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Rams Risk Losing Fans’ Faith

I believe one of the great things about sports is that when we buy a ticket, we’re buying hope. Among the greatest things about being a fan is that when you go to a stadium, there’s a chance you’ll see something you’ve never seen happen before. Those that bought hope for the Rams in the late 1990s were eventually rewarded with the Greatest Show on Turf – out of nowhere – and with the thrill that collection of talent gave us, something none of us had ever seen before. Cardinal baseball fans are consistently rewarded with an exciting, winning product. Blues fans, without a championship, still cling to the hope of one because the on-ice product is fun and mostly successful. When there was little hope for the Blues in the middle of last decade, the stands were empty.

Clearly, you don’t have to be good when you’re selling hope, and when you’re the only game in town. If you’re running a restaurant and you turn out a bad product, customers aren’t going to hope that the food is great the next time. They’re going to find another restaurant that provides consistent quality. If you’re making an automobile that’s a bad product, people aren’t going to flock to your dealership and hope they aren’t getting a lemon. They’re going to buy another brand of car rather than hoping you’ve made a good one this time. If D’Marco Farr and I deliver a lesser product on the radio in the afternoon, you’re going to push the button and, as a consumer, find a better one.

The Rams are fortunate that fans don’t have an alternative. For the 10th year in a row, they are providing a mediocre (at best) on-field product. And, for the most part, their customers continue to have hope. I’m one of those. For most of that decade of not winning, our hopes have been legitimate, and under Jeff Fisher still are.

In 2004, the team was coming off a 12-4, division-championship run and was still in the process of closing down the Greatest Show. There was reason to believe that the team would continue its excellence.

In 2005, they had made the playoffs the year before at 8-8. The Rams had made some moves to enhance their defense, and the hope was that side of the ball could be mediocre enough to allow a great offense to carry the load. Alas, Mike Martz got sick, and the franchise’s dysfunction caught up with them in a 5-11 season. Martz got fired. Marshall Faulk got hurt and subsequently retired, too.

In 2006, we had the hope of a new coach in Scott Linehan, believing that organizational harmony would allow the players to rise to the occasion and return to greatness. Marc Bulger threw for more than 4,000 yards, and Steven Jackson amassed more than 1,500 from scrimmage as the team went 8-8.

In 2007, there was definite hope because of ’06. They added former Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael and Titans red-zone receiver Drew Bennett. But the team got old in a hurry, the free agents were total busts, the offensive line was decimated by injury, and the Rams went 3-13 after an 0-8 start. Linehan didn’t handle it well, and a run of horrific drafting continued as Adam Carriker joined Alex Barron and Tye Hill as monumental first-round busts.

2008 was one of those years that we knew wasn’t going to be good. Linehan probably should have been let go after the previous season, but instead of replacing him, the team hired Al Saunders as offensive coordinator. Saunders had been here in 1999, and was Dick Vermeil’s coordinator for a prolific offense in Kansas City. Isaac Bruce had been released, Bennett got hurt in a season-opening 38-3 loss at Philadelphia, and Linehan was fired after an 0-4 start. Jim Haslett started off 2-0, but foolishly left Jackson in a game the Rams led Dallas 34-14 in the fourth quarter. Jackson got hurt, and Haslett never won another game as the Rams reached a new low for St. Louis NFL football at 2-14.

2009 brought hope in a general manager, Billy Devaney, and another new coach, the hottest coordinator in the game in Steve Spagnuolo from the Giants. He took over a team that already had the No. 2 overall pick from the previous year in Chris Long, and then used the ’09 second overall pick on tackle Jason Smith from Baylor. The Rams wisely cut ties with former GSOT stars Torry Holt and Orlando Pace and started anew with second-year receiver Donnie Avery to take Holt’s place and, presumably, Smith to handle left tackle for a generation. Fans thought their investment would pay off in the long run with a true rebuilding project in place, and even though the team went 1-15, there was hope for the future. That hope was somewhat tempered by Avery’s consistent injury issues and the fact that Smith never played left tackle while the undisciplined, enigmatic Barron did.

2010 was more of the same in the hope department. The team used the first pick in the draft on former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford. A new QB always provides hope, right? With the first pick in the second round, they took a left tackle from Indiana, after Smith didn’t play a down of LT as a rookie. While that was troubling (about Smith), Bradford helped guide the team to a 7-9 record, and a 16th game that was played to win the division and host a playoff game. They lost, but provided hope.

2011, of course, featured expectations. Even after an offseason lockout, a new offensive coordinator with a good resume, Josh McDaniels, took over for Pat Shurmur, who got a head coaching job in Cleveland. The Rams signed a ton of veteran free agents, thinking they were that close to becoming a really good team. But everything fell apart because the poor drafting caught up with the team and the free agent signings were, for the most part, awful. Organizational turmoil had resulted in jettisoning the team’s longtime trainer and equipment manager, and Spagnuolo’s controlling nature led to fear and discomfort. Another 2-14 season led to another coaching and front-office change, and more hope for the next year.

2012 brought legitimate hope. Fisher, one of the winningest active coaches in the league and a multiple playoff participant in Tennessee, was hired. He brought swagger, and along with new general manager Les Snead parlayed 2011’s failures into three first-round draft picks for the second overall pick in the draft. It worked. A young, hard-working, tough Rams team was 7-9-1, 4-1-1 in the division, and two plays away from making the playoffs.

That brought us to this year. Another apparently strong draft and two key free-agent signings in Jake Long and Jared Cook made one think that, with Bradford, the Rams could join the league’s elite passing teams. With Cook and matchup nightmare Tavon Austin, whom they traded up to get, joining second-year skill players Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson, it seemed like an offensive breakout season. Unfortunately, the four second-year guys didn’t break out. The defense regressed, the rest of the division improved, and Bradford got hurt. The Rams won’t finish over .500 again. The best they can do is 8-8.

Understandably, fans are running out of hope. The product hasn’t given the paying customers much. In these 10 seasons, there have been three home records of 1-7, plus an 0-8. One home game was taken away and given to London in 2012. The overall home record in 10 seasons has been 24-47, an average of 2.4 home wins per season.

The Rams are fortunate they aren’t in a competitive environment, and that they’re selling hope rather than something customers can do better getting elsewhere. I’m a naïve optimist and still have hope every year, and almost every game. But I understand why people have quit investing, financially and emotionally, in a product that 10 years have shown us is consistently subpar. To get those people back, it’s going to take quite a run of quality by the Rams. The days of saying, “I believe, I believe,” like the little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street” are over for those fans.