The 2012 edition of the St. Louis Rams isn't a finished product, not by any measure. The lack of the right pieces was a given going into this season by everyone who knows anything about Rams' teams in the past five years. No team - ever - has replaced virtually every player on a squad from the preceding year and done anything of mark, or even given much to comment on. In fact, I'd have to go all the way back to George Allen's days with the Washington Redskins to find a team who used player trades to build an "instant" turn around team.
In this current NFL incarnation, free agency and salary cap space has made any attempt to build an overnight success - from the ashes of a loser - virtually impossible. Now, it's all about finding a few key pieces in free agency, and building through the NFL Draft each April. A team's scouting department has become the key to victory in today's modern game of professional football.
Finding either late round draft gems or unidentified undrafted free agents has become the only way to build a successful NFL franchise, or at least that's the way it seems to me. The Rams shifted from being an also-ran to a competitive team this year by the addition of players few, if any, football fans knew much about prior to the start of the 2012 regular season. Oh, we hear faint whispers passed on during training camp of this player or that surprising a coaching staff; but on the whole, we're pretty much clueless when it comes to UDFA "No Name" players.
To my mind, the 2012 Rams biggest success to date has been through late round draft picks and unheralded journeyman players. Yes, the Brockers-Jenkins-Johnson-Quick-Pead additions have been fine for the most part, but they're more like patting yourself on the back for buying a new car and reveling in the lack of problems they provide versus a used clunker. While top draft picks do on occasion fail miserably (see: Jason Smith), for the most part they succeed at varying levels for a team for at least a couple years. Yet, the biggest successes for the Rams this year have been late round picks like Daryl Richardson and Greg Zuerlein. Add in guys who were coin flips, undrafted players like punter John Hekker, as well as players like center/guard Robert Turner and offensive tackle Wayne Hunter - who were cast off by the New York Jets - and the picture for the 2012 St. Louis Rams changed.
Injuries happen in the NFL, and there is no mysterious curse that afflicts one team more than another each season. As much as Rams fans bemoan the 2011 injury debacle the team faced at the corner back position, they weren't the most injury riddle franchise that year. The Houston Texans "won" that honor, but what made the difference for them was team depth established through flat out brilliance by their scouting department and front office. I've harped a bit this season about team depth - positions filled with good players backing up their starting counterparts.
This season, the Rams began the task of establishing position depth. Some of the team's units - like the offensive line - were hit hard by early injuries and it began to test the Rams' depth at key positions. Here is where great position coaches enter the picture in a big way too. Finding the right players is not just a exercise in statistics; it's about a fit between coach and player. Can the player be coached has to be at the very top of any list by a team's general manager. He takes the name of players "X", "Y" and "Z" to the coaching staff, and they search the players' pasts for reasons to believe they can succeed.
To me right now, Turner and Hunter have earned Most Valuable player status for the Rams. By no means has either player been perfect, but how they came in, and what they were asked to either achieve or accomplish has been incredible to see. Few envisioned Turner taking the place of former All-Pro center Scott Wells' when he was injured, but to say he hasn't been the best of the beleaguered Rams offensive line would be remiss at best. Put a good left offensive guard next to him, and the middle three of the line that includes mauler Harvey Dahl, would be one of the best in the NFL. Yes - really.
Wayne Hunter was run out of town on a rail by hate besotted Jets fans. A right tackle for New York, he came to the Rams thinking he'd remain on the right. But great coaches find something in their players they may not know they have inside. Hunter was shifted to left tackle for the first time in his career. He hasn't been perfect, but there's something about how he's played that amazes me. He's playing like a guy who's 10 years younger, and he's faced some of the best defenses in the NFL so far this year. I think Rams fans need to prepare for when Rodger Saffold returns from injury, because Hunter will most likely remain at left tackle, with Saffold shifting over to the right side.
Worry, worry, angst and hurry - St. Louis Rams fans aren't seeing the part of their team that will ultimately make them one of the best teams in the NFL. I'm a Rams fan, and I know what you're going through. Flashes of brilliant play by the defense, and titches by an offense trying to find who they are is trying at times. It's also the worst kind of tease for fans longing for their team to provide not only wins, but a return to respectability as well. The Rams are the youngest team in the NFL this year, and they're playing like it more times than some fans would like. But to ask for more is hedonistic at best, simply because the team you have now is not the team that will take the field by season's end.
Each week, we see a Rams team with lessons learned and the classes they need to take for the following Sunday. Young teams have a tough time winning on the road, and that's simply a fact. As experienced players return from injury, their very presence will change the road game paradigm to one of professional competence instead of wide eyed youth. Jeff Fisher is not just coaching an NFL team this year. He's teaching them how to walk; to take their first steps along a greater path. Hand wringing, and bemoaning what's lacking is the birthright of ever fan. We reach out from our Lazy Boys, beer sloshing at the TV screen as we shout this should have been, and not "THAT". We will always decry perceived failing, and shudder how a quarterback missed an open receiver WE can see on our 50" screens. It's what we do. Yet, if you're a fan of the Rams this season, just know you'll be chewing hand-fulls of Tums and cleaning chicken wing shaped splotches off your walls for the rest of the season. Throwing food won't change the fact the Rams are a team trying to learn the NFL game.
I absolutely love the direction the St. Louis Rams are taking. While I haven't written off a chance at post season glory for the Rams in 2012-13, the future of this team is brighter than I could have ever dreamed before this year began. It should be for you too. When stars collide it makes for a brilliant show in the night sky. But before the show can happen, they have to find a way to come together, don't they? External and internal forces have to be in sync, and the improbable has to add in that last piece to make it happen. The biggest question is, can you see it too? Will you be watching the collective team, or single pieces and willing them toward a hoped end? Is there a bigger picture you're missing? I hope not, because from where I sit, this is going to be a sight to see...
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