St. Louis Rams Headed in Right Direction, but a Dog's Age Away from Contention

mike gilbertCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2009

I gotta admit: it looks pretty good on paper. The man who constructed the most feared pass rush in recent NFL history gets his own squad and hires Donovan McNabb’s quarterback coach to call the plays. It sounds like something you’d put together in Madden in the fantasy draft mode.

While the hiring of former New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as head coach of the Rams is the right move for the franchise, he has a long way to go to turn around the team.

This is not because is anything less than a top-notch coach. No, the Rams will stink for years to come because the team cannot draft decent defensive players to save their collective lives. In fact, the only Rams defensive player to make the Pro Bowl in the last decade is Leonard “Vehicular Manslaughter” Little.

Spagnuolo will have to turn around a defensive unit that hasn’t finished in the top half of the league statistically since 2002. He was able to generate a feared pass rush in New York by relying on clever play calling and unparalleled line depth, but that will be much harder to do in St. Louis.

The plan will be there, but the Rams’ front-line players aren’t that good, never mind the backups.

If Spagnuolo has any hope to turn this team around, he has to get the Rams’ front seven to live up to their potential. He can’t help but improve the defensive line, which registered only 19 sacks last season.

There are some first-round names on that unit (Chris Long, Adam Carriker) who haven’t come close to living up to their lofty billing.

Arguably worse is the linebacking corps, who were led in tackles by weak-side LB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Yeah, that Pisa Tinoisamoa. The legendary one. It’s hard to totally destroy formerly-solid middle LB Will Witherspoon for only making 72 tackles in 2008. He got no breathing room from his DTs.

Still, dude finished at just about the bottom of the barrel in tackles for starting Mike ‘backers, so you kinda have to give him hell. Spagnuolo will have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to cover for this lot.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Helping Spagnuolo out at defensive coordinator is Ken Flajole, former Carolina LB coach. Flajole’s claim to fame is turning Witherspoon into the player he is today, which would have been a compliment before last season.

Jon Beason and Mark Fields also played pretty well under Flajole’s tutelage, as well as former safety-turned-LB Thomas Davis.

The incoming offensive coordinator, former Eagles QB coach Pat Shurmur, faces an equally grim situation. The Rams finished 27th overall in team offense (25th rushing, 26th passing), and are in need of a complete personnel overhaul.

Gone are the last links to the “Greatest Show on Turf,” LT Orlando Pace and WR Torry Holt. While WR Donnie Avery shows some potential, the rest of the depth chart is stacked with guys who still have to earn their helmet horns in training camp. The offensive line is nearly as bad; it allowed the sixth-most sacks last year.

If ever losing three starters on the O-line was a good thing, this is the situation. Bringing in former Raven Jason Brown at center will help, and St. Louis will almost definitely take an offensive tackle with the No. 2 pick in the draft. QB Marc Bulger is washed up, so expect something to happen at that position, as well.

While Eagles fans can quibble about Shurmur’s resume due to their blind personal hatred of McNabb, sane folks in St. Louis should take his Philly stewardship as a positive. McNabb went to the Pro Bowl three times under Shurmur.

He also went down with injuries for a significant stretch nearly every season he’s been in the league, and his backups came in and didn’t screw the pooch, for the most part.

The only real down side to Shurmur is that he hasn’t called plays before. That’s no small asterisk, but he seems like a solid coach who is smart enough to do something with the talent on hand, such as it is.

The acquisition of fullback Mike Karney indicates that the Rams will probably focus on a power-rushing offense. That’s a damned good idea, considering the general lack of offensive talent and depth, as well as RB Steven Jackson’s particular skill set.

Shurmur’s tenure in Philly points toward some run-heavy variation of the West Coast offense, though the Rams really need to find a quality possession receiver for that approach to work. Avery is a speed guy, and not really built for the quick slants of the West Coast scheme.

For any of Spagnuolo’s schemes to succeed, the Rams are in need of a serious influx of talent. New general manager Billy Devaney isn’t responsible for the franchise’s past sins, and his recent moves should give heart to the Rams fan base. Hiring this coaching group and bringing in player like Karney and Brown were good moves.

Convincing cornerback Ron Bartell to stay was another. When all is said and done, it’s likely Devaney that will have a bigger impact on the Rams’ prospects. As good as he is, Spagnuolo can’t draw blood from a stone.

Mike Gilbert is a staff writer at RotoExperts.com and co-host of “Sports Smack” on Blog Talk Radio every Friday from 7-8 p.m. ET. You can also follow Mike at Twitter: @Rotoboom.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!