ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 2: Austin Pettis #18 of the St. Louis Rams reacts to missing a catch that would have extended the Rams final drive against the Washington Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome on October 2, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Redskins beat the Rams 17-10. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Are the St. Louis Rams really as bad as their record portends? An 0-4 record to finish out the first quarter of the 2011 NFL season doesn't exactly suggest a Super Bowl appearance will be in the Rams future any time soon. So what has happened to this team? Virtually every "know it all" in the football biz considered the Rams to be on the cusp of being a contender for at least the NFC West championship. Somehow, those preseason predictions have faded, and are now replaced with thoughts of dark days past for a NFL franchise that has seen it share of woes when it comes to the win column.
Blame sharks are rising from their hiding places in the deep sea of chance. Fingers point alternately, in growing numbers, to each of the four winds of NFL football: The owner, the front office, the coach and players. Who can blame Rams fans for wanting to know why their team is failing so miserably thus far. They bought into the hype, drank the Kool-Aid, checked "yes" box to hear about exciting new offers from a website's "select group" of partners, however you want to say it. The fans believed what was written or spoken. That we ( I count myself a fan) mixed in our own hyperbole is neither here nor there. We have a God given right to believe the players on our team can jump a bit higher, run a bit faster, catch a pass better (gulp!), than other teams do or can. So what happened to shake the ground beneath the feet of Rams fans and send them into the proverbial streets screaming for blood?
I have absolutely no idea...
Yup, I got nothin' here folks and, if you're truly honest with yourself, neither do you. Conjecture, possibly educated, is all we as fans have to call on. This guy drops a pass, that guy couldn't cover a pot on a stove... It's the COACH! The team's general manager is an idiot! The owner doesn't care...This list can go on forever. It usually lasts until the the magic reset button gets pressed within each of us in late April of any given year. Yes, the Draft marks the start of the process renewed. Ah, the circle of life...
In the first of a five part article, let's have a quick look at those four key positions that garner our anger or dismay. First up:
Steven Christopher Spagnuolo came to the St. Louis Rams after being the highly coveted defensive coordinator of the New York Giants after his defense helped stun the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. When he arrived in St. Louis, he inherited a team in disarray and the team's ownership clouded. In his first year, spending on high profile free agents was probably limited due to the possibility of ownership change. He secured a highly skilled linebacker in James Lauriniatis in the second round, and a very good corner-back, Bradley Fletcher, in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft. The bad news is he selected Jason Smith with the second overall pick in the same draft. Oops! Head coaches are not all knowing. Jason Smith won't be the last bad draft pick he makes because no coach anywhere in the NFL has a perfect record in the draft. Not one of them. Some do better than others, and Bill Belichick comes to mind as one of the more successful draft-nicks.
What I'm saying here is, when all is said and done, I don't blame any coach for what are guesses at best when it comes to drafting college players. Blame comes when a player shows up and the coach fails to either find that divine spark to make them a player at the NFL level, and the amount of time it takes to move on and accept that a player was a mistake. Here Spagnuolo has a problem. Belief in your players? Fine. But when it is time to cut a player loose, it has to be done. Don't build a team with players you know shouldn't be there because you don't want to admit a mistake. Spagnuolo's drafts have been mixed in quality and direction, and having two offensive coordinators in three season hasn't helped. He endorsed the pick of Sam Bradford in 2010 with the first pick, and had the vision to start him as a rookie. His pick of Robert Quinn in the first round of the 2011 draft is still a work in progress.
After you examine a coach's player preference in the draft, you look at how he builds a coaching staff and applies what they as a group collectively know to create a finished product. How well do the players mesh? What level of talent does a player have and will it really translate to the NFL? How much can you coach what is needed, and take a player from a possible contributor to a starter or star player? I've studied a number of top ten NFL teams and I've looked closely at their players. When I compare base talent of let's say comparable players from the New York Jets, to those on the Rams, I don't see a huge difference or separation. Look across the NFL and this will hold true in most cases. So why do players with comparative talent perform on one team and not another?
This is, as they say, where the tires meet the road. Here is where fans have begun to point directly at Spagnuolo and his seeming lack of ability to find and improve the talents of his players. Three of his draft picks in 2011 were receivers: Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas. All three showed promise in the shortened off season workouts and preseason. The same three have suddenly stopped improving and are tickling the keys of mediocrity.
I have seen fans comment time and again, expressing their collective dismay for these three players. They were all extremely good college players and caught passes with ease, if not aplomb. In the NFL, they have inspired a "what were they thinking when they picked these guys?" from fans as they drop pass after pass. Is this coaching or simple draft miscue? I'm leaning toward a lack of coaching here. What I see is these three players are trying to play football the way their college coaches taught them, which means they are playing the position three different ways in both technique and training. Their receiver coach is Nolan Cromwell. I wrote a bit about him not long ago. I also think I know what may be troubling these three players. Cromwell is quite literally one of the best all-round athletes to ever play the game of football. Now this is just my opinion, but what if Cromwell is accepting these player talents as sufficient to the game he played as a safety? What if he's only teaching plays from the playbook, and not the techniques necessary to be a success at the NFL level? This would explain why these players are dropping balls and not getting separation from defenders.
Coach Spagnuolo has other position coaches that don't seem to be harnessing the potential of their assigned players. The offensive line coach, Steve Loney, took an offensive line that showed the barest signs of life last year and... Well, he did nothing actually. He received the addition of an excellent power guard through free agency in Harvey Dahl. Left tackle Rodger Safford went from having a year that many sports-nicks thought to be a stellar year, and has followed it with a benign campaign so far in 2011. High priced offensive linemen like Jason Brown and Jacob Bell have not only failed to live up to their athletic promise, but have actually regressed. I've already touched on Jason Smith earlier. Adam Goldberg is a stop gap at best. Is it just me, or are all fans wondering how a line can look so completely out of sync and over powered by opponents? This isn't just rust from a prolonged lockout off-season; this is a complete lack of a meeting of the minds on the offensive line. Defensive backs coach Clayton Lopez is under siege by virtue of injuries and a lack of depth at the corner-back position.
The coach that has to be the easiest punching bag of the entire staff is Andy Sugarman. It's not that he's done anything really awful per se, but it's his job title, "Quality Control- Offense" that makes him an easily prescribed sin eater. Talk about fans pointing fingers... I know it doesn't happen this way, but the mind conjures an image of Stan Kroenke asking the staff whose responsible and all the coaches point at Sugarman...
Josh McDaniels, the Rams offensive coordinator, hasn't shown all that brightly. In fact, he's given me the opinion that he hasn't really participated in player development as much as he's cloistered himself away playing offensive genius-wizard. If he's a wizard, he's closer to Harry Potter at 11 years old than he is Albus Dumbledore. He has obviously so confounded the entire offensive squad with his new offense that I'm beginning to doubt its entire foundation. Purportedly a two Tight End offense akin to the New England Patriots, it looks like an offense more inclined to garner comparisons to a base eight version of Madden 2099. There are problems all across the spectrum. Timing patterns that look cross dimensional to the point of absurdity. Plays that call for abilities that just aren't there on the offensive line. It seems like an academic exercise gone a rye. Here I hold McDaniels more responsible than Spagnuolo. He was brought in and thrown the keys to the offense, and has yet to even open the door. I see a severe disconnect between player and playbook. This is the very heart of coaching and what I see as a complete lack there of...
This coaching staff is on the proverbial hot seat now, and will be until something happens to sway opinion that it isn't living up to what is expected. When fans see wins, it may lessen. But make no mistake, the unconditional faith in this staff is gone now and will be slow, if ever, to return. Would I replace Spagnuolo right now? No. I would look at his staff for improvement at positions I've mentioned. I would be more inclined to remove McDaniels if an immediate move has to be made, and change an offensive that simply isn't working given the current player talent available.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the front office and Bill Devaney. Until then, let me know what you think are well thought through avenues the Rams can, and should, take to end the cycle of... un-winning. (I hate that "L" word)