Hard Questions Multiply for Spagnuolo and Staff

Here are some observations from a day in which the Rams lost to the Redskins, but the 49ers beat the Eagles (whom the Rams lost to), the Cardinals hung with the Giants (whom the Rams lost to by 12) and Seattle gave the Atlanta Falcons all they could handle. While the rest of the NFC West appears to be on the ascent, the Rams seem to be regressing. Every team in the NFL is trying to get where Green Bay is: at the top of the mountain, Super Bowl champs. Those Packers scored more points against Denver on Sunday (49) than the Rams have scored through one quarter of the season (46).

The Rams are trying to rebuild from the ashes left them by the previous regime, and are in year three of the project. Also in year three are Jim Schwartz’ 4-0 Detroit Lions, Raheem Morris’ 2-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Todd Haley’s 1-3 Kansas City Chiefs (who won their division last year) and the New York Jets, who have gone to AFC championship games in their first two years under Rex Ryan.

Is it fair to blame the coaches and general manager for this 0-4 start? In a bottom-line business, it is. Let’s take a look at Steve Spagnuolo’s staff first.

Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole: After adding four new starters in defensive tackle Justin Bannan, outside linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga and safety Quintin Mikell, hopes were high for dramatic defensive improvement. Instead, the Rams entered the Washington game ranked 31st in the NFL, and dead last against the run. Sunday, they were gouged for 196 yards on the ground and allowed Washington to possess the ball for more than 35 minutes. In year three of a defense, that’s unacceptable. I know Ron Bartell isn’t there, but Sunday’s issues weren’t the result of Bartell’s absence.

Defensive line coach Brendan Daly: Even though he’s been given an old unit, with Fred Robbins and James Hall both 34 and Bannan 32, he also has two high No. 1 draft pick defensive ends. The Rams have eight sacks in four games, with just five of them coming from the defensive line. The opposition has been in run mode most of the season, but we can’t turn to those run stats to give this group a break. They simply have not played well.

Linebackers coach Paul Ferraro: Leber and Poppinga both played better elsewhere than they have here. To Ferraro’s credit, James Laurinaitis is a star-quality performer. But, overall, the linebackers appear to be out of position too much and never make big plays. No sacks, no takeaways from the starters on the outside.

Cornerbacks coach Clayton Lopez: Rams corners rarely play the ball. Justin King did have an interception vs. the Redskins after being regularly torched by the Ravens and then the ‘Skins in the first three quarters. Too often, they have their back turned and try to faceguard the receiver rather than trying to play the ball. This is technique, which is coached. Bradley Fletcher is in his third year, King in his third year being coached by Lopez. The Rams have allowed eight touchdown passes, which is near the top of the league with Buffalo, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Kansas City.

Safeties coach Andre Curtis: Mikell has played exceptionally well. Darian Stewart seems to be progressing, although he deserves some of the blame for the Torrey Smith debacle against Baltimore. Craig Dahl is what he is: an in-the-box defender who doesn’t match up in the passing game. What does it say that the Rams didn’t have enough confidence in their ability to develop Jermale Hines to keep him over James Butler?

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: The offense has scored four touchdowns in four games, and given up three touchdowns to the opposing defense. The only NFL team with a more anemic offense is Jacksonville, with 39 points to the Rams’ 46.

Running backs coach Sylvester Croom: The Rams have gotten good work out of Cadillac Williams in Steven Jackson’s absence, and a healthy Jackson has performed reasonably well. The Rams didn’t dress Jerious Norwood on Sunday, so rookie Quinn Porter was the third running back and kickoff returner. Obviously, with the knowledge of Jackson’s and Williams’ injury history, Porter knew the offense well enough to go in if need be.

Wide receivers coach Nolan Cromwell: The Rams had numerous drops against Washington, extending a season-long trend. Mike Sims-Walker had three by himself, and rookie Austin Pettis and Danario Alexander were also guilty. Rams receivers have trouble getting past press coverage. While rookies like the aforementioned Smith in Baltimore, Titus Young in Detroit, Randall Cobb in Green Bay and undrafted Dane Sanzenbacher of the Bears are contributing, Pettis and Greg Salas are offering limited impact here. Additionally, Laurent Robinson of the Cowboys, who was not a good player here, caught seven balls for 116 yards for Dallas on Sunday. The Rams couldn’t develop 2010 fourth-round pick Mardy Gilyard. Danny Amendola has turned into a solid performer when healthy, but when looking at other teams in the league, the Rams aren’t advancing at an acceptable pace.

Tight ends coach Frank Leonard: It’s not his fault that Michael Hoomanuanui is as fragile as a China Doll. The Rams should have learned their lesson about him by now. This is the third year in a row, including his senior year at Illinois, that Illinois Mike has been injured. In fact, this head injury is his third different injury since the start of training camp. Lance Kendricks looked like a future star during the preseason, but hasn’t been able to catch the ball during the regular season. He’s a huge disappointment. Billy Bajema is what he is: a blocking tight end. Continuing to throw him the ball is futile. Meanwhile, Daniel Fells scored a touchdown for Denver on Sunday in Green Bay, eclipsing the Rams tight ends’ total. He has eight catches for better than 100 yards, which would lead Rams tight ends in both categories.

Offensive line coach Steve Loney: This is a group in disarray. Sam Bradford was sacked seven times, and now has been sacked 18 times and hit more than 40 more. The running game averaged 2.6 yards per carry on Sunday, although they had averaged 4.6 coming in. At some point, the club regarded these players quite highly, with the interior of the line being constituted of highly paid free agents, and the tackles coming in as high draft picks. If the group has physical ability, you have to wonder what the problem is. Dan Dierdorf told us last week that an offensive lineman has to have a great deal of “want to.” We don’t know if these guys do. And we don’t know if their confusion and lack of cohesion is a result of deficient coaching. We do know that they’re in danger of ruining an exceptionally promising young quarterback in Bradford.

Special teams coach Tom McMahon: Did Pettis realize he’s allowed to fair catch on Sunday? He should have been in self-preservation mode, but instead kept catching punts, and kept getting hammered, fumbling twice. Donnie Jones was fabulous, and Josh Brown hit his field goal. Aside from being 10th in kickoff return average, the Rams are quite non-descript and middle of the pack with the rest of their special teams.

Head coach Spagnuolo: In a bottom-line business, Spags–whom I like personally–is now 8-28. He has tremendous influence over player acquisition, so letting guys like Robinson, Fells, Thaddeus Lewis and Hines go, and bringing in Bannan, Leber, Poppinga, Sims-Walker and Norwood, is partially his responsibility. If you aren’t going to play Norwood, why keep him over Keith Toston? Is your team and team’s future better served with Butler as your fourth safety, or Hines? Why can guys like Robinson and Fells thrive elsewhere, but not with the Rams? Those are questions Spagnuolo has to answer. In addition, the Rams spend too much of games as if they’re sleepwalking. That falls on the head coach. They lead the league in penalty yardage and are right at the top in penalties. That falls on the head coach. They’re toward the bottom of the NFL turnover ratio rankings. That falls on the head coach. Spagnuolo is going to have to take a long, hard look at his staff and the way he builds a roster to get things going.

General manager Billy Devaney: Devaney has yet to hit on a pick after the second round as general manager of the Rams. Using Detroit as an example, 2009 third-rounder DeAndre Levy starts at one outside linebacker spot, opposite Rams castoff Bobby Carpenter, while 2010 third-rounder Amari Spievey starts at strong safety. And ’08 third-round pick Cliff Avril starts at defensive end. For the Rams on Sunday, King and Fletcher were the only starters among the 22 on offense and defense drafted by the Rams after the second round. Eight of 11 Lions defensive starters are 26 or younger. Six of 11 Rams defensive starters are over 30. Certainly, there’s more than one way to build a team. But we have to look at the fact that the Rams are 0-4, and must wonder if this way is the way to build a winner.

If this trend continues, and you have to believe it will with trips to Green Bay and Dallas and a home game vs. New Orleans after the bye, I have to believe owner Stan Kroenke will be wondering many of the same things.