NFL Preview: Could the 2012 St. Louis Rams Actually Be Good?

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NFL Preview: Could the 2012 St. Louis Rams Actually Be Good?
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Every year in the NFL a team jumps into the playoffs after having a terrible season the year before.

Actually, multiple teams do it every year. Since 2008, at least two teams have made the playoffs after having a 6-10 record or worse the previous year.

Don't believe me? Take a look at the table:

Year Team Playoff Record Previous Year
2011 Cincinnati Bengals 9-7 4-12
  Houston Texans 10-6 6-10
  Denver Broncos 8-8 4-12
  Detroit Lions 10-6 6-10
  San Francisco 49ers 13-3 6-10
2010 Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 4-12
  Seattle Seahawks 7-9 5-11
2009 Cincinnati Bengals 10-6 4-11-1
  Green Bay Packers 11-5 6-10
2008 Miami Dolphins 11-5 1-15
  Baltimore Ravens 11-5 5-11
  Atlanta Falcons 11-5 4-12

 

The numbers here don't lie, which means we're going to see it happen again this season.

There are 10 possible teams that went 6-10 or worse last year and could possibly make the leap to the playoffs this season. Those teams are Miami, Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Washington, Minnesota, Carolina, Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

Now you're probably thinking, since you read the headline, Why the Rams?

Glad you asked. 

 

The Rams play in the NFC West

The Rams get an advantage here because none of the other nine teams can say this. The Rams play in a division with a team that just signed Terrell Owens to contribute as a wide receiver, a team that thinks Kevin Kolb is somehow a starter-caliber quarterback in the NFL, and another team in no position to match what it did last year.

Outside of the division, the Rams don't have a terribly tough schedule. According to the ESPN NFL Nation Blog, the Rams have the fourth toughest schedule due to opponent's winning percentage, but that's not fair. That ranking is skewed by the Rams having to play the 13-3 49ers twice, the 15-1 Packers and the 13-3 Patriots.

That's an .843 winning percentage in only four games.

 

 

In reality, the Rams will only play one other team with a winning record in 2011 (Detroit); only the Patriots and the Falcons will play fewer games against opponents with winning records last season.

Although they do have to play New England and Green Bay, both of those games are at home and as we saw against the Saints last season, the Rams can play well in the Edward Jones Dome. Although they were 1-7 in home games, only three of those losses were by more than seven points. If the Rams can swing half of those one-score games in their favor, that's already two wins added. As a dome team, the Rams will only have to play six games outdoors, but two of those outdoor games are in Florida. 

 

Upgraded Offensive Line

Football Outsiders measures offensive lines in run-blocking by adjusted line yards. You can read the exact definition of what that means here. The point is, in the NFL, the running game is dependent on the offensive line. With an effective offensive line, average running backs can become good and good running backs can become great.

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

The opposite can also be true; great running backs can be downgraded to good without efficient blocking from the big men up front. St. Louis has a great running back in Steven Jackson. Jackson has eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in every season since 2005 while having only one season with an offensive line ranked higher than 23 in adjusted line yards (the line was ranked eighth in 2006 when Jackson rushed for career highs in yards, 1,528, and touchdowns, 13).

 

 

F.O. also shows whether a team is more dependent on the line or the running back to produce rushing yards by the difference in rank in adjusted line yards and second-level yards. Last season, the Rams ranked 30 in adjusted line yards, but 10th in second-level yards. This means Jackson was able to find holes on the field to make runs of 10-plus yards without the offensive line being necessarily efficient in making those holes.

This offseason, the Rams went out and signed free-agent center Scott Wells to bolster the offensive line. New head coach Jeff Fisher knows how important having a reliable center is while having Kevin Mawae from 2006-2009 in Tennessee, leading the way for running back Chris Johnson. The Rams will also get back 2010 second-round pick left tackle Rodger Saffold from a torn pectoral injury that kept him out of the final seven games last season.

Expect the improved offensive line to have a positive impact on the run game and expect another big season from Steven Jackson.

 

Sam Bradford is a good quarterback

The narrative around Bradford coming into this season is he can be good if he can stay healthy, with questions asking if he can actually stay healthy. There was a similar narrative surrounding Matthew Stafford last year, who took a 6-10 Lions team to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. Of course Bradford doesn't have Calvin Johnson to throw to, but he does have some weapons. The Rams drafted 6'4" 220-pound wide receiver Brian Quick out of Appalachian State in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft and are expecting big things from him.

 

 

St. Louis also signed free agent Steve Smith this offseason. Smith is finally healthy going into his second season after suffering a torn ACL. When healthy, Smith can be an incredibly reliable possession receiver and one of the best third down receivers in the NFL. Sophomore seasons could also show improvements for receiver Austin Pettis and tight end Lance Kendricks.

 

Bradford is only two seasons removed from a rookie season that saw him complete 60 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns. If Bradford can improve upon those numbers while playing all 16 games, he could become the best quarterback in the NFC West.

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Arizona will flip-flop between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton as Larry Fitzgerald cries himself to sleep at night. Matt Flynn is expected to do big things in Seattle after having a small sample size in an incredibly efficient offensive system (remember Matt Cassel, anyone?), and Alex Smith is bound to regress from his five interception year as the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will force him to throw the ball further than five yards down the field.

If you buy into the idea of the team with the better quarterback wins, the Rams only play four games against significantly better quarterbacks. If you assume losses to Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, Bradford only has to go 5-3 against the likes of Robert Griffin III, Matt Flynn/Tavaris Jackson/Russell Wilson (twice), Kevin Kolb/John Skelton (twice), David Garrard/Matt Moore/Ryan Tannehill, Alex Smith (twice), Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman to assure a winning record.

 

 

That doesn't sound too far-fetched. 

 

Young and Improving Defense

The defensive line in St. Louis this year is young and it is going to be good. If the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants taught us anything last year, it was a defensive line that can easily get to the quarterback can mask deficiencies in other parts of the defense.

The Rams defensive line will include Chris Long (coming off a career high 13 sacks last season) and Robert Quinn (five sacks in his rookie season) at the ends with free agent signee Kendall Langford and rookie Michael Brockers up the middle. The oldest of those four is the 27-year-old Long.

This line could be set up for dominant performances rushing the passer as nine of their games are played against offensive lines ranking in the bottom half of F.O.'s adjusted sack rate in 2011. I'm not saying this Rams line will match the Giants, but they can use the same strategy.

St. Louis also doesn't have to completely rely on this strategy because the rest of their defense is better than what we saw from last year's Giants. The Rams have competent linebackers with James Laurinaitis, now in his fourth year, and free agent additions Mario Haggan and Jo-Lonn Dunbar.

 

 

 

St. Louis has also made improvements at cornerback. Cortland Finnegan came over from Tennessee to join his former head coach. Finnegan entrenched as a starter as a mix of second-round pick Janoris Jenkins battles with Bradley Fletcher for the other starting corner position.

 

Jenkins, with all of his off-the-field red flags is impressing at camp. Jenkins will be watched heavily on and off the field by Fisher, but if Jenkins can keep his focus on football, we may see a star start to rise.

Now I'm not saying the Rams are going to be a version of the 2008 Miami Dolphins or have a 13-3 record like last year's 49ers, but they will make improvements. These improvements will give them the chance to challenge for the division title and sneak into the playoffs.

The 2012 St. Louis Rams will be better than you're expecting. It's not crazy, it's football.

 

Dan Pizzuta is a cinderella story, outta nowhere, about to become the Masters champion. Follow him on Twitter @DanPizzuta.

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