For team that's had an thorough makeover, dare I say extreme makeover, comparisons give you a nice idea of what to expect in the season ahead. So when I came across this piece, comparing the Rams to the Washington Redskins under first year head coach Jim Zorn, I felt like it was worth talking about.
Here's the crux of it:
This year's offensive change in St. Louis is eerily similar to last year's in Washington. Like Jim Zorn did in D.C., former Eagles QBs coach Pat Shurmur is installing a run-based West Coast offense. Clinton Portis had owners atop fantasy rankings at the halfway point last season with 944 yards on 187 carries and seven TDs. Steven Jackson is younger, has less tread on his tires, and plays in a much weaker division. Could Jackson work similar magic, and keep it going all season?
Zorn's a Holmgren guy, one of the fruits (so to speak) of that oft-discussed Andy Ried branch of the coaching tree that sprouted forth under Bill Walsh that's gone around the NFL with an upside down sauce pan on their heads sowing the seeds of the West Coast offense. So is new Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, as may have heard.
On the surface, I think it's a good comparison. The players are a little different, as is the situation with each team's roster, but overall it gives you an idea about what the Rams offense will look like this season.
And then I remembered the Rams, the Rams of 2008, beat the Redskins, foreshadowing that team's rapid descent from contender to also-ran. (First off, a note about that game: the Rams won because they got a few breaks, particularly Atogwe's second quarter fumble return that gave the Rams a lead they wouldn't surrender. The 'Skins decline actually started after that.)
Without going point-by-point for a thorugh comparison between the 2009 Rams and the 2008 Redskins, there are a couple items worth looking at, like what the Hell happened to the Redskins and what does that mean for the Rams?
First off, the Redskins dealt with lots of injury problems as the season went along, losing key players on both sides of the ball, like DE Jason Taylor and LT Chris Samuels. The Rams have suffered unusally high rates of injuries for the last two, really three, seasons, and with a younger team and fate's intervening hand, that's unlikely to happen again.They also brought in DeAngelo Hall and replaced Carlos Rogers with him, poisoning their well in more ways than one.
Clinton Portis, no stranger to the trainer's table, dealt with minor injuries as the season went on, thanks in part to a heavy workload that had him on pace at one time for more than 370 carries. Though he didn't miss any games, it did reduce his effectiveness. Injuries to the offensive line also hindered their run-first offense. There's no question that Steven Jackson's health is essential to the Rams success this season. Ideally, improvements made to the offensive line, particularly the additions of C Jason Brown and blocking FB Mike Karney, will take some of the burden off Jackson's legs. However, if Jackson misses time, the Rams fortunes will immediately reflect that loss.
Another problem dogging the Redskins last season, one that's particularly ominous for the Rams, was their lack of depth at wide receiver. Opponents locked down Santana Moss, and Antwaan Randle El saw his effectiveness as a WR drop. Behind those two, Redskins receivers contributed almost nothing. Second round picks WRs Malcom Kelly and Devin Thomas combined for a whopping 18 catches and 147 yards. That compromised Jason Campbell's effectiveness as he went into checkdown mode as the season moved into the second half.
Though I'm more optimistic than most, the Rams have to answer some big questions at wide receiver this season. If Jackson stays healthy, that should really help the receivers, forcing defenses to account for SJ39 first and foremost. Avery grew into a well-rounded recevier last year, but he'll be the guy opposing defensive backs swarm. That means, as we've said thousands of times before, WRs Keenan Burton, etc. will have to play up to their potential. If Burton can stay healthy, he's got the chops. Check out his write-up in the 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac:
Looking for a deep sleeper in your fantasy draft this year? Burton runs excellent routes, isn’t afraid to go across the middle, has great hops (he had the highest vertical leap at the 2007 NFL Combine), and loves to study film (he played quarterback in high school). With Donnie Avery occupying most (if not all) of the defensive backs' attention this year, the Rams will need someone to emerge as Bulger’s possession-receiver safety blanket, and Burton is the most likely candidate.
He's got to stay healthy though, and his spring hamstring troubles only up the concern about the Rams depth at WR. Laurent Robinson is another health question, but he can make a nice slot guy if he does stay in game shape all year.
Though it's annoying and has become the easy story for a national press that won't spend much time concentrating on the Rams, the concerns at receiver are very real. Should those guys behind Avery contribute at the level they're capable of, then we won't have to hear anymore about it. Fortunately, there are viable comparisons of teams succeeding with a group of relative unknowns at WR.
One last comparison between Washington and the Rams, is the role of the TE. Chris Cooley caught more passes, 83, than anyone else on his team last year. Cooley's a talented guy, but it points to the role the WR plays in this offensive system. It's another reminder that the Rams need Randy McMichael healthy and hope that the potential shown by Daniel Fells is for real.
The comparisons between the 2009 Rams and 2008 Redskins may not be even-steven across the board, but they carry some encouraging signs...and some warning signs too.