Over three excruciating hours Sunday night in the Pacific Northwest, the giddiness and anticipation of a potential division title gave way to a cold reality check.
Instead of a playoff berth, the Rams got their fourth consecutive losing season and a ticket home for the offseason. What transpired at Qwest Field only underscored some of the issues that still need to be addressed if the Rams are to become a consistent playoff contender — or more.
What should be made of the team's 7-9 finish? The bottom line shows a six-game improvement over 2009, substantial progress under any circumstances, especially considering the Rams' 6-42 record from 2007-09.
Then again, consider the fact that the Rams played the second-softest schedule in the NFL. Their opponents' composite record was 115-141, for a .449 winning percentage. Only Kansas City (106-150, .414 percentage) played an easier schedule in the league.
The Rams beat only one team with a winning record this season (9-7 San Diego), and the combined record for their seven victims was a mere 39-73 (.348).
Granted, the Rams routinely lost to such teams in '07, '08, and '09, but the quality of the competition should temper any blind enthusiasm that the team has arrived. In games against the three playoff teams the Rams faced this season that had winning records — Atlanta, New Orleans and Kansas City — the average score was Opponents 31, Rams 14.
Now, look at the schedule that the Rams face next season: Pittsburgh (12-4), Baltimore (12-4), New Orleans (11-5), Philadelphia (10-6), Green Bay (10-6) and the New York Giants (10-6). It seems likely that Dallas (6-10) could bounce back next season with a healthy Tony Romo. (The Rams play at Jerry Jones' billion-dollar playpen in 2011.)
It's possible the Rams could play better next season but finish with a worse record. So even with the impressive strides made in 2010, there's danger in thinking the franchise has turned the corner. The Rams may be approaching the corner; they haven't turned it. There's a lot of work to be done if the Rams are to take the next step.
"First it will be the addition of some new guys via free agency or in the draft," running back Steven Jackson said Monday. "We'll look for guys who will be able to make some plays. ... We could be a very, very explosive team next year."
Similarly, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe added: "If we continue to build on what we've already set as a foundation, add some more players, grow individually, next year we could be sitting 15-1 at this point in the season."
Their optimism aside, Jackson and Atogwe recognize the need to add more talent for next season. These aren't two role players: Jackson was the team's offensive captain and Atogwe was the defensive captain. So their words carry some weight.
Sunday's feeble offensive output against a ragged Seattle defense that was ranked 30th in the NFL entering the game was a sobering reminder that quarterback Sam Bradford needs to be surrounded with as much talent as possible. As a rookie Bradford showed the potential of being a special player, someone you can build a team around.
But if the Rams don't have wide receivers who can consistently get open and have the speed to stretch the field, Bradford's talents won't be maximized. Seattle dared the Rams to beat them with their passing game. And similar to other games this season — most notably Oakland and Kansas City — the Rams couldn't do it.
Strangely, the Rams basically fed into the Seahawks' strategy by under-utilizing Jackson and the running game. Either receivers couldn't get open, or there were pass protection issues, or there were drops.
Now an optimistic assessment for 2011 might conclude that Donnie Avery returns from knee surgery, stays healthy and has a breakout year. Or that Mark Clayton is re-signed, returns from patellar tendon surgery and stays healthy. Or that Danario Alexander avoids a sixth knee operation, continues to develop and stays healthy.
That's a lot of "ifs."
Imagine how much more effective Danny Amendola would be in the slot if the Rams had reliable threats on the outside. Amendola was smothered in some games late in the season, as opposing defenses became increasingly conscious of his underneath routes, particularly on third down.
It will take more than a wide receiver upgrade to get the most out of Bradford and get the offense where it needs to be. Once again, finding a strong No. 2 running back behind Jackson should be a priority. The Rams also need to drastically improve their production in the red zone. A road grader at guard might help the Rams be more productive running the football as they approach the goal line.
The offense made significant strides this year, averaging 18.1 points a game, which was a touchdown a game better than 2009's 10.9 points a game. But to be a legitimate playoff team, the Rams need to add another touchdown a game to that 2010 average so that the team is averaging in the mid-20s each game.
And make no mistake, owner Stan Kroenke wants an annual contender for postseason play.
"Every team wants that certainly, and we want that for Stan," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
Now the work begins on making that happen in 2011.