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A defensive stockpile in place, Rams looking ahead to critical offseason

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Les Snead can’t sit still. He leans one way in his desk chair, then the other, spins 90 degrees, spins back. It’s a Wednesday in mid-December, and the Rams haven’t played for six days, which means their general manager has had almost a week to dwell on the past, and three more remain before the future.

On this day, the Rams are 6-8, coming off a loss at home to the Cardinals, but they haven’t given up a touchdown in three games. For two weeks their defense was the darling of the NFL, posting two consecutive shutouts in a 52-0 win over the Raiders and a 24-0 day in Washington, D.C. Their next game, in Week 15 against a faltering Arizona team, was supposed to be the latest in St. Louis’ string of upsets, but instead the Rams -- especially their offense -- were lackluster, and they were eliminated from the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year.

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So of course Snead wants to move on to the next, the next game, the next season, the next chance to turn a perennial bottom-dweller into a contender once again. “That’s the worst five-year stretch in NFL history,” he says of his team’s 15 wins over five seasons from 2007-11, the year before he was hired, and since then, the Rams have improved only from terrible to mediocre. Snead, who resembles Matthew McConaughey if he were cast in the role of an NFL GM, is on this day imagining an 8-8 record. He dreams of .500, because that would be a step, albeit a tiny one, but that dream will evaporate in Week 16 with a sloppy loss to the Giants. At 6-9 going into Week 17, the Rams will once again finish their season with a losing record, with as many or fewer wins as they did a year ago and the year before that.

“Playing the last 24 games without your starting QB,” Snead says, “with the schedule we’ve played, the quality wins we’ve won -- to me, if you want to call it mediocre, we’ve gotten this thing from the worst five-year stretch to actually respectable.”

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Snead’s and coach Jeff Fisher’s first three years with the team have been a rebuild, no question. The Rams were able to get away with seven-win seasons while still drafting early and often thanks to the windfall of picks bestowed upon them by the Redskins in exchange for Robert Griffin III and his combustible limbs in 2012, and they’ve made those picks pay off. Selecting Aaron Donald last May was what seemed like the final move in building perhaps the NFL’s best defensive line, but now, the treasure chest is empty -- the Rams will have only their own picks next spring.

With the tides of the NFC West shifting -- Arizona’s quarterback situation is anything but encouraging, and the 49ers are in for major changes come January -- the Rams’ window has begun to open, and St. Louis prides itself on having built for its division, Fisher says. That’s why the team is still likely be reluctant to deal a defensive piece for a so-so, if experienced quarterback, why it looks far more likely that the Rams will retain Sam Bradford, sprinkle holy water on his knees and pick him a backup in a middle round of this spring’s draft. Snead and Fisher know their offense needs to be more consistent, but the defense they’ve built is no steppingstone on the path to winning. It’s the reason they win when they do. It’s their focus, their obsession, and it comes first.

“The key was the [defensive line],” Snead says of building the Rams. “Let’s just get unbalanced. It wasn’t, let’s just take our assets and draft picks and spread them around, get good in a lot of things. It’s, let’s tip the scale here. You’ve got a better chance to become harassing if something’s dominant versus if something’s balanced.

“What’s the best way to counter Aaron [Rodgers]?” he continues. “A great defense, if you can’t [draft] Aaron. If I said I were smart enough to get [another] Aaron in whatever pick of the draft, I would be lying.”

There’s this behemoth of a whiteboard in Snead’s office, lined with printouts and covered with magnets. On this day, Snead has taken one sheet down for closer inspection. It shows several pictures: one of a Steelers team from the early 1970s, another of the 2002 Buccaneers, another of the Greatest Show on Turf. Three sentences are typed at the top of the page: “The ultimate goal is to score more points than the other team. Feed your beast. Obsession, not balance makes things happen.” Each of the teams pictured, Snead explains, won with obsession, not balance. The Steelers and Buccaneers had great defensive lines. Those Rams teams of the early 2000s had an offense for the ages. Obsession. Singular focus. That’s the point Snead hammers home time and time again. It explains why he drafted Donald instead of Teddy Bridgewater or even Johnny Manziel, why he traded for safety Mark Barron at the deadline. His defense is his obsession. But now it’s time to step back, to fill holes rather than stockpile.

When the Rams allowed a touchdown in the first quarter of their 37-27 loss to the Giants, it was the first time a St. Louis opponent had crossed into the end zone in almost 135 minutes of football. Sunday’s unruly performance was anything but inspiring -- the 514 yards the Rams allowed New York were the most of the Fisher era -- but St. Louis’ defense will still most likely finish the season in the top 10 in the NFL against both the pass and the run. It is solid, with the potential to be great. It is constructed. The Rams’ offense, though, is anything but.

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Snead points to Bradford’s knee injuries as a source of the team’s woes, and he isn’t wrong. Around the Rams facility, those who have been watching the quarterback since he was drafted in 2010 remain in awe of his arm when he’s healthy, and the Rams don’t seem ready to give up on him quite yet. They can bring Bradford back in 2015, and with such a weak class of free-agent quarterbacks, that seems like the prudent decision -- especially given Snead’s (wise) reluctance to go all-in on a highly drafted rookie under center.

It’s impossible to know if a healthy Bradford will be the key to the Rams snagging at least a wild-card spot a year from now, but to say the team is a quarterback away from a playoff berth is too simplistic. Sure, Bradford -- or any upgrade from Shaun Hill and Austin Davis -- would push the team in the right direction, but the group in place now has often struggled with the finer points of the game, the tiny details that for a team hovering around .500 mean the difference between winning and losing. The young team has had too many special teams gaffes, too many turnovers, and through Week 16, St. Louis’ offense and special teams have allowed 63 points, the most in the NFL by a 19-point margin.

“What’s been impressive about our defense is we play sudden-change situations, where there’s been a turnover by our offense, or there’s a big punt return or something,” linebacker James Laurinaitis says of his unit’s ability to compensate. “You’re put in an adverse situation, and you make teams kick field goals.”

That St. Louis’ defense has been able to get out of jams is a testament to its skill, but the jams themselves are what have relegated the team to nothing more than a spoiler in the late weeks of 2014. The Rams can expect their defense to win them games, but in order to put together a winning season, they can’t rely on it to bail them out of disaster after disaster, game after game.

“This team needs to figure out how to not give [opponents] anything easy,” Laurinaitis adds. “Quite frankly, when you’re 8-8 and 7-9, you’re best of the worst, worst of the best. That’s not a great place to be.”

What the Rams need to achieve to get over the hump next year is as much about coaching and growing up as it is about building. That’s a change for an organization that’s been retooling for a decade, and next year will mark a test for the current coaches and front office. The excuses don’t hold anymore, and the claims that the Rams just need another year are getting stale. Even so, defensive end Chris Long, who was a rookie during St. Louis’ 2-14 campaign in 2008, says this is the most optimistic he’s been going into an offseason.

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“We’ve showed flashes of being really dominant,” he says. “That’s all well and good, but we have to be consistent. It’s been more optimistic every year. … I’ve been through offseasons before where you had to force yourself to be confident. This isn’t one of those times.”

Long isn’t the only player who feels that way, and when players say they think the team has reached a turning point, they seem to believe it. That’s especially true among members of the young, self-assured defense. Asked whether the unit to which he was traded midseason could be the best in the NFL in the near future, Barron is resolute. “That’s not even a question,” he says.

What remains a question, though, is if that can be enough, if the Rams can find an offense, if the team can find the measure of polish it’s been missing for coming up on a decade.