Don’t Underestimate the Rams

I was stunned to attend an event on Thursday night where everyone, of course, wanted to talk about the Rams. I was confronted by an astounding amount of negativity. The familiar refrain was: “You don’t think they’ll start 0-6?”

Heck no, I don’t. And I have lots of reasons to think not only that they won’t start 0-6, but that they’ll be a pretty good team. Let me run down my thought process.

First, Sam Bradford is going to be a transcendent quarterback. Like Brett Favre in his prime, Kurt Warner in his, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the Rams under Bradford will have a 50-50 chance to win every game they play. He’s already that good. Bradford makes plays and lifts the level of those around him. With new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels calling the shots, the Rams can approach every game as if they’ll come out on top.

Bradford is protected by a dramatically improved offensive line. With Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith having the 2010 season under their belt, with Jacob Bell maintaining his size, with Jason Brown returning and the addition of Harvey Dahl, what was an awful unit three years ago is now a strength. If this group stays healthy and plays as a unit, they have the potential to be one of the best in the NFL.

That group, in addition to McDaniels’ new playbook, will open the game up for Steven Jackson. He had limited space to run last year, but with the spacing of the offense and the addition of Dahl, there should be more holes. Jackson has had some of his biggest games of the last few years when the right side of the offensive line mauls the opposition. Smith, Dahl and Brown will have the opportunity to do that. In addition, McDaniels is sure to make Jackson a bigger part of the offense. After catching 90 balls in 2006, he’s had a high of 51 since. In McDaniels’ last four seasons of running offenses, two in New England in two in Denver, running backs have accounted for 52, 81, 63 and 72 catches. McDaniels uses the running back in the passing game, and Jackson, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood will have plenty of chances, and can catch Bradford’s passes.

Perhaps the key will be the tight end position. Lance Kendricks has been terrific so far in camp. The Rams need Michael Hoomanawanui to stay healthy, can use Billy Bajema as a blocker, and perhaps develop Fendi Onobun as an option too.

The receiver corps is upgraded with the addition of Mike Sims-Walker, the return to health of Donnie Avery, and a season of experience for Danny Amendola and Danario Alexander.

A defense that finished 22nd in rushing yards per attempt allowed last year has added a pair of run stuffing defensive tackles, a pair of solid run defending outside linebackers, and a solid run defending safety. Perhaps the most improved statistic for this club will be defensive yards per attempt.

Now, for the predictions of that 0-6 start. While we’re all impressed with Philadelphia’s free-agent additions, do you realize what they had to give up to make them?

Philadelphia’s middle linebacker is Jamar Chaney, a 2010 seventh rounder. Their free safety is last year’s fifth rounder, Nate Allen, and their strong safety is another seventh-round pick from last year, Kurt Coleman. You don’t think McDaniels will attack the middle of the field with that group populating it? Kendricks and Hoomanawanui are licking their chops now thinking about what awaits. The illness suffered by Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson makes Philadelphia quite vulnerable against the run. On defense, the Rams were seventh in the league with 43 sacks last year. As great as Michael Vick is, Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Flajole will have a plan to confuse and hit him in the opener.

Beyond the opener, the schedule includes dates against the Giants at New York. The Giants are a pretty good team, but certainly aren’t unbeatable. Home games against Baltimore and Washington and road tilts at Green Bay and Dallas round out the first six. Baltimore and Green Bay will be tough ones to win, but do you really look at the Redskins and Cowboys as unbeatable teams? I don’t.

Are the Rams great? I don’t believe so, not yet. But they are on their way. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and Billy Devaney and the front office have dramatically lifted the line of where that weakest link is. Pay attention, because this team has a chance to do some pretty good things. All the additions, from McDaniels to the draft picks to the free agents, should lift the level of the club. And ultimately, they have one of the real X-factors in the NFL in Bradford.

Rams fans, you now have a chance in every game. Take it in, because it should be a fun ride for the next few years.