The biggest offseason decisions for the St. Louis Rams will encompass everything from free agents and draft picks to hammering out the details of a plan to give the team a place to play.
Whether they finish 8-7-1 or 7-8-1, 2012 was a year in which the Rams saw substantial improvement, not just in their record, but in the style and quality of their play and the stability and hopefulness of their future development.
Having only been together for less than a year, the new Rams' brain trust has already set a high standard for themselves for offseason activity with their initially off-putting but eventually gratifying draft strategy of repeatedly trading down to acquire more picks and their savvy free-agent signings.
2013 will pose new challenges as there will be onerous roster decisions the likes of which they did not have to face in 2012 and a potentially franchise-altering decision about the Edward Jones Dome.
Here are 10 decisions that could make or break the 2013 Rams.
Rumors have begun to surface that Brian Schottenheimer is getting consideration as a possible candidate to fill one of the head coaching vacancies this offseason.
This cannot be allowed to happen.
Brian Schottenheimer may not be the greatest play-caller ever, but what he is is a guy who can give Sam Bradford something he has never had in his professional career: the same playbook two years in a row.
For his part, Schottenheimer is saying all of the right things to reassure us Rams fans, but that song has been sung by others in the past only to have their true intentions revealed mere weeks later.
If Sam Bradford gets another new offensive system in 2013, he will have yet another disappointing season. If Schottenheimer stays and the Rams give Bradford a few new weapons and better protection, whether he succeeds or fails, there will be no more excuses.
Do the Rams bring him back to provide depth or do they go in another direction?
Weeks 14 and 15 of the 2012 season were the two best consecutive games that Brandon Gibson has had in his career. Even so, it's not likely it would cost the Rams much, if any, more to retain his services than they paid him this year.
If we assume that the Rams are going to add a wide receiver in the offseason, they retain Danny Amendola and Brian Quick develops into the force he should be, we can conclude that Gibson would be no better than the fourth or fifth wide receiver on the Rams' roster.
He knows Sam Bradford and he knows the offense. If he doesn't think he is worth more than he is, the Rams should bring him back. If the price is not right, it won't be too difficult to find a serviceable fourth wide receiver in the later rounds of the draft or free agency.
William Hayes has been a revelation as a rotational defensive end, making the most of his limited playing time with a flair for the dramatic.
His two sacks against Tampa Bay gave him six on the season, third best on the team behind only Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
The problem is that he might be looking for more money and more playing time. He has certainly earned the opportunity.
We know he likes Jeff Fisher, having followed him to St. Louis from Tennessee. If Hayes is satisfied with his playing time, there is no one better the Rams could get to fill that role, even at the increased price tag he is sure to demand.
Greg Jennings has been my choice for a while now, provided that the price is right, of course.
But pragmatism forces an acknowledgement of other options.
It would not be shocking to see the Rams take Cal's Keenan Allen with one of their two first-round picks. Surprising? Sure, but not shocking.
As of December 26, the Rams hold the 17th and 20th overall picks in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Allen is projected as a first-round talent, and the Rams have an indisputable need at wide receiver.
Still, Allen is far from a sure thing.
Other big-name, true No. 1 wide receivers on the free-agent market include Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace. Bowe has motivation issues and Wallace is apparently pouty when he doesn't get as many throws as he would like.
Greg Jennings' issues are injury-related, but contracts are contingent on passed physicals.
Assuming Jeff Fisher is comfortable with Rodger Saffold as his starting left tackle, that leaves right tackle and guard as positions of need.
While getting two blue-chip offensive linemen in one draft is an enticing proposition, the Rams may be better off using free agency to fill one of those holes and spending a first-round pick on another area of need (wide receiver, tight end, safety).
As I previously stated in the aforementioned article, Buffalo's Andy Levitre would be a perfect fit. Here are the key points:
If the Rams can lure Levitre away from the Bills and every other suitor he is sure to have once the free-agent signing period begins, they could use Turner as a backup capable of playing any of the interior offensive line positions, thereby adding much needed depth to their O-line.
In addition, Levitre has the ability to play tackle. If one of the tackles goes down next year, they plug in Levitre and have a very capable player, in Turner, to man the left guard position.
With the additions of Taylor Lewan or Jake Matthews in the first round and Andy Levitre in free agency, the Rams' offensive line problems will be solved.
There are definitely plenty of options in the draft if the Rams choose that avenue to address their need at safety.
The options are just as plentiful in the third round, too.
It would be foolish for the Rams to pay a free-agent safety when they could possibly get just as much of a return from a much smaller investment.
The free-agent possibilities are not exciting. With the exception of Connor Barwin—who is likely to get a franchise tag—they are all either old or coming off significant injuries.
That said, if the Rams are less than enamored with the linebacker prospects in the draft, they could always sign a guy like 32-year-old Shaun Phillips of the Chargers to come in and play the role for a year or two until they can pick up a rookie they like.
But that seems unlikely.
Steven Jackson has said that he wants to finish his career with the only professional team he has ever played for.
Jeff Fisher has said that the Rams want him back.
So, it would seem that, provided Jackson's contract demands are realistic and fair, there are no obstacles to his return.
Why then is there a pervading dread among Rams fans that his return is in question?
In an interview before the Week 17 Rams vs. Seahawks matchup, Jackson hinted at the possibility of retirement. The seriousness of this thought may be put into question when you realize he said it while laughing, but then he went on to say, "If I have to write my story, I'd rather go out like Barry Sanders and leaving people to want more than to leave too late."
But then a few questions later he seemingly contradicted himself when he said this:
I'll allow myself that time to sit back and reflect and think about things I've accomplished in my career and what I've done this season," he said. "And think about how much longer I want to play this game, as well. There's going to be a small window of opportunity and I want to make sure I take full advantage of it.
If Steven Jackson retires at the end of the 2012 season, he will have played his last football game at the age of 29. Barry Sanders was 31 when he retired.
I don't buy it.
Steven Jackson will return to the Rams on a two-year deal, provided the Rams are telling the truth about wanting him back.
The obvious answer is yes, but Amendola's injury history and the possibility that he might demand a large contract complicate the issue.
Whichever team signs him and however much he signs for, he is going to get an immense raise.
They won't want to do that.
Because injuries have forced Amendola to miss 25 games in his four-year career, he is not worth as much as Wes Welker—he won't be until he can prove his ability to stay healthy for an entire season.
If the Rams can get him for somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million a year, they need to make that happen. Anything more than that is unearned at this point.
Of course, St. Louisans won't care about any of the nine previously mentioned things if the Rams and the CVC (St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission—the organization that controls the Rams' home) can't come to an agreement about plans to improve the Edward Jones Dome.
From the Associated Press via ESPN:
The 30-year lease that lured the Rams from Anaheim, Calif., in 1995 allows for the franchise to leave after the 2014 season if the Edward Jones Dome is not deemed among the top 25 percent of all NFL stadiums.
Proposals for improvements to the dome have been submitted and rejected by both sides, resulting in an arbitration process that is scheduled to end December 31.
Both sides have agreed to attempt to complete arbitration by Dec. 31. The arbitrators will either endorse the CVC plan, the Rams' plan, or develop their own. The CVC will then have 60 days to decide whether to move forward with that plan or allow the Rams to end the lease.
If the lease ends, it does not necessarily mean the Rams will leave the St. Louis area. They could build elsewhere in the area, possibly even across the river in Illinois.
They could also move to Los Angeles or London.
However the dramatic situation plays out, it will be the most important offseason development for the Rams in 2013.