For various reasons, the Rams didn’t achieve what I thought they could in 2013. The coaching staff not recognizing the best way to utilize their talent in the first four games hurt, as did the loss of their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, in Week 7. There were many good parts to the season, but there’s still plenty for Jeff Fisher, his staff and the players to work on. Here are 10 takeaways from the 7-9 campaign of the St. Louis Rams:
1.The emergence of running back Zac Stacy. The Rams could not run the ball in their first four games. Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead have terrific athletic skills, but lack the innate ability to be consistently strong running backs. When Stacy finally got a start in game five, he not only established himself as the Rams’ running back of the present and future, but as one of the top backs in the NFL. Once he became a starter, Stacy delivered four 100-yard games and was the fifth-leading rusher in the league, behind only Eddie Lacy of Green Bay, LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia, Jamal Charles of Kansas City and Matt Forte of Chicago. Stacy’s seven touchdowns were more than Steven Jacksons scored in all but two of his seasons in St. Louis. He should be the bell cow of the offense for as long as he’s healthy.
2. Jared Cook’s season. He set St. Louis Rams records for a tight end with 51 catches for 671 yards. But, he proved to be an irrelevant blocker, and dropped eight passes, which was the most for a tight end in the NFL. When the Rams signed Cook and utilized him during training camp, the preseason and in the opener against Arizona, he looked like a major difference-maker. However, the league quickly caught up to him, and Cook wasn’t near the factor he was projected to be. Overall, despite his numbers, Cook was a disappointment in his first year in St. Louis.
3. Tavon Austin’s ability. Austin’s first six games were victimized by his own drops and by his teammate’s penalties. He had an 84-yard punt return touchdown wiped out in Dallas, and a 62-yard TD reception negated in Carolina. Once the Rams figured out how to use him as a mismatch, Austin became a dynamic playmaker. His three-touchdown day in Indianapolis was historic, as he became the third rookie ever to score three touchdowns of 55 yards or more in a game, joining Gale Sayers and Randy Moss. Austin also had a 65-yard touchdown run against the Bears and a 56-yard run against Arizona. Austin can be an electrifying performer, and it seemed the Rams’ coaching staff had just figured out how to use him when he got hurt and missed the last three games. Austin has a chance to be a major difference-maker now that the coaches know what he can do and will have an offseason to plan to use that knowledge.
4. The punting game was great. The Rams finished first in the league, allowing a remarkable 2.6 yards per return. Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker finished with the highest net average since the stat has been kept, at 44.2 yards per kick. The Rams did an amazing job of forcing the opposition to start in poor field position. Special teams coach John Fassel and Hekker deserve a tip of the cap for providing the strongest part of the Rams’ team.
5. Robert Quinn. Quinn had a breakout season with a Rams-record 19 sacks. But there was more. Quinn was second among 4-3 defensive ends in quarterback hurries, and second at his position in quarterback hits. With 83 combined sacks/hurries/hits, Quinn had 18 more than the 4-3 end with the next most. According to Pro Football Focus, Quinn also graded out as the best run defender among 4-3 ends, by a wide margin. He’s an amazingly disruptive force who still has more to offer. He has the ability to consistently turn in these types of performances. This was a special year, but it shouldn’t be the last one for Quinn.
6. The adjustment ability of Jeff Fisher. We knew Fisher has a flat-line personality; he doesn’t get too high or too low. But he’ll adjust to what’s happening and, as he said, fix things that aren’t working. After the 35-11 loss to San Francisco on a Thursday night in Week 4, Fisher recognized that what was planned during the offseason wasn’t working, and overhauled the team’s offense. Rather than be a pass-happy offense that was being undermined by a league-leading drops total by the receivers and a defense that couldn’t get off the field, Fisher opted for more balance, more ball control to protect the defense and a switch to the more deliberate Stacy at running back rather than perceived home-run hitters Richardson and Pead. Successfully changing the identity of the offense a quarter of the way into the season is difficult, but Fisher pulled it off. The Rams immediately scored more points, allowed fewer and gave themselves something to build on for the future. Regardless of what happened, the Rams’ last head coach, Steve Spagnuolo would say, “the system works,” and refuse to make changes. Fisher admits when he’s wrong and does something different.
7. Turnover margin is always a key. The Rams were 5-0 when they won the turnover battle, 2-4 when they were even and 0-5 when they lost in the turnover department. Perhaps Bradford will improve the Rams in that department, but they threw only 11 interceptions – four by Bradford and seven by Kellen Clemens. The Rams had four games without a takeaway – at Atlanta and Carolina and both Seattle games – and they lost all four. They need to be like Mizzou and get at least one turnover every game. A return to form of Janoris Jenkins would help, as would a play-making safety. Takeaways – and winning the turnover battle – are the keys to winning. For evidence, we’ll point out that the top six teams in turnover ratio are in the playoffs, and the only playoff teams that have turned it over more than taken it away are Green Bay and San Diego – both virtually .500 teams that squeaked into the post-season.
8. The offense intimidated in road games at San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle. Despite the adjustments from No. 6, there were still problems. When the Rams visited divisional opponents San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle, their offense didn’t appear to have a chance. They scored 13, 10 and nine points. In those three games, they generated 312, 257 and 158 yards. The offense looked overmatched and intimidated in those games. That wasn’t the case in division road games in 2012. Perhaps it was because of the Bradford injury, or injuries on the offensive line, but the offense was more confident and looked like they had a chance in Fisher’s first year. The Rams have to regain that swagger, without the jawing that caused them to take so many 15-yard penalties.
9. The lack of progress for the receivers. Chris Givens looked like an emerging No. 1 receiver in 2012, but regressed to the point of being a non-factor down the stretch in 2013. Brian Quick had a bad rookie year that was couched as a redshirt rookie year, but was barely more productive in his second year, going from 11 to 18 catches. Austin Pettis did what was asked when his number was called, but he was rarely called upon in the season’s second half. Pettis’ lack of breakaway speed renders him a possession/red-zone receiver, not someone who could be an every-down NFL performer. Rookies Austin and Stedman Bailey showed promise. It’s troubling that second- and third-year players didn’t get appreciably better, and that the Rams seem like a team that still needs to draft a top receiver in May’s draft.
10. Lack of discipline. In their finale, the Rams were flagged for 10 unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. They were called against Eugene Sims, Chase Reynolds (although Cody Davis committed the roughing-the-punter penalty), Ray Ray Armstrong, James Laurinaitis (although it appeared Alec Ogletree did the taunting), Ogletree, Ogletree, Kendall Langford, Langford again, Armstrong again, and Darian Stewart. Fisher must call for some accountability when multiple players (Armstrong and Ogletree specifically) commit multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Fisher said at his end-of-season press conference that it’s an issue.
“The games we had too many penalties, we were not successful and that was addressed, as well. Again, as a team you get better through an offseason program, working with the individual players, helping them to maintain their strengths, work on their weaknesses. You get better through acquiring better personnel through the draft and free agency, and, to me, I told them the focus today, the third area that we have to get better is penalties. We’ll address that and we’ll correct that – we’ll get it fixed.”
As Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are. As teams like Kansas City, Carolina, Philadelphia and Arizona showed us this year, quick turnarounds in the NFL are achievable. The Rams are in the midst of a rebuilding process. It’s time for that process to be taken to the next level. Fisher and his staff know exactly what they have; their players should be a mature group next season. If they’ve properly evaluated the talent on hand, that talent should know enough through great coaching to become a great team. The Rams projected 2014 as their breakout season, and 2014 is here. There are no more excuses.