Coaches are always looking for clues that assure them they are heading in the right (or wrong) direction. Well, who could have imagined that the figurative bread crumbs that coach Steve Spagnuolo was searching for to convince him that the Rams are on the verge of a significant breakthrough may have been culled from the remains of two of the most lopsided losses of the season?
On Monday afternoon, still smarting from Sunday's 31-13 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, Spagnuolo did not sound remotely disheartened by such a sound defeat. Instead, he appeared to be downright inspired.
"This was another one of those games," Spanuolo said, "where we played a really good football team — Atlanta was probably the other one — where when the game was done and over, you just feel like you're capable of having success against a team like that if you play better, and you know you can play better. I think all the players feel that way.
"Because I love this group so much and I know what they are and I know how good they can be and what they're all about, I want other teams that play against them to feel that (too). And I want the league to know that. And usually the way to express that is to go up against a good team and come out on top. We haven't been able to do that, but I know we can."
Spanuolo, who has been a part of two Super Bowl runs with the Eagles and Giants, knows firsthand what a playoff team looks like. Better yet, he knows what is required to create a team sturdy enough to reach the postseason. And now in those two hard-fought losses to two of the best teams in football — games that were closer and more competitive than the scores would indicate — the coach thinks the 6-7 Rams may have learned something in defeat that was of as much value as anything they gathered from those recent pair of victories on the road against inferior Denver and Arizona.
Beating flawed opponents you're supposed to beat is a rather obvious distinction for any team striving to become worthy of being called a competitive team in the NFL. The greater challenge is to rise above mere competitiveness and nudge up to the next plateau. A team to be reckoned with. A team that can win a division title and hold its own against anyone it faces in Roger Goodell's little Super Bowl tournament.
So for the second time in less than a month, the Rams stepped up in weight class against a superior championship-caliber team and discovered loads of useful information. They got smacked around, but not bullied about.
It's as simple a distinction as this. Over the past three or four years, there have been a lot of Sundays when the Rams walked away knowing without any hesitation that they got their tails whipped. It wasn't simply that the better team won, it was that the Rams never had even the faintest hope of belonging in the contest.
But what happens when you go toe to toe with the Falcons (in my mind the best team in the NFC this season) and the defending Super Bowl champs and the reason you lose is too many self-inflicted wounds?
Is there a critical distinction between being able to say "We lost" instead of "They won"?
The Rams have three games to prove that there is something to that.
Three games separate them from the playoffs, three games against teams that are not nearly on the same level as Atlanta or New Orleans. Now that they have shown they are good enough to play with the best, will they take advantage of the opportunity?
Spagnuolo continues to cling to the mantra that the Rams are involved in 16 one-game seasons. The Kansas City Chiefs are the only team that matters to him right now, and that's exactly how it should be inside that locker room. Take care of the one right in front of you.
But here's something else that has to be a part of the new group-think in that locker room, and it just might be the difference in whether or not they can complete this job of getting that NFC West title.
It's a lesson I learned in observing a lot of championship teams over the last 30-plus years in this business.
Don't ignore the distinct aroma wafting in the air. Every championship team I've ever covered had a special way of acting when the scent of the postseason got in their nostrils.
They devoured it.
Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas once told me what he had learned from observing Magic Johnson's Lakers during their NBA championship three-peat that ultimately helped Thomas lead the Pistons to back-to-back titles. "Everything in their life was completely dedicated to winning the championship," Thomas said. "And when I say everything, I mean everything. So that's what we brought back (to the Pistons). On the day the regular season ended, we would call a meeting and explain to all the new guys what the rules were. 'Tell your wife goodbye. Kiss your kids goodbye. If anyone wants tickets, don't ask me. If you need a ride, don't ask me. Whatever it is, don't ask me because I'm not here now. I'm trying to win a championship.' It has to be that kind of singular focus."
Are the Rams ready for that kind of intense month-long focus? We know they faced two important teachable moments against Atlanta and New Orleans that showed them what could be truly possible in this surprising season. We're about to find out precisely what was the lesson learned.
Is it how tantalizingly close they really are to being playoff-worthy?
Or is it just how frustratingly far away they still might be?