Rams still have a lot on the line

2011-11-27T00:20:00Z 2011-12-16T22:19:45Z Rams still have a lot on the lineBY JIM THOMAS • jthomas@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

There will be no playoff push this year for the Rams. For the seventh season in a row, the only way the Rams will experience postseason football is with a ticket or a TV.

Nonetheless, it's crunch time for coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney. Spagnuolo is 10-32 in three seasons in St. Louis; Devaney is 12-56 in four years running the team's personnel department.

There have been some speculative reports that owner Stan Kroenke has decided to implode Rams Park and hire a new head coach and general manager. But league sources familiar with Kroenke don't think that's the case. It's their belief that Kroenke hasn't decided anything at this point, and is waiting to see what the final six weeks bring.

Starting with Sunday's noon kickoff against the Arizona Cardinals (3-7), the Rams have to make something happen. If that's indeed the case, the Cardinals game looms large. It's about as close to a must-win situation as there is for a team that has lost eight times in 10 outings this season.

The Rams are three-point favorites against the Big Red in the Edward Jones Dome, but almost certainly won't be favored in any game the rest of the way. Just three weeks ago in Glendale, Ariz., they held Arizona to a season-low 262 yards, enjoyed a 2-to-1 edge on the ground, and had a 12-minute edge in time of possession.

But Spagnuolo's squads have shown little ability to put teams away on the rare occasions that they've enjoyed a late lead. Such was the case on Nov. 6, when a 13-6 lead was frittered away in a 19-13 overtime loss to the Cardinals.

Next came an ugly, but gritty 13-12 victory in Cleveland. But the Rams gained no traction from that triumph, losing 24-7 last Sunday against Seattle in a game that featured a curious game plan by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. (Lots of empty backfields, and little help for Kevin Hughes once Mark LeVoir went down with an injury at left tackle.)

The November 'sweepstakes" are almost over: four games against opponents with losing records. And the Rams are just 1-2 in those games.

So it will take more than a victory over the Cardinals to avoid an offseason of upheaval at Rams Park. And after Arizona comes a rugged closing schedule, one that features two games with San Francisco (9-2); a Christmas Eve contest at Pittsburgh (7-3); a Monday night rematch against the Seahawks (4-6) in Seattle; and a Dec. 18 home game against Cincinnati (6-4).

The Rams need to make something happen in those games. Spring a couple of upsets, play tough in defeat, show improvement all the way around.

Three years ago, when the Rams were looking for a full-time replacement for Scott Linehan, three of the hottest coordinators on the head-coaching carousel were Spagnuolo, McDaniels, and Rex Ryan. Granted, it's always a roll of the dice when hiring a coordinator without prior head-coaching experience.

But did Spagnuolo — and McDaniels — suddenly get dumb? They had strong resumes when interviewed for the Rams' head-coaching job, a process that Kroenke had input in as minority owner at the time. Despite his work as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, maybe Spagnuolo simply isn't a fit as an NFL head coach.

Could it be that McDaniels was riding the coattails of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady when New England rang up all those victories and all those points? McDaniels had a rough go and didn't last two full seasons as head coach in Denver in 2009 and part of '10, but the thinking was he could regain his equilibrium as coordinator in St. Louis.

And how do the injuries get factored into the equation? The Rams currently have 13 players on injured reserve, and are woefully thin at cornerback, offensive tackle and wide receiver. These are all factors that Kroenke must sort through as he decides what to do.

After a terrible start on defense, where Spagnuolo keeps most of his focus, that unit has played much better over the last four games despite losing corner after corner. If that unit continues to play well down the stretch, that probably helps Spagnuolo's chances of returning. Some of the younger players on defense, such as Robert Quinn, Darian Stewart, Josh Gordy and Chris Chamberlain, have shown development.

That hasn't been the case on offense with the exception of wide receiver Greg Salas, who's now on IR.

As for Devaney, every Chris Long sack, James Laurinaitis tackle, Harvey Dahl block, and catch by Lance Kendricks, Brandon Lloyd, or Austin Pettis probably helps his cause.

It wouldn't hurt, either, if quarterback Sam Bradford got hot down the stretch. Every week, there's hope at Rams Park that Bradford and the offense will break out, but it hasn't happened yet. Sure, there have been a few games where the team moved the ball well between the 20s, but only one game so far where the Rams scored more than 16 points.

On Sunday, the Rams will try to "break out" with a re-shuffled offensive line that could see new starters manning three of the five positions. To a large degree, the wide receiver corps is down to Lloyd, Pettis, and Brandon Gibson. If the breakout doesn't happen against the Cardinals, it probably won't happen in matchups with the 49ers, Steelers, and Bengals — all of whom have top 10 defenses.

So it's show time. For the offense, for McDaniels, but most of all for Spagnuolo and Devaney. Show time, or go time.

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