to make an aggressive offseason move or two to upgrade the position. This debacle was an urgent plea for assistance. Unless, of course, you want to waste Bradford's peak years. 

The Rams -- painfully -- were not ready for prime time. They were not ready for their close-up. Not ready for this moment.

Again: I realize that this is a building year, and that most people picked the Rams to win 3, 4 or 5 games. The Rams weren't supposed to be playing for a division title. I realize Peyton Manning won three games as a rookie QB so we shouldn't be too hard on young Sam. Got it. Know it. Said it myself. It's been established. The future is promising. There was a lot to like in 2010. That's all understood.

But sorry, this isn't the St. Louis Junior Football League. And the Rams didn't play Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, or Atlanta, or New England. Seattle had lost seven of its last nine and was ripe for a beating. And you don't know when the Rams will get a chance like this again; the schedule will be more difficult in 2011.

And I also think the Rams deserve to be treated like a team that has gotten better, a team that is capable of playing better, a team that has earned all of these kudos and gestures of respect in recent weeks. They deserve to be viewed as something more than a charity-case, sad-sack, sorry outfit. So I wouldn't insult them by giving them a free pass for what happened in Seattle. These coaches and players have higher standards than that.

And after the advances the Rams made in 2010, there's really no excuse for coming into a 16th game with everything on the line and striking out as feebly as the Rams did in Seattle. 

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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