'Whatever happens from here on in I'm happy. Please remind me at the end of the game that there was a moment when I felt like this because I probably won't remember.'
That is a text message I sent to a friend of mine with five minutes left in Sunday's game. Three minutes later, Greg Zuerlein kicked the Rams into the lead. Four minutes and fifty seconds later, Matthew Stafford found Kevin Smith in the flat to win the game for the Lions.
I didn't need a reminder. I remembered I was supposed to be happy. I just couldn't remember why.
What I did remember is that you only get sixteen chances a season. Sixteen chances to win and you can't miss any of them. Losses like this feel like winning for the Rams, because over the past seasons we haven't even had many chances to win, let alone wins themselves. On Sunday, we had the chance to steal a game from a team that is further down the road towards relevancy from anonymity than the Rams are. The Rams didn't win.
'That is one tough loss for the Rams' said Sports Illustrated's Peter King (https://twitter.com/SI_PeterKing). 'Good effort by the St Louis Rams' said Neil Reynolds on Sky Sports TV here in the UK. 'Rams take the moral [victory]' was Rich Eisen's summation (http://twitter.com/richeisen). Those assessments reflect the common sentiment around the NFL about a 2-14 team losing by four, with ten seconds left, to a 2011 playoff team, on the road. That's an easy argument to make and as you can tell from my feelings with five minutes to go it was my first thought. The Rams average performance last year was a double digit loss. The average score from our eight road games: 8-25. What sort of fan couldn't see the bright side in the situation from Sunday?
When I thought about it, I thought differently. The Rams could have won, maybe should have won, but deserve to win? I'm not so sure. As for a big improvement from a year ago? Forget about it. Comparing years will always be tricky but from a pure numbers perspective, these could be the same Rams. The Lions were the NFL's number five offense last year, reeling off 396 yards per game. On Sunday, they gained 429. The Rams only allowed 358 yards a year ago. Our cringing conservative offense in 2011, clipped 284 yards on Sundays. Today we gained just 251.
I'll admit that stats never tell the whole story and what you can't see in the numbers is the some excellent game management from the coaching staff, the attitude the Rams seemed to have and the tactical nous that they showed.
It was 3rd and 9, with 2:03 left and the Rams were already in field goal range. Too often this would be a simple hand off to run time off the clock, but knowing that any play would only run the clock to the two minute warning, Fisher calmly called a timeout, and dialled up a pass, knowing that a conversion would effectively lead to a last second field goal attempt. It didn't come off, but after some of the managerial mishaps we have seen, it was a welcome sight for tired eyes.
They played with a swagger on defense, intercepting three first half passes, one for a touchdown, and all three from recent additions to the roster. More than that they got into the faces the Lions, playing the self styled cage rattlers at their own game. Seeing how the Rams have meekly capitulated in recent years, it was heartening to see from those players. And it seemed to be working. With Calvin Johnson looking like a virtual spectator until late in the game, Stafford and the Lions secondary receivers seemed to be affected, sailing throws high and dropping key passes respectively. The only problem was that when the drops stopped and the interceptions dried up, the Lions carved up our secondary, with absolutely zero pressure from the Rams up front. I get it, not every other offense the Rams will face will be top five, like the Honolulu Blue but we can't start thinking our defense is already at a level that can carry this team to multiple wins. While they forced three interceptions, they still shipped 27 points.
We need to see more from this defense because even dropping balls and completing them to the other team, there was only ever one offense capable of being the deciding factor in this game. Steven Jackson still runs the ball as hard as ever, Sam Bradford stood in and took on the rush like a man and Brandon Gibson made an excellent catch for the touchdown, but when push comes to shove I have no belief that these guys can make a clutch play. I actually said out loud at one point, facing 3rd and 10, that there was zero chance the Rams would get a first down and I would happily put up everything I own to back up my statement. Just a frustrated outburst and probably a crass one, but it reflects how I feel about the unit. They seem to know it as well. A deer in the headlights look, wide eyed behind their facemasks. Sub par offensive line play and no separation, is a horrible recipe. Even their best moment was quickly brought back down to earth by Roger Saffold's quite frankly disturbing injury. A group that wasn't stellar to begin with, will no doubt be impacted by his and Scott Wells' absence if either miss any gametime. By the way, the third and ten? They didn't make it.
I hate being negative. My thoughts come as much of a surprise to me as they might do to you. I have been the biggest Rams optimist, and apologist, for a very long time. I have told anyone who will listen that the Rams are going to the playoffs, going to the Superbowl, for years, even post 3-13, 1-15. I suppose I'm writing all this because I don't want to be part of another false dawn. I sat through the highs and lows of Martz, the hope of Linehan, the short term boost of Haslett, the high expectations of Spagnuolo. Different rhetoric. Similar Rams. Same disappointments.
Moral victories are just empty words. They're a trap that the Rams cannot afford to fall into. When you start being happy with getting close you get what the Rams have been for too long: happy with slow progress without realising the progress is so slow you might as well not be making any. People asked me this Summer: 'Going to the Superbowl?'. For the first time ever, I told them no. I've lost my unshakable faith in this team and no moral victories will help me regain it, no matter how desperately I want it back.
Which brings me full circle to what I really wanted to say. The Rams will be a new team when they start deserving to win more than a couple of games a year and when they start winning a few that they don't deserve. Whatever the positives and however close the score, they didn't do either Sunday. And that's what I'll remember.
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