Well, it wasn't much of a season, but damn if it didn't end on a high note. We played hard-nosed, spirited football against an 11-5 team with the NFL's second leading rusher.
We'll talk about the franchise and where we go from here, but, for now, let's just look at the final game of the 2008 season for the Rams, a game that showed us what we could be next year.
Grades after the fold.
I don't make it a secret that I am still behind Bulger. At times this season, he has looked absolutely awful. Today, he showed the kind of presence that made him so reliable in years past. After a horrible first series and a pair of errant throws in the first half, he turned into the kind of field general teams need their quarterbacks to be. 19 for 32 for 230 yards and a TD, including some very difficult throws; it was the kind of game you want to expect out of Bulger at a minimum. On the other side of the ball, rookie Matt Ryan (who had garnered some unworthy MVP talk during the week) was 10/21 for 160 yards throwing 1 TD and twice as many interceptions. Bottom line: Bulger was a legitimate QB today.
I'll keep this short. When the offensive line doesn't play like shit, Steven Jackson is one of the best players in the NFL. 161 yards rushing with 2 TDs coupled with 54 receiving yards proved it. He is the face of the team. Today's game is the reason we often criticize his effort: we need him on the field to have a chance. He's so good at so many things that without him, we don't have any kind of effective offense. Darby also showed he could be a very effective backup, but make no mistake. This was SJ's game.
Torry Holt needs to stay on this team. His role not only as a receiver but as a mentor to Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton is one that we can not do without. He may not be the Torry Holt of old, but he is a future Hall of Famer who has a great bit to contribute on the field as well as off. Donnie Avery could be one of the best #2 WRs in the league. His sheer speed, acceleration and athleticism are unmatched when he is on the field. If he can work on his hands this offseason, he stands to be a huge threat next year which only stresses the need to keep Holt around next year. He also needs to work more often with Bulger to develop the kind of timing Bulger shares with Holt. If Randy McMichael can come back next year and remain healthy, the Rams have a nice basis on which they can form a dangerous passing attack.
Was this the best game this unit has played all year? Possibly. SJ consistently had lanes to run through, Bulger only faced occasional pressure against an above-average D-line. The 3 sacks the Falcons amassed were more due to the coverage than poor blocking. Sadly, this unit will have to be shaken up. Orlando Pace is old, Alex Barron is on his best days a decent RT, and the issues at center will have to be resolved. As we get to the draft, those will be in my top 3 priorities as well as LB, so let me throw this out there. If we are so fortunate to get Andre Smith in the 1st and Alex Mack in the 2nd, I will be a very happy Rams fan. Nevertheless, today they played exceptionally well.
Though it doesn't have to be this offseason, the Rams need a defensive tackle who can make a difference. To be fair, Adam Carriker has suffered a ridiculous amount of injuries this season and, to his credit, has played through them. If he can stay healthy next year, he could be much, much better than this season. Still, the combination of Clifton Ryan and La'Roi Glover leaves much (or everything?) to be desired. The ends did little to nothing today, but Atlanta does boast one of the NFL's best O-lines. If I were grading their O-line, I'd give them an A or A+ for their efforts today. Adeyanju had a nice game, but he's nothing more than a spot end for rushing downs. Maybe, if he's still around when Little retires, he can play the right side while Chris Long holds down the left. Regardless, it wasn't much of a game by the line today.
By far, the unit that most obviously needs help this offseason. Pisa Tinoisamoa is the most inconsistent player on the Rams. When he is on, he's everywhere. Today, he did nothing, ceding that role to Chris Draft. I wrote in the game thread how enamored I am with Michael Boley, Atlanta's MLB. I watched him live in college when my alma mater, North Texas, played Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl. He was a freak on the field, better than any and everyone he was near that day. Now in the NFL, he is still incredibly talented. I only bring this up for the discrepancy between Boley and Will Witherspoon. The Rams badly need a MLB who can anchor our defense. Just like the QB is the cornerstone of an offense, the MLB holds the same role on defense. Think of a Ray Lewis, or Zach Thomas all those years on the Dolphins. A solid MLB is a must if you expect your LB corps to make a difference as a unit.
An incredible performance by the secondary today. Bartell played great except for the touchdown by Pro-Bowler Roddy White. In fact, this was the second-least receiving yards for White all year. Jonathan Wade, who got hurt early, came back and made a huge interception. His coverage was spotty. He was often in good position, but his play on the ball was poor. It's just his second year, but he reminds me of the Cowboys' Terrence Newman. Not as quick or agile, but if he turns into a useful nickel back, I'll be pleased. Todd Johnson was the reason this group got an A- and not an A. We will need a better SS by the end of next year. We can gloss over the position with a better LB corps, but eventually, we'll need a run stopper back there to play alongside Atogwe. Today, though, the secondary was great, holding Matt Ryan to just 160 yards.
It was a disappointing season, yes, but an impressive finish given who was on the field. If we can build on this, we are moving in the right direction. If this is just an aberration, then we're in for a long 2009 as well.
Special shout out to the TSTers in the game thread. 400 comments for a game thread of a 2-win team is impressive. Loyalty will be rewarded in time. Make sure to check back during the offseason leading up to the draft, as I'll try to keep everyone up on the college game (which will be on display over the next week and a half).
The future is bright, people. You just have to look beyond the darkness.