Rams' Awfulness Explained in One Series of Downs


Hey, I'm totally with you guys now.
  • Hey, I'm totally with you guys now.
I can tell you everything you need to know about the Rams' loss to the Washington Redskins Sunday -- and really, the Rams' whole season to this point -- with just one series of plays. 

It began with James Laurinaitis picking off Rex Grossman deep in Redskins' territory, returning the interception all the way back to the 19 yard line. Turnover, possession is taken already in the opponent's red zone. Pretty much an almost ideal situation, right? Oh, and did I mention it occurred with 5:45 left in the fourth quarter and the Rams down by a touchdown? At the time, it felt like the absolute perfect play at the perfect time in a roaring comeback. Just the sort of play that could not only turn around the game and put a W on the board, but the sort that could turn around an entire season. 

When the Rams began the ensuing possession, they stood on the Washington 19, 5:30 to go, poised to salvage the 2011 season. Three official plays, one penalty, and just over one minute later, it was fourth and 30 from the Washington 39 yard line. 

That's right. Late in the fourth quarter, with a chance to tie the game up, inside the red zone, after an enormous interception, the Rams lost 20 yards and punted. And that's everything you need to know about the 2011 season. 

What's really puzzling about the Rams being so terrible this year is just how inexplicable it seems. This was a team widely seen as on the rise before the season began, with talented young players at key positions and a creative coaching staff ready to take advantage of that talent. Four games in, and this is one of the most hopeless looking squads I've ever seen. The Scott Linehan teams didn't look any worse than this. 

It isn't as if they're just being undermined by a lack of receivers, either. Coming in, everyone thought the receiving corps would be an issue, and that has proven somewhat true. The passing game has not been strong. But the receivers themselves present only a small part of the puzzle. 

The offensive line has been, frankly, awful. Sam Bradford has been running for his life since week one, and is in fact the most-pressure quarterback in all of football. The Redskins sacked Bradford seven times yesterday. Seven! So did the Rams lose a key player or two on the line? No. In fact, the one player who is different from last season is Harvey Dahl, an offseason addition, and has actually been probably the best offensive lineman on the team so far. 

So an O-line unit with all the same players as last season, with the exception of one big upgrade, and they've regressed. Inexplicable. Jacob Bell has been terrible, Jason Smith is back to looking like a bust. Jason Brown actually drew a false start penalty yesterday. He's the center. Centers aren't supposed to be able to draw false starts. They're the guys who start the play, after all. Even Rodger Saffold has been markedly worse than last year. 

The outside linebackers for the Rams were awful last year, giving up big chunks of yardage left and right to opposing running games. Cutbacks in particular were a huge problem, as the linebackers consistently overpursued. So the Rams went out and invested in a couple of solid, quality outside linebackers in Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga. Problem solved, right? So far this year the Rams are giving up huge chunks of yardage on the ground, with cutbacks being an especially glaring problem. Seriously, what the hell? 

The Rams suffered badly last season due to a lack of solid backup options at running back. Steven Jackson was banged up and often ineffective because of overuse, and the team got virtually nothing out of his backups. The went out and signed Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood, giving the team what should have been a dangerous, dynamic three-pronged running attack. Cadillac has been fairly solid, but didn't take a single snap Sunday. Steven Jackson is still banged up and not all that effective, and Norwood has been the invisible man so far. Hell, at least put Norwood out returning punts; Austin Pettis is going to get himself killed refusing to fair catch the ball. 

Dropped passes have been perhaps the biggest bugaboo of all, along with penalties. The Rams signed Mike Sims-Walker, a receiver known for being a solid catch-and run guy, even if he's never lived up to his potential. He dropped three balls I can think of yesterday. Lance Kendricks was a high draft pick and received all sorts of hype coming in from analysts. He's dropped two touchdowns already this season, despite a reputation for brilliant hands. Mike Hoomanawanui showed outstanding hands last year, then dropped a wide open catch yesterday. Oh, and then got hurt. Again. Time to cut bait on Illinois Mike, methinks. 

Every time the Rams get into the red zone they come away with at least one penalty. Usually a false start, but illegal shifts and formations have had their days as well. It's enough to make one wonder if they've tested the water at Rams Park for lead contamination lately. The Rams have put up absurdly high penalty totals in general this season, but more damaging than just the sheer number is the timing. 

So what exactly is the problem with this team? Is it the coaching staff? I'm sure there will be plenty jumping on the bandwagon of firing Steve Spagnuolo and running Josh McDaniels out of town, but I'm not so sure. This is the same head coach who had things turned around and headed in the right direction last year, and McDaniels has had nothing but success building offenses. Even in his failure as head coach in Denver, McDaniels put together one of the NFL's highest-scoring offenses last season. So did McD forget how to design a passing game? Have the players quit on Spags less than a quarter of the way into the season? 

Honestly, I have no answers. Ordinarily, when you look at a bad team you can see why they're bad. Lack of talent, roster holes, bad scheme, something. This team, though, seems to defy attempts to identify the problem. The areas the Rams upgraded in the offseason have gotten worse instead of better. The quarterback is going backward. The red zone offense isn't just bad; it's the kind of bad you simply can't explain or even understand. 

The 2011 Rams aren't just a terrible team. They are a completely, enigmatically, inexplicably terrible team. And I have no idea how you go about fixing it, because I'm not sure how you even go about identifying exactly what's wrong. 


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