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Burwell: Was this progress? Yes it was
Burwell/Rams

Burwell: Was this progress? Yes it was

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SAN FRANCISCO • For nearly four dizzy hours, Candlestick Park seemed ready to explode with the sort of noise of a deafening chorus of jet engines in full throttle. As the Rams and San Francisco 49ers kept slugging it out on this spongy football field, each team finding ways to win it and lose it maybe a hundred times, The ‘Stick roared.

And then just like that, the only sound you heard was a referee’s whistle piercing the air, and the roar of nearly 70,000 voices in this place went from rolling thunder to a dull and and confused hush.

And now there was Rams offensive tackle Rodger Saffold standing in the middle of the field with the most confused look on his face, and he had plenty of company. It was like someone hit the mute button on this rowdy stadium, because the scoreboard clock had ticked off every precious second of the contest, and the giant end zone scoreboard was glowing with the strangest sight of all.

San Francisco 24, Rams 24.

Saffold wanted to do something, anything. He just didn’t know what.

“I actually looked at (49ers defensive tackle) Justin Smith and asked him ‘What just happened?’”

Smith shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s over,” Smith said.

“Are you serious?” Saffold said.

And all Smith could do was what everyone in Candlestick was doing. He shrugged his shoulders again, shook his head and these two giant men who had waged some vicious hand-to-hand combat all Sunday afternoon just stared at each other for five or 10 of the most empty seconds an athlete can ever experience.

“It feels worse than losing,” said Saffold. “It really feels worse. I mean, you play the game to win. When you get a loss, you say, ‘OK, we need to go back to the drawing board, correct our mistakes. OK, go get the next one. But when you get a tie, and you have opportunities to win like we did, it’s like what’s going on?”

Well I’ll tell you what’s going on. This was progress. Uncomfortable, awkward and frustrating as it might be, this was the kind of game that tells me that Jeff Fisher has his green but growing team heading in the right direction.

There were so many things that did go wrong, a million things that could have gone wrong, and a lot of things that still need to be corrected. But I like what I am seeing out of the Rams, because this could have been — maybe should have been — a huge and unsightly disaster waiting to happen.

Even before the game started there was the kind of drama that can cause a young team to implode. Rookies Janoris Jenkins and Chris Givens — both starters and stars-in-the-making — were suspended for violating unspecified team rules. Though no one gave any official reasons for what Jenkins and Givens did, it apparently happened on Friday night after the team arrived here and reported to the downtown hotel. Fisher made the decision to deactivate them on Saturday, which meant playing one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league without your starting cornerback and one of the most devastating defenses without your stud deep-threat receiver.

Rookie mistakes. Big, bad, dumb rookie mistakes. But it didn’t hurt the Rams. In many ways, it may have helped, because it gave opportunities for others to step up, step in and show Givens and Jenkins that no one is irreplaceable.

On the Rams’ sixth offensive play of the game, Sam Bradford found another deep threat to go to in Givens’ absence, and it was — gasp and swoon — second-round draft pick Brian Quick, who stiff-armed one defender off the line of scrimmage, caught a perfectly thrown pass then dragged another defender across the goal line for a 36-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Rams lead.

And Quick wasn’t the only one making plays. Danny Amendola was an absolute stud returning to the lineup for the first time in three weeks, zipping and zagging all over the secondary for 11 catches for 102 yards.

I loved what I saw from this offense, with Steven Jackson proving that he still is a workhorse who isn’t close to any decline (29 carries, 101 yards and a touchdown), Daryl Richardson doing his lightning role with seven carries for 58 yards and Bradford looking like the sort of young quarterback who never gets ruffled and finds ways to put his team in position to win football games no matter what sort of mess gets thrown in his face.

And oh there was a lot of mess.

Strange whistles. Dumb penalties. Weird challenges and blown opportunities that show how much this young team still can’t get over the hump of winning games on the road.

But on a day when you’re playing against one of the best defenses in football, the Rams offense fought back over and over again, piled up 458 yards of total offense and marched down the field in a hostile stadium with the game on the line to tie the game with only a minute left to send it into overtime.

I saw enough smart plays to almost make me forget about the dumb ones.

Almost.

But sooner or later, this young team has to stop killing itself.

You can’t line up in illegal formations in overtime and have an 80-yard pass play wiped out. You can’t let the play clock run out on a game-winning field goal in overtime. You can’t have 13 penalties on the road or fumble on kickoffs or play mind-numbing soft zone coverage and give up back-breaking big plays at all the wrong times.

And that’s surely what stung the Rams all game long.

But this was a well-played, tough-minded, physical football team out there on that football field on Sunday. It was a young team that went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the NFL. You can start to imagine the possibilities now, seeing how much better the offense looks with a healthy Amendola in the slot, with a healthy Saffold blocking on the blindside, a healthy Jackson powering through defenses.

You can see when Bradford has his proper tools at his disposal what he is capable of. You can see what this defense is capable of and mostly you can see what Fisher is trying to mold here, trying to build, trying to teach.

“We’re looking at it like we took a step up,” said Saffold. “We did some good things, some great things. We’re not the same old Rams and I think everyone sees that now. It’s just heartbreaking what happened today, but I’m really proud of my team. We all took a step up, not a step back.”

On the other side of the room, the old veteran Jackson probably said it even better.

“I don’t know if it’s progress,” he said, “but guys are definitely going to learn from this game, especially with this being a young team. They’re going to use this as a reference and when we’re in this position again, we can overcome it.”

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Bryan Burwell is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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