The St. Louis Rams... I read comments after each post, and oh so many of them are well founded calls for this or that, but what is the reality of Rams football currently? What needs changing? Call out all you want for a coaching change, or new GM. Draft choices gone a rye, this player, not that one... How could (insert name here) be so stupid?
When all is said, we have to acknowledge we as fans aren't all knowing. We suffer from the laws of probability when it comes to draft picks too. A few fans say this pick, others say, that pick... One of them will more often be right, leaving the other holding the mantel of "I told you so" to carry forward when all falls down.
To understand what this team needs, we first have to understand our limitations: We as fans are more wrong than right when it comes to picking college players for the NFL. Don't believe me? Have a look after the jump...
I recently examined a number of well thought out pre-draft posts from 2009. The consensus here at TST for the top six linebackers, in order, were as follows:
1. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest - Bust
2. Rey Maualuga, USC - Injuries-R-Us, just shy of making the Bust-O-Meter wail
3. Larry English, N. Illinois - achy-breaky-Larry, can't stay on the field, though shows a few moments
4. James Laurinaitis, Ohio St. - Our pick -Total stud
6. Derry Beckwith, LSU - one tackle, in one game - gone
Don't say "So What!" before you think about it for a second. Sure, this draft pick worked out in an outstanding fashion, but we rated JL55 the fourth best in the draft class? We could very well landed on either side of the Laurinaitis pick. The thing is, other teams did land there and they are screaming with the same voice we do for the picks that didn't go our way.
Are there teams with better track records in the draft? Sure, but if you look closely, the difference between success and failure for every team is fairly thin. Even draft demi-gods like Belichick, Reid and Newsome are lucky, REALLY lucky to hit on 40% of their picks. In seven rounds you hit on one pick - 14.28% success. You hit on three? 42.85% and you are a draft wizard! Go back and look; even those teams that exceeded wizard status in any given year did so because they had the roster depth to bring prospects along.
My point here is, that to understand what changes are needed, we need to understand the oft times soul crushing futility found in the draft. Bad scouting you cry! Very, very possible in our instance, but I'd lean toward mixed wants at a variety of positions, then betting the proverbial farm that the picks taken work out.
Here is where we went astray. Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney were on the way to building a very good defense, but they broke from that path to add offensive weapons which were screamed for by fans and a new offensive coordinator. If you look at the percentages, and just for the sake of argument let's call Robert Quinn and Lance Kendricks "wins" - 28.57%. We'd have to call Salas and Pettis coin flips at the moment, and the rest were duds except for Jabara Williams who happened to land on a team with no room to groom a future prospect. Injuries have forced a virtual merry-go-round of players being rushed in to fill injury voids in a vain attempt to create some kind of depth at positions that have been laid to waste.
Another reason draft picks don't flourish on certain teams has to be directed at the position coaching staffs. Here is an area on the Rams that is in glaring need of improvement as far as I'm concerned. I wish I could find the one piece of footage that really angered me. The star of the footage was one of my favorite Rams players of all-time: Nolan Cromwell. After another 3 and out by the Rams offense, and a dropped pass to boot, the Rams receivers ran to the sidelines right past a Nolan Cromwell standing on those same sidelines. His receivers walked to the bench, and Nolan continued to stay where he was, just watching the game... Could there have been more going on than I saw? Most definitely, but the image was burned into my mind. To me, with one of the worst wide receiver cores in the history of this franchise, he should have been talking to his guys. Asking and answering questions might have been a good idea? Showing diagrams of defensive formations to his players another...But he stood there.
The handling of free agents, especially offensive line acquisitions in recent years, has shown me a great deal about the Rams offensive line coach., Steve Loney. I've formulated two thoughts here:
1. The offensive scheme brought in by McDaniels called for the ability to zone block in the majority of circumstances that they as individuals are simply not talented enough to perform? Yes, Jason Smith is a tool, and can lay claim to being a major failed piece of the draft puzzle. But if the zone blocking concept has value, it means his choice was an unknowing wrong? It would also explain why an athletic guy like Rodger Safford is now failing to live up to last season's successes. Wrong pieces, for a different puzzle.
2. The offensive line coach isn't living up to his job. Ironically, Steve Loney is the author of a book called "101 Offensive Line Drills"... OK, I just stopped laughing... Where was I? Oh yeah, Steve Loney and his handling of the Rams offensive line. Well he actually hasn't, has he? If there has ever been a more disparate line in all of the NFL, I'm really not sure who it could be? They are flawed in the execution of their assignments, and don't act like a cohesive unit in any way, shape, or form. If this doesn't scream line coaching problems, I really don't know what does? The aforementioned Jason Smith shows one of the biggest flaws an offensive tackle can show: He reaches with his right arm, without leverage, for defensive ends. His back is rigid and he doesn't articulate his upper body well. So why isn't this something addressed by Loney? Did he give up trying to find a lineman in Smith? Safford? Hell, even Bell or Brown? He certainly doesn't study film well, or he may have found the "tell" of Jacob Bell so recently talked about that has let defensive lines know when the ball was about to be snapped... OK, you can scream here.
In the modern NFL, "the buck stops here" is a reality that head coaches live with every day. They hire staffs, and entrust them to teach players, as well as to help game time adjustments to different schemes they face. The head coach is the overseer, but does less dabbling in the teaching part of football than ever before in NFL history. The head coach is not what many think of as the general of an army tasked with conquering yard after yard. The successful NFL coach is more like the combat colonel, who is on the battle field with his men, ready to change attitude at a moments notice. Another part of the NFL coach is his broad responsibility to the media. He is the face of any NFL franchise when the game is won or lost.
Here Spanuolo has shown glimmers of success as a leader of defenses, and a failure to truly know what his new offensive coordinator is doing with his team. There seems to be a disconnect between head coach and the offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels arrived with a tarnished image from his short tenure in Denver as the Broncos head coach. He promised a high powered two TE offense that hasn't materialized. In game situations, after dropped passes and poorly run routes, the decision making tree appears clouded. While McDaniels appears shaken as he studies his top secret, plastic covered play sheets, Spagnuolo stands on the sidelines willing something to happen. To date that will has been left unrequited as his team and staff sink ever lower in the NFL standings.
I started this article with a view of what we think we know about an NFL team. So many machinations are so far beyond serious true understanding by we on the outside. We hold one thing in common with an NFL head coach. We both see when things don't work out the way we want them to ideally be. The coach lives his failures everyday. We live the Rams in the moments we cleave from our daily lives to think past putting food on the table, and not killing mother-in-laws. The Rams don't make the list on the first day of teaching your sixteen year old child to drive, or when you find the neatly written honey-do list on the kitchen counter so conveniently left by a loving wife or girlfriend.
What I believe has to happen to the St. Louis Rams is to first think beyond players to their position coaches. Before you can judge a player, you have to know he's been provided the best "know-how" to do their jobs. Can all these college star players really be as inept as they seem? The answer has to be no. Did every free agent signed just decide not to play their best game of football when they signed on with the Rams? No, has to be the answer. Sure, it's possible that most of these players are just not NFL caliber, but I just don't buy it. Does Steve Spanuolo, and by extension Billy Devaney deserve the blame for draft picks that don't work out. Of course they do, because football pain flows from so very few directions. We as fans hate the pain of loss. While the first instinct is to amputate the pain's source, it may very well be that a search for deeper causes can save a bit of cutting. Not to mention, save us from letting good players leave under mistaken, or ill defined assumptions.
All and all, I am as confused as I am mad at my Rams. So while I do my best to sort out the confusion between the armchair quarterback in me and rational thought I'll try to remember what I was supposed to do today... I think it had something to do with a list?