Every year when players clean out their lockers, Long is optimistic that better times are just around the corner. This year, he insisted Monday, it's not just talk.
''I've been through years in the distant past where you had to be hopeful because of this, that or the other, but you're just making it up,'' Long said. ''Now there's real evidence why we're going to be a good team in the future and why we've shown flashes of being a really good team.''
St. Louis (6-10) lost three in a row to end the season and the bottom line represents a step back after two straight seven-win seasons under coach Jeff Fisher.
They beat two playoff-bound teams, splitting with the Super Bowl champion Seahawks and polishing off Denver. They had a 21-point lead against NFC East champion Dallas before collapsing and the defense set a franchise record by not allowing a touchdown for three straight games.
''Yes, we're 6-10, but we know we're better than that,'' cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. ''We'll take that into the offseason and run with it.''
Almost every game was up for grabs, so that's progress.
''We beat some great teams this year and we hung tough with some great teams,'' quarterback Shaun Hill said. ''I think we can take that away from it.''
Mistakes kept them from making the jump to contender. The Rams were victimized by an NFL-high 10 return touchdowns, eight by opposing defenses, and in eight of the 10 losses they allowed a return TD.
Quarterback Sam Bradford missed the entire season with another left knee injury, Long missed most of it with an ankle injury in the opener that required surgery and tackle Jake Long was sidelined with a knee injury in midseason.
Three critical turnovers ruined the finishing 20-6 loss at Seattle. Tight end Lance Kendricks had the ball ripped out of his hands on Bruce Irvin's 49-yard interception return, Hill was intercepted on a ball he tried to throw to the ground, and stretching for the pylon, Benny Cunningham had the ball swatted out of his hand for a touchback.
''We were just a couple plays away from a totally different season,'' Cunningham said. ''It was an unfortunate play.''
The Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003 and haven't finished .500 since 2006. They began the year with the youngest team in the NFL with a roster rebuilt by Fisher and general manager Les Snead, and are still experiencing growing pains.
Fisher will hold a news conference on Tuesday.
Defensive end Robert Quinn was named team MVP for the second straight year, tight end-fullback Cory Harkey was named Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game Award winner and defensive tackle Aaron Donald received the Carroll Rosenbloom Memorial Award as the team's top rookie. Quinn and Donald are going to the Pro Bowl.
Center Scott Wells was given the Ed Block Courage Award for overcoming adversity. Wells was hospitalized in the intensive care unit for four days this summer after a tick bite, with a fever that reached 104.5 degrees.
Hill, wide receiver Kenny Britt and offensive tackle Joe Barksdale are entering free agency and all said they'd like to return. Kendricks, who was not in the locker room for the open period Monday, will also be a free agent.
''I had a great year, with these guys and this coaching staff,'' Britt said. ''There's no guys I'd rather line up with.''
Britt had a career-best 48 receptions and was one of the league's top deep threats with a 15.6-yard average. Barksdale started every game at right tackle and the 34-year-old Hill was productive for the most part in his first chance to start since 2010.
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