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Whenever I think of the 2011 Rams, I can't shake the title of The Roots' album Things Fall Apart. The year began with such hope, coming on the heels of a turnaround 2010 that saw a six-win improvement and near playoff berth at 7-9 in the (then) weak NFC West. Sam Bradford was the reigning Rookie of the Year, and he was paired with a smart offensive coach in coordinator Josh McDaniels in his second season. One of the more promising young coaches in the league, Steve Spagnuolo, ran the sidelines. After just six wins in three years from 2007-2009, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
One game into 2011, it all fell apart. Bradford's favorite receiver, Danny Amendola, was lost for the year. So was No. 1 corner Ron Bartell. With the one competent receiver on the team gone, an offensive line that provided as much resistance as tissue paper and some more injuries of his own, Bradford regressed badly. The team started 0-6, and ended the year with a seven-loss run. The only highlight was a Week 8 win over the Saints with A.J. Feeley under center and Steven Jackson taking the game over.
It was enough to send Spagnuolo packing and the franchise starting all over again as questions about the team's long-term future in St. Louis continue to loom. New coach Jeff Fisher provides plenty of credibility, but will he finally bring more wins?
2011 Record: 2-14 (fourth in NFC West)
Key Additions: CB Cortland Finnegan, DT Michael Brockers, WR Brian Quick, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Rocky McIntosh, OT Barry Richardson, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, WR Steve Smith, DT Kendall Langford, C Scott Wells
Key Subtractions: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, DE James Hall, DT Justin Bannan, DT Fred Robbins, LB Chris Chamberlain, CB Ron Bartell
Team Strengths: DL, CB
Team Weaknesses: WR, TE
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will run the defense?: A lot was made of Fisher hiring Gregg Williams away from the Saints -- at the time, Williams was coming off an embarrassing playoff loss in which his unit was abused late, but in the pre-bounty era Williams still had a decent reputation and looked to be a great fit with the Rams' defense.
We all know what's happened with the fiery coach since, and no team was as unfairly damaged by the bounty scandal as the Rams. Their defense is by far the team's biggest strength, but with the void created by Williams' suspension, it's unclear what the structure of the staff will look like, or how smoothly it will run. Luckily, the staff has a lot of experience on that side of the ball -- Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis and secondary coach Chuck Cecil all have prior experience as defensive coordinators. It's been rumored that McGinnis will be the man leading the defense in Williams' stead.
With the Rams' offense still looking anemic (we'll get to that shortly), it's vital that the defense does its job. The team's front four is lethal, with talented rushers Chris Long and Robert Quinn (who improved mightily as his rookie 2011 season went on) on the outside and newcomers Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford stuffing the middle. The corners, too, are quite good after an offseason overhaul that brought in big-money addition Cortland Finnegan and talented rookies Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. With those units, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, the defense has all the tools to be top 10 on paper.
2. Which Sam Bradford will we get?: We've already discussed the polarity of Bradford's first two seasons. He should resemble the rookie star more than last season's flop in Year 3 ... unless too much damage has already been done.
First, the good. He's healthy again, an obvious lift. He's got more playmakers, with Amendola back and the additions of Brian Quick and Steve Smith (who should be better himself a season removed from injury woes) at receiver along with Isaiah Pead, a shifty playmaker and receiving option in the backfield. He's also got a slightly improved offensive line, though that'll still give him some problems. And new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is not as bad as he was made out to be with the Jets. He'll help Bradford more than McDaniels was able to.
Still, though, there are concerns. Ron Jaworski raised eyebrows earlier in the offseason by saying that Bradford had "cabin fever" last year, a tentativeness in the pocket and inability to recognize the pass rush coming at him. The line has certainly left him hanging out to dry in his first two years, allowing a league-worst 55 sacks last year, with 36 of those getting to Bradford. All told, he's been sacked 70 times in his first two seasons, and all those hits have apparently left him rattled. That's called David Carr Syndrome, and it's hard/impossible to overcome once it sets in. It would be a shame if the Rams' franchise quarterback was ruined already, but as much as Jaws knows about quarterback play, Bradford still has a chance to prove that he's not done yet.
3. How much of a lift will Jeff Fisher provide right away?: Fisher has done a lot of work to the roster this offseason, and the team looks more talented as a result. But there are still a lot of holes, and it's up to him to coach some of these players up beyond expectations. That's part of the reason the Rams favored his experience over another neophyte coach.
But for all the praise thrown Fisher's way, it's important to remember that in 17 years as Titans coach, his teams only made the playoffs six times, with just five playoff wins, three division titles and one Super Bowl berth. In his last three seasons in Tennessee, the Titans averaged just over seven wins a season.
Sometimes, a new coaching hire sparks a team to perform above its head in the first year. But that's usually when the team is coming off an untenable situation with its prior coach, and that certainly is not the case with Spagnuolo's stint in St. Louis. Fisher's experience and knowledge will help, but is it worth more than a win over the team's talent level?
One year didn't just change the course for the once-promising Rams, it altered the entire NFC West. Entering last season, St. Louis appeared primed to finish first in a substandard division. Not only did the team take a giant step backward, but the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals all got better. That seems to be the case again this season.
The 49ers are coming off an impressive 13-3 season, and appear set to be just as good, as long as Alex Smith can remain steady. The Cards and Seahawks were better than their 2011 records suggested, especially late in the year, and the Seahawks in particular are a team to look out for this year.
So, where does that leave the Rams? They're a rebuilding team, and they made a lot of progress in that effort this offseason. But that won't be enough to compete for the division this season. It'll be enough of a fight with the Cardinals to stay out of the NFC West basement.-- Tom Mantzouranis