Not All Turning Points Are Created Equal

(This is a post from my blog about the Rams. Hope you enjoy the read. It is long but it is shorter than last time)

The St Louis Rams lead in the 4th Quarter at the New England Patriots. Having lost their opening four by a combined total of one hundred and four points, St Louis got up off the mat, after a bye, to record back to back victories over Dallas and Washington. They faced an injury riddled Patriots team at Gillette, before getting back to divisional play against Arizona at the Dome. The Rams had a chance to resurrect their season.

It all looked good early in that fourth quarter. Josh Brown kicked a 25-yard field goal to put the Rams up 16-13. Minutes later, Chris Long, in the midst of the first multiple sack game of his career, pole-axed Matt Cassel to cap a Patriots three and out. Donnie Avery already had six receptions for 163 yards. I remember thinking: the Rams have got a huge chance to win four straight and be .500 at the turning pole of the season. It was to be one of the great stories of the 2008 NFL season.

Sorry, I should have mentioned that earlier. This was the 2008 Rams and all that’s recounted about did happen. All except the last part. But you all know the story of what really happened next.

Spin forward four seasons, and these Rams, some new, some young, are at a similar turning point. The familiarity of the situation struck me as Greg Zuerlein missed his 66-yarder in Miami. The Rams have shown some early promise, faced early adversity and bounced back. But the bounce back job they have now will come to define their season.

The Rams have a week nine bye, slap bang in the middle of the season. The sense of first half/second half could not be more clearly defined for this team. And considering the strides the the men in dark blue and gold have taken in the first half, it is more important than anything that these Rams have the respectable record to go along with their unexpectedly respectable play. Fired up from trashing the Cardinals castle in primetime last week, I was certain the Rams would head into their bye no worse than 4-4. Looking at things in the post Dolphins defeat haze, I would take now take .500, no question.

The Rams face, in the famous words of Steve Savard, tough sledding in the next few weeks. The Green Bay Packers, played the previously undefeated Texans in Houston as if they had taken all the analysis labelling them as early disappointments, and looped it into one huge motivational mix tape. Their offensive sharpness, without their best back or their most familiar name at receiver was a sight to behold on Sunday night. Being lit up doesn’t do justice to describe the Texans secondary. They bring that potency into the Dome Sunday and afterwards both teams will fly out of St Louis, the Packers for their home game against Jacksonville and the Rams, for their home contest over here in London.

You might find this surprising to read but I was really disappointed on 20th January 2012, when it was announced the Rams were to play at Wembley Stadium. Strange? I’ve lived in London all my life. The home of English football is a maximum of an hour’s journey away. Why would I not be delighted that the team who’s performances define my Monday mornings was to set up camp a few miles down the road for a weekend?

Well, the fact is that, while the International Series is hugely popular in the UK and does the job of raising the profile of the NFL in a market where it is low on the list of priorities for the average sports fan, it is this team I care about, not the profile of the sport in this country. The London game robs fans in St Louis of a home game and, even worse, it doesn’t give the fans who will show up next Sunday, nor the team who will take the field, an equivalent home atmosphere. The Wembley games are populated by fans of all 32 NFL teams. There is normally a higher proportion of fans from the two teams represented, but not enough to make a meaningful difference. The game is more like a convention for UK fans of a sport which, while definitely on the rise, is still very much niche. Added to this, most of those neutrals who see the game in Old England will more than likely be supporting the them from newer namesake, given the fact that the renaissance in popularity of football in this country has coincided with rise of Tom Brady and the Belichick Pats.

Ownership justified this loss of one eighth of a home schedule by extolling the virtues of promoting their product globally, allowing those who’ve never heard of the St Louis Rams to see what they have been missing. I would agree with this view if it wasn’t for one glaring issue. What particularly about the Rams recent history would they want to promote after an NFL worst 15 wins over the previous five seasons? If they want to promote a product, why choose this product to promote?

That was my reaction then and given the Rams home performances and results this season, the loss of a home game seems to be an even bigger tragedy for our team and fans. The Rams are an improving team and the basis of improvement should be making your home stadium a fortress. The Rams playing in London game is a glaring strategic gaffe for front office and management, and that is disappointing because they seem to be doing an awful lot right recently.

So the Rams have a tough road to travel to get to their bye without a losing record but there should be optimism. The Rams, with their genuine top 10 defense, have a chance to neutralise the Packers resurgent offense and the Patriots are not the team which dominated the 2000′s. However, the Rams don’t have enough of a recent track record to make me believe they will definitely show up, at a crucial time, and produce a genuine elite performance. They can do it. Will they do it? Stay tuned.

So a bleak outlook? Maybe, but it’s a bleak outlook for the Rams to be 4-4 at their bye week. In 2008, my bleak outlook was because because I couldn’t see a time this team would be competitive again. This is a similar turning point, but not a similar team. Look at the players who were key contributors in that close loss to the Patriots in 2008. Bulger, Holt, Dante Hall, Corey Chavous, Will Witherspoon. The NFL has a habit of describing every non rookie as a ‘veteran’ but these are veterans in the truest sense of the word. In Miami on Sunday, it was Bradford, Richardson, Givens, Kendricks, Long, Laurinaitis, Quinn and Jenkins. It might seem like I’m picking and choosing my examples, but have a look at the two rosters yourself. The 2012 Rams are packed with young playmakers, raw and inconsistent some of them, but much more exciting than the inconsistent veterans we’ve had over the current run of poor play. The future is brighter than it has been for years, just don’t expect the sun to shine in London. In fact, I live here: forget about it.

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