The St. Louis Rams game tonight represents a "Great Leap Forward" for the franchise, the second stage of the rebuilding project that started last season. It's been a disappointing run for fans recently, and last year's 1-win season after making much needed, very prominent changes in the front office added a little extra trough to the bipolar down swing.
But this is a new season, and the Rams have more talent than at any time in the past four years. Young leaders like James Laurinaitis, Chris Long and Donnie Avery are expected to blossom now with more experience and understanding of the pro game. Things are looking up, but there's still plenty of anxiety for the Rams 2010 season. What should the Rams expect this year? How far forward will these young players go in 2010? To get some in-depth insight on the Rams, I talked to Doug Farrar, senior writer at Football Outsiders. I highly recommend you check out their 2010 Annual. It's absolutely must-read material for Rams fans, football fans and even the casual fantasy GMs. Anyway, let's hear what Doug has to say about the Rams...
TST: You give the Rams a 49 percent chance to win 4-6 games, which seems positively optimistic compared to the seasons they've had. Can you explain that prediction?
In part, we’re banking on the fact that in addition to their generally horrible play over the last three years, the Rams’ unbelievably bad injury luck just can’t possibly get any worse. As you may have seen in the 2010 Football Outsiders Almanac, St. Louis had more than 70 total Adjusted Games Lost for the third straight year. In 2009, things got better on offense (38.4, 27th in the NFL) but worse on defense (36.3, 23rd). One of our tenets all along is that injury luck has to turn around and regress, but there are teams that come along and break our systems at times. When it comes to injury luck, the Rams have been that team, but we’re hoping the "curse" is broken. More starters means better play – at least, you’d think so.
As you pose in the next question, the Rams’ 2010 schedule isn’t exactly full of terrors. And when you’ve gone from three wins to two to one in the last three seasons, there’s no such thing as winning ugly – you’ll take whatever you can get. Personally, I’m also high on the improvements along the offensive line, some of the playmakers, and what Sam Bradford can bring to the table under the right circumstances. It’s not impossible for them to win four games.
TST: Staying with the 2010 record, the Rams, a rebuilding team themselves, play several teams in the rebuilding process, such as Tampa, Detroit, and Oakland. I'm assuming this is where they'd pick up some of those wins. How does the Rams rebuilding process stack up against those others, and how can the Rams win those games?
Well, the Rams are starting from a ground zero that no other NFL team besides the Lions could possibly understand – when you’ve been this bad for this long, the only way to go about it is a total reset. That takes time, though the occasional one-year wonder will slip though. In most cases, those miracle teams are the product of decent talent previously undermined by atrocious coaching. In the Rams’ case, I really believe that Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo had to start from a lower place, because with a few exceptions, the talent just wasn’t there.
I like what the Lions are doing – under the post-Millen administration, they’ve had two outstanding drafts and we’re big fans of head coach Jim Schwartz because he’s a big believer in the "new math" and a long-time advocate of Football Outsiders. But that wouldn’t matter if what the Lions were doing wasn’t showing improvement. You have to like Oakland’s draft, and the addition of Jason Campbell. That could be an 8-8 team in the AFC West, which may very well be the worst division in the NFL. I’m not on board with what the Bucs are doing; I’m not sure I see a pan in place there. This was the worst team in the NFL against the run last year, and they drafted two three-tech tackles with their first two picks. Go figure.
TST: You're pretty keen on the idea of using Jason Smith at LT in the shotgun formation, given how it fits with Bradford's experience. Smith is now working at RT, partly because of his recovery from a broken toe and partly because rookie Rodger Saffold has done well on the left side in practice. How do you see that situation playing out? Can Saffold block well in a shotgun formation? Will Smith ever reach his potential?
Well, anyone can block in a shotgun formation, but I think that Smith has a better sense of, and is more conversant with, the spread concepts that Bradford is most familiar with from his Oklahoma days. Bradford is better under center than most quarterbacks who have run those types of offenses, but we’re generally talking about a lot of quick passes, multi-receiver sets spreading the defenses out, and speed blocking as opposed to pure inline power. Because of his experience at Baylor, Smith came into the NFL as a far more effective blocker in a two-point stance because that’s what he’s used to. Saffold is a more powerful guy; more conversant with the "hand-down" method. I would generally put my more athletic tackle on the left side, and I think Smith is more effective than Saffold.
Smith has a great deal of talent, but in his case and in Bradford’s case, I really endorsed an increased use of the shotgun because it would benefit the team’s most important offensive players – its quarterback and its left tackle. If they’re going a different way with that, maybe they want to bring Bradford along slowly and make Steven Jackson the epicenter of the offense for another season. Maybe the line changes through the season as the schemes change; it will be a very interesting thing to watch.
TST: Does the defensive line look to be at all improved?
On the surface, not really. Understand that I’m a huge Bradford fan – I haven’t seen his level of deep accuracy in a very long time. But I have posed this basic question in the Rams chapter and elsewhere: If Ndamukong Suh was the best player in the 2010 draft class (and I believe that he was by an enormous margin), would it not have benefited the Rams more to pick Suh and wait for a far better quarterback class in 2011 to reinforce that position? The Carriker pick and subsequent trade leaves a huge hole there - -that’s not the current administration’s fault, but it’s what they have to fix. Leonard Little is still a question mark. Guys like Fred Robbins and Cliff Ryan aren’t bad players, but they’re not difference-makers, and in a Spagnuolo team, someone in that front four has to dominate. I don’t know who that might be. And if I were in charge of a team with a total rebuild on both sides of the ball, I’d rather have Suh, because of the ways in which he can demolish entire sections of opposing offensive lines.
TST: How will the rest of the DL impact Chris Long's season?
At Football Outsiders, we’re fairly big believers in the idea that seasons with low sack totals and high numbers of hits and hurries can indicate breakout seasons the following year. Right now, Long fits that profile perfectly. In 2009, he had just 5.5 sacks, but 9 hits and 21 hurries. In an NFL which relies more and more on shotgun sets and quick passes, getting near the quarterback is almost as important as getting to him. And with just a few schematic tweaks, the guys who are getting close a lot of the time will blow up the next year as those close calls turn into quarterback takedowns. It’s always dependent on other factors, but there’s reason to be optimistic about Long’s 2010 prospects.
TST: Back to the offense, do the Rams have enough talent at WR to have an effective passing game with Bradford at QB?
There isn’t a lot of overwhelming talent, but I like a few guys. Donnie Avery has a skill set with which Bradford is familiar, throwing to guys like Juaquin Iglesias as he did at Oklahoma. Avery is a good after-catch guy with the potential to break tackles (he led the team with nine) and make big plays. Unfortunately, he also led the team with nine drops. Danny Amendola showed some things, and I was really positive about Keenan Burton when he came out of college. I also believe that Daniel Fells has sleeper potential. Bradford will have to make do to a point, but his receivers will also have to be patient – this isn’t an overnight fix, no matter how great Bradford might be.
TST: It has to be asked, what are your thoughts/predictions for Bradford's rookie year?
If they start him right away (as I believe they should), you’re going to see some truly horrible play at times. Bradford is still balky under pressure, and he can he can be forced into some really bad decisions by pressure. His dominant 2008 season was due in no small part to one of the greatest offensive lines in NCAA history. When four of those five linemen left before the 2009 season, there was an understandable downturn in his health and productivity. He’s got another line in transition here. That said, he’s going to blow you away at times with some of the freakiest deep passes you’ll ever see in your life. His ability to hit his exact target – not just a receiver, but a receiver’s correct shoulder in stride – is truly special. In the Almanac, we project a full season of Bradford to yield 281 completions in 482 attempts for 3430 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. I’d agree with those basic parameters, though I’d like to see a way to decrease the attempts and have the running game lead the way at first. But make no mistake -- this is a special player, and potentially the best quarterback the Rams have had since Kurt Warner in his MVP prime.
TST: In this year's FOA, you're more optimistic about the Rams offense this season than the defense. Will the defense be at all improved in 2010? Which areas are the biggest concern? Which areas are the strongest on that side of the ball?
James Laurinaitis and O.J. Atogwe are the obvious studs. The front four is the biggest problem, Ryan excepted. I like the secondary for the most part; there are some underrated guys back there like Craig Dahl, James Butler and Ronald Bartell. Bartell had nine pass deflections and no picks last year, so you wonder if that might not turn around a bit. But we go back to the biggest question when you take over a team in need of just about everything: Where do you start, offense or defense? The new Rams have obviously planted their flag on the offensive side of the ball, so the defense that Spagnuolo wants to see may not be here for a few years. It’s just part of the process. If the Rams can get things solidified with any team’s three most important positions – quarterback, left tackle, and middle linebacker – that’s a good start.
Ok, this is Van again, and I want to say thanks again to Doug and the entire crew at FO. They do great work, and you'll be reading lots of stuff here at TST that draws on their excellent research.