Coming into the 2011 NFL season, many observers thought the St. Louis Rams were the team to beat in the NFC West. The Rams were coming off a 7-9 season, with a talented young quarterback in Sam Bradford and a coach who was a rising star in the profession, Steve Spagnuolo.
That seems like an eternity ago.
Injuries to the defensive secondary and offensive line gutted the Rams' roster before the season even started. You see, the Rams were a good team on paper, but like most NFL teams, they didn't have the depth to sustain a rash of severe injuries.
The Rams' margin of error was paper-thin.
So when the O-line went down, that meant Bradford got beat up, which meant he missed several games due to injury. That hurt his effectiveness, never mind the fact that he didn't have time to throw, which made the receivers look worse than they probably really were, never mind the fact that several of those receivers were also injured.
You get the point. It was a bad year for the Rams, a really bad year.
However, Rams fans should feel hopeful about this season, because in reality the Rams are not the 2-14 football team we saw a year ago. If you don't believe me, look no further than class of the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers were actually in the exact same spot as the Rams a couple years ago. The Niners were a young, emerging team with a defensive-minded head coach leading their turnaround. They had a talented young defense, and they had playmakers on offense. They were just waiting on their QB, a former No. 1 overall pick, to find his groove.
Who will win the NFC West in 2012
The Niners were building something great, and everybody could see it, but they just never quite put all the pieces together. A coaching change and one season later, the Niners are one of a handful of teams with a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl next year.
The Rams are a whole lot closer to the 7-9 team they were two years ago than they are to the 2-14 team we saw last year. Truthfully, they are probably a little bit better than that 7-9 team.
Of all the things that hurt the Rams last year, and injuries would top that list, I think one thing that doesn't get discussed enough is how poorly Josh McDaniels' offense worked here in St. Louis. McDaniels is a brilliant football coach, and he has the resume to prove that.
However, McDaniels offense was more "exotic" than it was "vanilla." With this Rams roster having so many young and unproven players (Sam Bradford, Lance Kendricks, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Illinois Mike, etc), it is definitely a "vanilla" roster right now. This offense, with a lot of the same players, actually played better under the "vanilla" approach of OC Pat Shurmur in 2010.
Jeff Fisher, with his "Fisherball" philosophy, is very "vanilla," and that should suit these Rams just fine.
Again, drawing a parallel to the Niners, they are a power football team. In today's NFL, with the video game passing statistics, they showed last year that it is still possible to be a dominant football team behind a strong running game and a stout defense.
When do you see the Rams being a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
The Rams have a stout defense, and they have the ability to have one of the best running attacks in the NFL. Bradford is an elite QB prospect, and if he has time to throw, I think he finally has some weapons to work with.
So are the Rams on the same level as the Niners?
Not yet, but it's closer than most people think it is. The Niners and Rams are on the exact same trajectory, with the Niners basically being a year ahead of the Rams right now. The Rams are still trying to go from "potential" to being a good football team.
So while the Rams were busy making some nice additions of their own, they are still playing catch up.
I think the Niners will win the NFC West again this year, but the Rams have a chance of making the playoffs as a wild card. The Rams are a talented team, and I could see them finishing anywhere from 7-9 to 10-6. Of course, all of this is based on health. If either team sustains a serious injury, then all bets are off.
The Niners better get all they can get right now, because the Rams are building a solid roster, and they hold four first-round draft picks (their own plus the Redskins) over the next two years. So be patient, Rams fans. As long as the Rams keep making good draft picks, the Rams should have a chance to own the NFC West over the next five to 10 years.