The final 2013 home game of the St. Louis Rams is today. Tampa Bay offers a greater challenge than they would have during the first half of the season, after going through their fair share of NFL soap opera-ish drama this year. They have a rookie quarterback now, with Josh Freeman being released for Mike Glennon. In their last six game, they've won four against some pretty good teams along the way.
It's hard to think about Tampa Bay as I try to wrap my mind around the fact the 2013 NFL season is winding down. For Rams fans, this season and last have been about getting to know a new head coach, general manager, coaching staff, and players. "Youth" has been the keynote, and "patience" the watch word. Glimpses of the possible, and groans at repeated past moments in this team's play, have haunted fans this year.
Yet, I can say with ZERO doubt, this St. Louis Rams team is on the rise. Fans - me included - jumped on the preseason analysis of the Rams potential like starving lions. We ate up the first win of the year against Arizona, then began to slowly gum the losses against San Francisco, which to me is the true barometer of any Rams team.
We saw a defense that lit up the NFL sky in 2012 come back to earth in 2013. But within their struggles, glimpses of promise peeked out. Robert Quinn slashed and bashed his way into NFL headlines and into the ranks of elite pass rushers. Chris Long had a tough season, but I have a sneaking suspicion we'll find out the hip injury he's been nursing since week #1 is the culprit for the low sack numbers he's posted this year. Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford help form one of the best front fours in the NFL this year. James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree shined, with the Georgia rookie showing why the Rams raced to the podium with their #30 overall draft choice this last April. Jo Lon Dunbar crawled out of the suspension doghouse to help shore up the defense.
The big surprise for me was the downward slide of Cortland Finnegan. Injuries hit the star corner back hard in 2013. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson - to me - had an absolutely stellar season, and they're ahead on the learning curve at one of the toughest positions to play in the NFL. Rookie T. J. McDonald was hampered by an injury that sidelined him for a good portion of the season, but came storming back to show why he was a fantastic pick to help solve the Rams safety woes.
When Sam Bradford went down with an ACL injury against Carolina, the faint-hearted among us wailed before jumping on the nearest train out of Ramstown. Kellen Clemens stepped in and struggled at first, as anyone would in the circumstance. While a back up quarterback has shined at times throughout NFL history, it's actually kind of a rare event. Everyone want to see a Matt Cassel stepping in for Tom Brady sort of thing, but it only happens if the quality of the team is there for them to lead in the first place. The Rams offense was in a state of flux for the first ten weeks of the season. Zac Stacy is succeeding only due to the fact the offense morphed around the running game. The offensive line started playing better because Stacy made opposing defenses pause ever so much before rushing the quarterback; respecting the run game instead of pinning their ears back and going full speed for Clemens. This was a growth point for the Rams as a team, not a corner turned toward playing among the playoff bound elite.
The wide receiver corp for the Rams is the best they've had since the Greatest Show on Turf days. Somehow, as Jeff Fisher built in the final touches to the Rams' defense, he and Les Snead gathered this talent laden crew of pass catchers. Yes, they dropped loads of passes, and ran routes that looked more like scattering cats at times. But slowly - ever so slowly - they're turning into a wide receiver corp that'll make a huge splash in seasons to come. Again, I have to turn Rams fans to the NFL learning curve. When the most experience wide receiver you have on the team is going into his 4th season, and the rest rookies or second year players, it borders on the impossible to think this group could've carried the load fans - me included - want to see happen.
If you've just read this little offensive/defensive overview and sighed, it's OK. Now slap yourself, and shake off your "woe is me for being a Rams fan" thoughts. This season was never about the playoffs we as Rams fan desperately wanted to see. I just wasn't, and hedonism on our part was never going to overcome the immutable youth quotient this team has permeating its roster. In 2014, Jeff Fisher and the Rams have some great draft picks. To be honest, I have mixed feeling about it too. They'll be adding yet another layer of youth to the roster, elongating the learning curve at whatever positions they decide to fill or augment. The Rams are like a Christmas gift that isn't ever opened, but the box keeps getting bigger and bigger. Reality keeps we as Rams fans from tearing off the wrappings of promise to see what's really inside. I think if we did open this magnificent, burgeoning crate, we'd see a small note that says "batteries not included". You have to love "batteries" as a metaphor for experience, right? But when all is said and done, it's oh so very true...
In the game against Tampa Bay today, it's all about experience gained for the Rams to move forward. I'm going to make a prediction that many will hate: The Rams lose today. Why? For me it's simple: I honestly believe Jeff Fisher and Co. are going to get caught looking forward to week #17 and the Seattle Seahawks. While Pete Carroll will more than likely sit his star players when the Rams visit Seattle, I believe this game has Fisher drooling for a win to ride during the off season. Tied for last in NFC West standing, the Seattle game represents the only attainable goal remaining for the Rams, and Fisher loves beating division foes.
Enjoy the game today, and get those knowing winks and nods ready. 2014 is just around the corner, so make sure to watch your young Rams taking their very first steps toward being the team we all want to see: A Champion!