Some NFL teams have a deeper hole than others to climb out of.
From 2007-11, the Rams were just 15-65 (.188), which is the worst five-year stretch by a team in NFL history.
But after a 7-8-1 finish in 2012, some optimism has finally returned to St. Louis. Wounds from draft blunders of the past are healing as new talent was collected in an exciting offseason for the team.
Expectations are actually returning for the Rams, who have been ranked often in the top 15 in various power rankings (like ESPN) this offseason. It is not uncommon to see the Rams ranked ahead of a usual contender like the Steelers or a 2012 playoff team like Minnesota.
With the challenges present in the NFC West, it may still be too soon for the Rams to finally return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season.
But you could see the evidence last year of a team that’s no longer guaranteed to lose double-digit games.
Rams Finally Won Some Close Games
With a new, veteran coach in Fisher, the Rams did demonstrate a higher level of play than in past years. This team was more competitive and it was evident from the first game of the season when they gave Detroit all they could handle.
When the Rams beat the Cardinals in Week 5 to improve to 3-2, it was the first time the team was over .500 since November 5, 2006. That’s only a span of 71 months.
The defense showed improvement, ranking 17th in points per drive, according to Football Outsiders. The offense still struggled (27th in points per drive), but quarterback Sam Bradford had his best season. Part of the offense’s struggles can be traced back to having the worst average starting field position (23.72) in the league.
What allowed the Rams to achieve their best record since the 2006 season (8-8) was the amount of close wins the team was finally able to complete.
Another dirty secret in the NFL is that no matter how bad a team is, they still are going to be competitive late into the fourth quarter with a chance to win in roughly half the games in a season. The fact that such teams, like the 2008 Lions (0-16) or 1976-77 Buccaneers (2-26) still lose nearly all of those games is why they are a terrible team.
The Rams have been awful at winning close games in the fourth quarter and overtime, but finally finished a few in 2012.
From 2006-11, the Rams had just six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. That’s an average of one per season. Andrew Luck just had seven in 2012 as a rookie.
If the Rams were trailing and needed a fourth-quarter comeback, the numbers became even more pathetic. From 2006-11, the Rams had just four comeback wins in the fourth quarter, and none were from a deficit of more than four points.
In 2012, Bradford led three game-winning drives and had three comeback wins. He also had a fourth-quarter comeback that resulted in an annoying tie against San Francisco, against whom the Rams and Bradford played very well (1-0-1).
In Week 2 the Rams trailed Washington 21-6, but came back to take the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter and hung on for a 31-28 win. It was technically the first game-winning touchdown pass of Bradford’s career, hooking up with Matthew Mulligan for a 1-yard score.
Bradford’s second game-winning touchdown pass came in the final minute to beat Buffalo. He threw a 13-yard touchdown to Brandon Gibson with 0:48 to play in a 15-12 win.
Bradford had as many game-winning drives in 2012 (three) as the Rams had in 2007-11 combined.
These weren’t exactly moments drafted from the stuff of legends, but it was an important step forward after years of losing so many of these games. This is how many teams get to have winning records year after year: By winning the close ones.
For the Rams to continue being competitive so they are in position to win more of these games, it starts with the quarterback.
Sam Bradford: Crucial Fourth Season
Why do we fall, sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.
That was Alfred Pennyworth talking to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. It could also be Jeff Fisher talking to Sam Bradford as he enters his crucial fourth season. The Rams have not given up on Bradford yet, but he must show more to keep his job.
Bradford will always be known as the last No. 1 overall pick to get the richest rookie contract ever before the new CBA. Bradford’s 2010 deal was for six years and $78 million with $50 million guaranteed, according to ESPN.
Needless to say, he has not lived up to the money or the draft status so far.
Bradford’s rookie season was vastly overrated, as Chase Stuart of Pro-Football-Reference expertly explains. It was more of a perfect storm of an improved defense, a high-volume, dink-and-dunk passing game, and hanging around in a terrible division that produced the first 7-9 playoff team in NFL history. Of course that playoff team was Seattle, as Bradford lost the Week 17 finale that would have put the Rams in the playoffs.
Bradford did suffer a sophomore slump, which is a rarity these days. But the slump actually began in Bradford’s 12th game of his rookie season. In his first 11 games, Bradford had thrown 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a very respectable 82.0 passer rating. The Rams were 5-6.
But in his next 15 starts, which ran through his injury-shortened 2011 season, Bradford threw just seven touchdowns against 12 interceptions, had a 68.2 passer rating and went 3-12.
In those 15 games, Bradford led the offense to more than 19 points once. They only exceeded 16 points just twice.
In his career, Bradford is just 2-21-1 (.104) when the Rams allow more than 17 points in a game. He is 4-11-1 (.281) at game-winning drive opportunities, which is among the league’s worst records.
Last season, Bradford turned in his best performance yet, throwing for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns with an 82.6 passer rating. We already mentioned the clutch wins to help get the team up to 7-8-1.
Still, it was basically a league-average season rather than a third-year leap by a No. 1 overall quarterback. The expectations have to be higher than this. Bradford was so prolific at Oklahoma, but he just continues to be so mediocre in the NFL.
I have worked on a theory that if a quarterback is going to be good in the NFL, they have to show it by their fourth season. It does not matter if the player was injured or sitting on the bench; by year four they either show it or they never arrive as a legitimate starter.
The study could use an update and some ironing out, but it generally holds up. The examples of late-blooming quarterbacks like Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson and Joe Theismann come from decades ago.
The game has changed. Quarterbacks often start as rookies now, and even have instant success.
Bradford has been passed over by a slew of young quarterbacks that have entered the league after him. Many of them were on losing teams, though none of course in as big of a hole as the Rams were.
But no one can argue Bradford has done enough to elevate the team. He had so much command of Oklahoma’s prolific, fast-pace offense, but in the NFL, just putting 17 points on the board is a real chore for him on a weekly basis.
At Pro-Football-Reference, there are advanced passing tables that adjust stats for the era. A value of 100 is considered average. The higher the number, the better. Bradford’s passer rating index through three seasons is below average at 91.
If you look at players with a 91 passer rating index after three seasons (minimum 500 attempts), you end up with the following eight names:
Note: Passer rating is for entire career (regular season only). “Career Rate+” is the quarterback’s passer rating index for his entire career.
That’s a poor list to be part of, as obviously none of those quarterbacks went on to have a good career. The Rams were also guilty of drafting Bill Munson (No. 7 overall in 1964) and Tony Banks (second round in 1996).
Sure, there were quarterbacks with a similar passer rating index of 92 (Warren Moon) or 90 (Dan Fouts) that figured it out eventually and finished in the Hall of Fame.
But those are more examples from an older, different league. The NFL has definitely changed, which is why the four-year rule should apply more than ever.
Look at how quickly the league’s current established quarterbacks found success:
- Tom Brady unexpectedly won a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter (2001), which was his second in the league. Colin Kaepernick just nearly did the same for San Francisco.
- Joe Flacco had a solid rookie season (2008) and made it to the AFC Championship. He lost to Ben Roethlisberger, who was a historically great rookie in 2004.
- Andy Dalton’s rookie season with 20 touchdown passes and a 9-7 record (playoff appearance and Pro Bowl alternate) already beats any of Bradford’s three years. He slightly improved last year.
- Matt Schaub played solid in his first two seasons after being traded to Houston (starting in his fourth season), but did not begin winning games or make the Pro Bowl until 2009.
- Andrew Luck just had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, leading the Colts from 2-14 to 11-5 and the playoffs. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson had similar rookie impacts on their teams.
- Peyton Manning was prolific as a rookie, then led the Colts to a 13-3 record and finished as a runner-up in MVP voting in 1999.
- Philip Rivers led San Diego to the best record in the league (14-2) in 2006, which was his third season and first as a starter. He lit a fire under Drew Brees, who finally broke out in his fourth season (2004) with a great playoff year.
- Eli Manning and Michael Vick were No. 1 picks that sat early, but made the playoffs in their first full seasons as starters (year two in the league).
- Tony Romo went undrafted and did not play until his fourth season in 2006, but he instantly led Dallas to the playoffs.
- Due to you know who, Aaron Rodgers did not start until his fourth season, but had great individual stats in 2008. You quickly knew you were watching someone that could play at a high level in this league.
- Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford had breakout seasons in their third year, putting up big numbers.
- Cam Newton had a prolific rookie season, but it wasn’t even the best rookie season by a NFC South quarterback, which is what Matt Ryan had in 2008.
That’s a large chunk of the league right there, and the success came quickly. Of the 20 quarterbacks listed, 15 took over for a team with a losing record in the previous season. Of the 20, 13 of them made the playoffs in their first season as a starter.
The Rams could have drafted Griffin in 2012, but instead took the bounty Washington offered in trade. St. Louis stood behind Bradford and now has more ammo to load around him.
So play it again, Sam, because these first three seasons are not good enough when stacked up against your peers. The No. 1 pick carries a lofty status and the highest expectations.
Bradford is going to have his best supporting cast yet in 2013, so he has to start proving he is a franchise quarterback and elevate the players around him. If you believe in the four-year rule, then time is not on his side.
Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Rams
At one point this year, it appeared the Rams were emptying the cupboards for Bradford with running back Steven Jackson (Atlanta) and wide receivers Brandon Gibson (Miami) and Danny Amendola (New England) departing to new teams.
Those three players accounted for 44.4 percent of the Rams’ 2012 gross passing yardage.
But help has arrived for Bradford in considerable fashion from both free agency and the draft.
Jackson had eight consecutive seasons with 1,000 rushing yards, but it’s not like that was helping the team win games. He was a very good player, but his role can be replaced by sophomore backs Daryl Richardson (4.8 yards per carry last year) and second-round pick Isaiah Pead, who rarely played.
The big changes come with the wide receivers. The Rams doubled up on West Virginia receivers with Tavon Austin in the first round (No. 8 overall) and Stedman Bailey in the third round.
Bradford loved Amendola, but he’ll be even happier with Austin. A gifted athlete, he will work the slot and be a bigger playmaker than Amendola ever was.
Amendola averaged just 8.81 yards per reception in St. Louis. That is the lowest average in NFL history by a wide receiver with at least 100 receptions. Even after dropping the minimum to 30 receptions, Amendola would still have the second-worst average, so this is a historically bad figure.
Austin can take the short passes and make bigger gains out of them than Amendola did. He should fit in well and adapt quickly.
Bailey was a touchdown machine for Geno Smith in college. He caught 25 touchdowns in 2012 on 114 receptions. In 2011 he had 12 touchdowns on 72 receptions, so he is not a one-year wonder.
However, the Mountaineers were running more of a wide-open, spread attack than what you will see in St. Louis, but Bailey could be a third-round steal. He should at the very least be more productive than Boise State disappointment Austin Pettis, who is still on the roster.
Also returning is Chris Givens, who flashed big-play potential as a rookie with 698 yards (16.6 yards per reception) and three scores. There’s also Brian Quick, who showed little promise, catching 11-of-27 targets after being taken in the second round (33rd overall) last year.
Throw in tight end/slot receiver Jared Cook from Tennessee, and Bradford has few excuses not to produce more this season.
His protection should also see a boost. The team has fully moved on from the Jason Smith fiasco and acquired No. 1 overall pick Jake Long from Miami. This is the first time ever a tackle drafted No. 1 overall will block for a quarterback drafted No. 1 overall.
You also have to keep an eye on Alabama rookie Barrett Jones, who was drafted as a guard in the fourth round. The Alabama offensive line was well coached, so he could be a good find.
With things looking up on the offense, let’s switch gears to the defense.
The team returns cornerstones like defensive end Chris Long as the pass-rusher, linebacker James Laurinaitis as the clean-up tackler, and second-year playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Veteran Cortland Finnegan was a good signing from last year to team up with Jenkins.
Hoping to improve this core group is rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree out of Georgia. He was a polarizing figure in the draft community, but the Rams will hope he can be a steal with the No. 30 pick.
The Rams had two first-round picks this year. The good news is that history says there’s an 86.5 percent chance that at least Austin or Ogletree will be a NFL success. The draft is like a big lottery, so the more chances you purchase, the better the odds of winning something. Hitting on both picks is about 40 percent, though the level of success varies.
St. Louis will be hoping for at least one stellar career to come out of this draft. Given the problems the Rams have had offensively, maybe Austin is the one to root for if they can’t have both.
Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein made a name for himself early in the season with his long field goals. He finished the season just 23-of-31 (74.2 percent) on field goals, but do not fret. His misses were from these mostly absurd distances: 35, 37, 51, 52, 57, 58, 58 and 66 yards. He will remain a weapon for the team.
The Rams should be able to turn things around eventually. The team has had some rough decades (1956-65 and 1990-98) before, but it usually never lasts more than 10 years.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the 1999 Rams nearly were. The 2013 Rams do not have those types of pieces in place for such a turnaround, but creeping up to 9-7 and a return to winning should not be out of the question.
It’s hard to make the playoffs when you are clearly the third-best team in your division. San Francisco and Seattle will continue to battle it out on top. The NFC is rather deep.
Some difficult games early in the season (at Atlanta, at Dallas, vs. San Francisco in Weeks 2-4) could start the Rams in a hole. The reconstructed offense will likely have growing pains for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who the jury is still out on.
But if the defense continues to gel and Bradford finally takes big steps forward, then the Rams could eye 2014 as their year to get back into the playoffs.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.