By Don Banks
January 02, 2012

There was little surprise factor that the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo and the Bucs' Raheem Morris were the first two head coaches fired on the NFL's Black Monday, given that their fate had appeared determined for at least a couple weeks now.

Both St. Louis and Tampa Bay bottomed out in 2011, earning top-five 2012 draft slots for their trouble. The Bucs (4-12) finished on a 10-game losing streak that was the franchise's worst in 34 years, and the Rams unraveled with seven consecutive losses and eight out of nine on their way to a dismal 2-14 mark.

But as bleak as things might seem at the moment for the Rams and Bucs, maybe the real unexpected twist is this: The immediate future doesn't look all that bad. Spagnuolo and Morris didn't get the results they needed to survive this season, but the reality is both clubs are closer to being the promising climbers who barely missed the playoffs in 2010 than the disappointing cellar dwellers of 2011.

Spagnuolo and Morris won't reap the benefits, but an objective assessment shows the Rams and Bucs are in better position today than they were when they hired those two men in early 2009.

In the NFL, the teams without hope are the teams without a long-term answer at quarterback. On that front, the Bucs and Rams remain in decent shape. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and St. Louis' Sam Bradford both regressed this season and suffered setbacks in their development as first-round, franchise-type quarterbacks. Nothing came easily to either passer, and their first real blast of adversity in the NFL tested their wills and challenged their confidence levels.

But the things that ailed Freeman and Bradford are fixable, and their experiences this year were rather common for young quarterbacks who find themselves caught up in a season that spirals out of control. Yes, they struggled mightily at times, but that does not necessarily doom them to more of the same in the future.

In Tampa Bay, the Bucs find themselves in a very tough division, with playoff perennials New Orleans and Atlanta leading the NFC South, in addition to vastly improved Carolina. It's no easy task to go up against the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton six times a season, but things change rapidly in the NFL, as Tampa Bay's plummet from 10-6 in 2010 to 4-12 in 2011 clearly illustrates.

The Bucs have invested heavily in the defensive line at the top of recent drafts, and they need to get some significant return on those selections, with tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price staying healthy, and ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers developing into solid pass rushers. On offense, the addition of another playmaking receiver for Freeman to target is a must, but with their No. 5 overall pick next April the Bucs might be in position to nab Oklahoma State junior Justin Blackmon, the consensus top available pass-catcher. Look at how much difference last year's top receiver made this season in Cincinnati, with No. 4 pick A.J. Green giving the Bengals the vertical threat they craved and making rookie quarterback Andy Dalton better than anyone expected.

Granted, the Bucs don't look ready to challenge the Saints or Falcons any time soon, but funny things have been known to happen in the NFC South, a division that has never featured consecutive champions or consecutive last-place finishers in its quirky 10-year history. Tampa Bay did start 4-2 this season and beat the Saints before the bottom fell out on Morris and his young team.

In St. Louis, despite a 10-38 record in the three-year Spagnuolo era, all is far from lost as well. The Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003, and haven't made the playoffs since 2004. But they reside in the equal-opportunity NFC West (three different champions in the past three seasons), and their next head coach (my money remains on ex-Titans boss Jeff Fisher) is going to inherit a team that has generous cap room (maybe as much as $40 million over the next two years) and the ability to perhaps put the No. 2 overall pick up for auction to a quarterback-desperate team in love with either Baylor's Heisman winner Robert Griffin III or Stanford's Andrew Luck.

Make the right package deal on that front and the Rams could see the fortunes of the franchise changed in an instant. With players such as defensive end Chris Long, linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Robert Quinn to build around on defense, there is talent to work with in the front seven. Like the Bucs, the Rams need a proven playmaker or two at receiver to help ease the burden on their young quarterback, and St. Louis has to hope for at least another couple productive seasons out of lead running back Steven Jackson.

If nothing else, a return to relative health in St. Louis will help the Rams rebound in 2012. Spagnuolo's last team got wiped out at some positions, particularly cornerback, and the early loss of Bradford's go-to receiver, Danny Amendola, hurt the QB's second-year game more than any other single factor. Amendola was Bradford's security blanket and was to play the Wes Welker role in new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel's offense. But once he went down with a season-ending arm injury, things began unraveling in the Rams passing game.

To a degree, with their head coaches dismissed after three mostly unsuccessful seasons, the Rams and Bucs both begin the starting-over process today. From the vantage point of Jan. 2, making the playoffs next season probably seems like a pipe dream in St. Louis and Tampa Bay. But who knows? The Bucs and Rams might be much closer than they even know. These days in the NFL, the gap between worst and first seems to grow shorter all the time.

• As expected, Spagnuolo is already generating interest from teams searching for defensive coordinator candidates. A source with knowledge of the situation said the ex-Rams head coach has received early feelers in the form of phone calls from four teams. Those teams have not been disclosed, but expected suitors are Philadelphia, the Giants, Minnesota and possibly Oakland.

The Eagles are thought likely to be the front-runner, given that Spagnuolo coached for Andy Reid for eight seasons (1999-2006) before joining the Giants as defensive coordinator for a two-year run (2007-2008). Spagnuolo still owns a home in the Philly area, and his wife is from there. But Spagnuolo also knows Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier well from their days together on Reid's staff, and Minnesota could be a serious option.

• The Rams on Monday were still determining a timetable for the start of their coaching search, but sources indicate ex-Tennessee head coach Fisher remains the team's top priority. Fisher for years has been represented by veteran agent Marvin Demoff, who is the father of Rams football operations chief Kevin Demoff. St. Louis is expected to have competition for Fisher's services from Miami and San Diego, once the Chargers fire head coach Norv Turner, as expected.

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