Why Not Nine; How The St. Louis Rams Can Make The Playoffs in 2009
He wouldn't have said it if he didn't believe it.
Shortly after being drafted, new Rams offensive tackle Jason Smith had a conference call with the St. Louis media in which he couldn't help but be optimistic about the 2009 season.
“Obviously, they are at the bottom; they want to be at the top," Smith, as quoted by Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said.
"I could feel that when I was there. I could feel that talking to the guys and then I had the opportunity to go watch the team work out and I’m feeling like I’m part of them. I’m saying, ‘Why not us? Why not us? Why are we not the ones?’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m not even there yet.’
"But why not us you know? Why not me? Why not today? Why not this game? Why not this year? Why not this playoff? Why not this Super Bowl? Let’s make dreams and visions become reality.’”
So the question remains—why not the Rams?
The precedent is certainly there. Just a year ago, the Miami Dolphins went from one-win cellar dwellers to 11-game winners and playoff participants.
And they're not the exception. The NFL's salary cap creates a great deal of parity and presents the opportunity for upward mobility for wayward franchises such as the Rams.
Every team, the Rams included, approaches each new season with hopes of a winning season and a Super Bowl ring.
So how can the Rams realistically contend in 2009?
First, it must be established how many wins the team will need to earn a playoff berth.
The woes of the NFC West have been well-documented in years past, but the Arizona Cardinals surprised everyone by making it to the Super Bowl after going only 9-7 in the regular season.
They enter the season as the team to beat in the West, but no team is without its problems.
The Cardinals continue to have contract issues with standout wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who wants to be paid like his teammate Larry Fitzgerald. That can only be a distraction for a team trying to make it back to the Super Bowl.
Kurt Warner is also getting up in age, and his durability is constantly in question. In the event of a Warner injury, will Matt Leinart be able to lead the team to success?
The Seattle Seahawks suffered to a 4-12 record in 2008, and while part of those struggles were due to missing key players on both sides of the ball, they could face adversity with the transition from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora at head coach and the absence of stud linebacker Julian Peterson, who was traded to Detroit in the offseason.
The San Francisco 49ers went 7-9 in 2008, but they enter 2009 with a quarterback who has only attempted 367 passes in his eight-year career.
Pair that with an underwhelming offensive line on paper and the worst takeaway-to-turnover ratio in the NFL and there is no guarantee the team will duplicate its relative success in the West.
The door may be open for the Rams, but any team winning the West will most likely need another nine-win season.
So that leads us to the next question: How do the Rams get to nine wins?
They've already begun the process by adding veterans Jason Brown and James Butler and drafting Smith and James Laurinaitis, but you don't win games in May.
For the sake of order, lets break the season down into four quadrants and analyze just how the Rams could make a Dolphins-like turnaround.
Quadrant I: Tough schedule right out of the gate
Week 1 the Rams travel to Seattle. The Rams got embarrassed in Seattle in Week 3 of 2008 but should have won the second meeting in St. Louis, which would have given the teams a split on the year.
Split or not, it's Seattle's home opener and most likely a win for the Seahawks.
They travel to Washington in Week 2 to face the Redskins. In 2008, the Rams got their brief two-game winning streak started by going into Washington and winning after the bye week.
The Redskins addressed their 2008 problems the only way Dan Snyder knows how—by throwing money at anyone and everyone. Albert Haynesworth is a beast in the middle, but team chemistry still takes time to develop.
With so many additions and subtractions, it's unclear what this Redskins team will look like early on.
Call it a hunch, but I'll give this matchup to the Rams.
The Rams play their home opener in Week 3 against Green Bay.
The Packers are in the midst of a conversion to a 3-4 style defense and might be starting two rookies in the front seven when they come to St. Louis.
The Rams will be young, too, but the Packers had their share of struggles in 2008 and this game certainly isn't a lock.
The Renewed Hope of a Franchise + Home Opener Energy = Rams Win. (Come on, I'm trying to find nine wins here. I've got to be somewhat of an optimist.)
In Week 4 the Rams again travel, this time to San Francisco.
The story on the Rams-49ers 2008 matchups reads like Seattle Seahawks Redux—a bad loss on the road and a botched lead late at home. But unlike the Seahawks, the 49ers didn't really deal with many injuries, just poor play.
I feel like this is a toss-up, but I'll respect the home-field advantage and give the edge to the 49ers at home.
Quadrant II: North and South
With a hypothetical 2-2 record entering Week 5, the Rams get Minnesota at home.
The Vikings are dealing with the (as of now pending) suspensions of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams for use of banned substances.
Currently the two are still able to play while the case is under appeal.
As it stands, though, the Vikings have two giant question marks in their interior line and a quarterback situation that could be complicated by the eternal indecision that is Brett Favre's football career. Advantage: Rams.
Two AFC South teams, Jacksonville and Indianapolis, follow the Minnesota game, and in the interest of time, I've decided the Rams will lose both.
Indianapolis isn't even worth a discussion; Jacksonville could be a contest, but the AFC South is such a tough division that the level of play will have to be high to compete.
In Week 8, the Rams head north to take on Detroit.
The Lions will be improved, but it's hard not to improve on 0-16. Mathematically impossible to get any worse in a 16-game season, in fact.
And any team that allows 517 points and subsequently uses its two first-round draft picks on offensive players deserves to lose, anyway. And lose they will.
Quadrant III: Home Sweet Home
After the Week 9 bye, the Rams have three consecutive home games and a hypothetical 4-4 record.
New Orleans is a dome team as well, so they should feel right at home in the Edward Jones Dome.
Neither team showed the ability to stop opposing offenses in 2008, so whichever defense shows the most improvement should win the battle. After a bye, the Rams should be the fresher team and therefore get the win.
The next two games are against divisional opponents, Arizona and Seattle.
The importance of winning home games within the division is well understood, so the Rams shouldn't have any problem getting up for the games.
Before the last few years, home field was a definite advantage for the Rams, so a return to contention should prove valuable again. The Rams can realistically win both games.
The final game of the quadrant is in Chicago. The Bears feel that they've improved by acquiring Jay Cutler to be their quarterback, but the truth is Cutler hasn't won anything.
The Bears will require an unlikely contribution from someone on the wide receiving corps—much like the Rams—if they're going to be greatly improved, Cutler or no Cutler.
It's another toss-up, but the Rams are going to need an unexpected win somewhere along the line. Rams win.
Quadrant IV: The Final (Playoff!) Stretch
Our hypothetical journey nears the end and finds the Rams at 8-4. Only one more win is needed to reach the imaginary playoff bar, but it won't be easy.
The Rams travel to Tennessee in Week 14, and barring a Music City Miracle or unforeseen injury the Titans should roll.
Week 15 brings Houston to the Ed.
Houston has been poised to break out for a few years now, and something tells me 2009 might be the year it finally happens.
They're not terribly flashy, but Andre Johnson is one of the best receivers in the game and Mario Williams is looking more and more like the right choice with the first pick in the 2006 Draft.
I think Houston wins and drops the Rams record to 8-6.
In Week 16, the Rams are in Arizona. Sticking with my pattern of home divisional games, I'll give the win to Arizona.
So here it is. Week 17 and the Rams need a win at home against San Francisco to reach nine.
In a game of far less hypothetical importance, the 49ers visited St. Louis late in the 2008 season. The Rams led most of the game and with 4:04 left they led comfortably 16-3.
In the ensuing 4:04, the 49ers went on to score two touchdowns and win the game 17-16. The loss was an exclamation point on the disaster that was the 2008 season.
But as Jason Smith pointed out, these Rams are not the 2008 Rams. They don't have to repeat the same history. They don't have to have the same issues.
A win and they're in, a loss and they're devastated. What would Smith say?
He'd probably say, "Why not us? Why not this game?
"Why not nine?"
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