The 2014 season hasn't exactly gone the way the St. Louis Rams would have hoped.
St. Louis has gone 4-3 since that opening stretch, yet it remains at the bottom of the NFC West with a 5-7 overall record.
When you combine the loss of Bradford with a daunting nonconference schedule (vs. NFC East, AFC West), it is fairly easy to understand why this season has been a difficult one.
However, the 2014 season has also come with many signs of promise, found most notably in the way the team has responded over the past couple of months. The Rams have had a couple of bad losses in that span (34-7 against the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-14 against the Arizona Cardinals), but they have also had the look and feel of a very competitive club overall.
That is a testament to the ability of general manager Les Snead, who has built a roster capable of surviving the loss of former No. 1 overall pick Bradford. It is an even bigger credit to head coach Jeff Fisher, who has his team playing its best football of the season at a time when lesser teams might have folded.
The ability to bring preparation, motivation and consistency to a franchise is a big reason why Fisher lasted an impressive 16 seasons with the Tennessee Titans and a big reason why the Rams were quick to hire him in 2012.
Sunday's 52-0 shellacking of the Oakland Raiders was as dominant as any performance a team has put forth this season. The offense put 45 points on the board, while the defense limited the Raiders to just 244 net yards of total offense and zero points. The Rams also forced five turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
What's more, it might not even be the most impressive win of the Rams season.
Wins over division rivals the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers prove that St. Louis can hang with the other teams in the NFC West. A convincing 22-7 victory over Peyton Manning and the mighty Denver Broncos shows that the Rams can hang with just about anyone in the league.
As Jeff Fisher noted in his conference call with media prior to the Rams' win over the Raiders (via Raiders.com), his isn't a team that dwells on wins or losses, which goes a long way toward being competitive each and every week.
"Well, every week’s a challenge," he said. "We’re coming off a loss. They’ve had a couple extra days to prepare. I know the players don’t think about what happened last week. When the ball’s kicked off they play hard."
Fisher went on to discuss his team's loss to the Chargers last week, in the wake of a win over the Broncos, saying: "No, this team’s a week-to-week team. There were no issues with respect to that."
And the fact that the Rams have been producing statement wins with second- and third-string quarterbacks should give you an idea of the overall talent that resides on the roster.
Young players like Tavon Austin, Tre Mason, Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree help form the nucleus of a team that has a very bright future.
A week ago, I discussed how the Rams appear to be a quarterback away from being a playoff team. Whether that quarterback is a healthy Bradford or a new signal-caller, it should be just about the last piece of the Rams' puzzle.
Based on the way Fisher has his team playing now, it shouldn't be too much of a reach to view St. Louis as a perennial contender once that stability emerges under center.
With four winnable games left on the schedule (Redskins, Cardinals, Giants and Seahawks), a 9-7 record and possible playoff berth are not entirely out of the question. However, 9-7 likely won't be good enough for a postseason ticket this season, so the Rams should probably start looking ahead to next year.
For most teams, that is a disappointing proposition at this time of year. For the Rams, however, looking ahead to the possibilities of next season and beyond should bring nothing but good feelings.