The Biggest Early-Season Storylines for the St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams are 1-1 after two weeks of play.
To understand just how rare a feat that is for this franchise, you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find a Rams team that didn't lose their first two games of the regular season.
After having the lead inside the final minute against the Lions two weeks ago, the Rams are just a simple check-down pass to Kevin Smith away from being 2-0.
There is obviously a lot to be excited about for the 2012 Rams squad.
Let's take a look at the biggest early season (and mostly positive) story lines for the St. Louis Rams.
Call it resilience. Call it tenacity. Call it toughness.
Call it whatever you want. We're all saying the same thing.
The culture and mindset of the Rams, as a franchise, has completely changed as a result of Jeff Fisher's presence and leadership.
It's never been like this for the Rams in St. Louis.
Even going back to the Greatest Show days, those Rams squads exuded extreme confidence in their swagger and in their brash cockiness.
That style worked for those Rams teams. They had fun showing off how better they were than their opponents.
This Rams squad is different. Fisher has brought in a mindset centered on preparation, professionalism, toughness and tenacity (there I go again with those buzzwords). He has taught this Rams team that anybody can become a winner overnight.
The Greatest Show Rams didn't know they were good until Kurt Warner came from nowhere to throw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1 of the 1999 season. From then, those players knew they had, "it" and they played like it.
These Rams have to work harder. It's not going to come as easy to these guys. But after taking the Lions down to the final minute in their stadium, and then coming back from a 21-6 deficit to beat Washington, these Rams can see that success is headed their way.
Sam Bradford has put on quite the show during the first two weeks of the season. And no one outside of St. Louis is talking about it.
Bradford currently sits third in QB rating (112.4). That's higher than the golden arms attached to Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Manning (both Eli and Peyton), Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Michael Vick and many others.
Bradford's completion percentage (71.7) is also third in the league, behind only Christian Ponder and Philip Rivers.
And it's not like the Rams are forcing Bradford into a bunch of unnecessary throws in the spirit of racking up hollow statistics. He's only thrown 60 passes after two games, which is the 23rd most among QBs.
Yet Bradford's efficiency is incredible. He's fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.47) and has thrown only one interception.
I wrote back in July that Bradford was primed for a huge comeback. History suggested as much as well as having Jeff Fisher.
Bradford's start to his career has been on par with the starts of most of his fellow QB competitors around the league. If these first two weeks are any indication of what's coming, Bradford is about to crash the inner circle of elite NFL arms.
Has there been a better free agent signing for a defense in the NFL this year than Cortland Finnegan?
Finnegan is two for two in grabbing an interception so far this season, including returning one for a touchdown.
Finnegan is seemingly everywhere on the field, leading the Rams in both passes defended and solo tackles.
He also baited Josh Morgan into an unsportsmanlike penalty that sealed the team's victory against the Redskins and put Mike Shanahan on the verge of a coronary.
Second-round draft pick Janoris Jenkins has also lived up to his talent. Jenkins is a little Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish in the way he can get burned one moment for a big play and then return the favor the next.
Not too many rookies can step on the field in a pressure position and perform. Jenkins has.
He certainly has a feel for the big play, as evidenced by intercepting a pass at his team's goal line against Detroit in Week 1 and breaking up a pass with a shoulder shot on Fred Davis during the fourth quarter against Washington.
Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl have also done well as the team's starting safeties.
The fact that Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III have only thrown for 543 total yards and two touchdowns against the Rams secondary speaks volumes about the improvement this area of the team has shown.
The Running Game
This might be the first time since Marshall Faulk suited up that another Rams running back is mentioned before Steven Jackson.
Seriously, how can you not be excited about Daryl Richardson?
From the moment he was given the ball in the preseason, Richardson has brought an edge and excitement to the running game that hasn't been seen since, well, probably Faulk.
Steven Jackson is a fine runner. He's the most accomplished Rams running back ever. And he still has plenty to give to this Rams team.
But this storyline is all about Richardson.
Among running backs with at least 15 carries, Richardson is fourth in the NFL in yards per rush (6.1). That's behind only C.J. Spiller, Ray Rice and Frank Gore.
Richardson is an aggressive runner, who can burst through any running lane for positive yards.
Only one player was drafted after Richardson at this past April's NFL draft. Who would have thought that after two weeks, Richardson would be the Rams primary ballcarrier after Jackson and Isaiah Pead would have exactly zero touches?
It's a tale of "Who's Who?" for the Rams offensive line. Fans must be literally asking themselves who the team has out there protecting Sam Bradford.
Coming into this year's preseason schedule, the first unit of the offensive line would have looked something like this: Rodger Saffold (LT), Rokevious Watkins (LG), Scott Wells (C), Harvey Dahl (RG) and Jason Smith (RT).
When the Rams travel to Chicago this weekend to play the Bears, only Dahl will be left among that group for the first offensive snap.
Smith was traded during the preseason to the Jets. Wells and Watkins are both out on IR with foot and ankle injuries, respectively. Wells should be back by midseason, but Watkins is gone for the year.
Saffold gets carted off one week with a neck injury and stays overnight in the hospital, only to return to start the very next game and suffer an MCL injury that will sideline him for more than a month.
It's anyone's guess how this unit has kept Bradford alive. He was sacked only one time last Sunday against Washington.
Credit goes all around. Paul Boudreau as the offensive line coach deserves much praise. So does Brian Schottenheimer as the offense's play caller.
Schottenheimer called passing plays for Bradford that involved quick drop backs and short to intermediate passing routes (mostly to Amendola).
Bradford was able to get the ball out without much trouble against Washington. Let's hope that same offensive mentality follows the team to Chicago this weekend.
Let's get the good news out of the way first.
Danny Amendola is a beast. He leads the NFL in receptions (20), he's third in receiving yards (230) and tied for second in targets (25) and receiving first downs (11).
Bradford to Amendola is working at an 80 percent success rate, and every time Bradford throws Amendola's direction, it's close to a 50 percent probability that the Rams will turn that pass attempt into a first down.
Brandon Gibson is also putting his mark on this season so far. Thought by many who write for this site to be a fourth or fifth option in the Rams offense, if not a last-minute cut, Gibson has solidified himself as Bradford's number two option.
Among wide receivers with as many catches as Gibson (six), he is ninth overall in average yards per reception (17.3).
That's better than Marques Colston, Hakeem Nicks, Miles Austin, Dwayne Bowe, Victor Cruz and even Megatron himself (Calvin Johnson).
The more puzzling headline for Rams fans is: Where are the rookies?
Brian Quick and Chris Givens were thought to be the present and the future of the Rams wide receiving corps.
Yet, you can summarize their impact with one word: Zero. As in zero catches and zero yards.
Jeff Fisher has never had much success developing rookie wide receivers. Only one rookie under Fisher's guidance has caught more than 23 balls or had more than 301 receiving yards (Kenny Britt).
That doesn't look to be changing this season.
Greg Zuerlein. Johnny Hekker. Get used to these guys as they are going to be in St. Louis for a while.
Zuerlein has literally been perfect this season, nailing all six of his field goal attempts through two games.
And it's not like he's hitting a bunch of chip shots either. He's made all three of his attempts from 40 yards, including two from 45-plus.
Zuerlein is tied for the NFL lead in field goals made, success rate (obviously) and is responsible for 22 of the Rams 54 points this season (by far the most of any Ram).
Zuerlein has yet to show his true range, as most Rams fans know that the team is essentially in scoring range once the offense crosses midfield.
Did I mention he is a rookie?
Hekker has also been outstanding with the punting duties. He's sixth in the NFL in yards per punt (50.5), including a long one for 66 yards (tied for third this season) last week.
Hekker's average, looking at last season would be within half a yard of the league leader.
Did I mention he too is a rookie?
Hekker has the ability to dramatically change field position, as demonstrated in the final minutes last week against the Redskins.
It's also worth mentioning other members of the Rams special teams. Matthew Mulligan made a huge play blocking a punt last week. Pead and Amendola have likewise been sharp in the return game.
The difference between being 10-6 versus 6-10 in today's NFL is very small.
Converting an extra first down or forcing the opponent to punt one more time per game, over the course of the season, can change a couple of those losses into wins.
Injuries are the same. You've got to be a little lucky when it comes to managing a team's health and the next man up must be ready.
The Rams lost two members of their defensive line early in the season. Trevor Laws is out for the season on IR with a knee injury, and first-round pick Michael Brockers still has a few weeks left before he will return from a nasty ankle sprain.
Brockers' return is a necessity for the Rams as teams will start to double team Chris Long and Robert Quinn more.
Steven Jackson appears to be nursing a sore groin, and while Daryl Richardson has filled in admirably, this team needs its best player on the field at all times.
Most importantly for the Rams, and their $78 million quarterback, is the health of the offensive line.
Who hasn't been sidelined with an injury?
Center Scott Wells has been put on the IR recall list with a broken foot.
Guard Rokevious Watkins joined Wells on IR, but he'll be gone for the entire season with a severe ankle injury.
Tackle Rodger Saffold gets carted off the field one week with a neck injury, miraculously starts the next week against Washington, and then promptly sprains his MCL. He looks to be gone for at least a month.
Bodies are getting brought back in to starting roles after being cut in training camp. Players are shifting assignments on the line at a moment's notice.
That Bradford was only sacked one time last week is a testament to line coach Paul Boudreau and the rest of the offensive staff under Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer.