Sunday's loss to the Cowboys was a sorry exhibition of professional football by our beloved Rams. Was it just an "off game" by a young team or a sign of things to come? The defense is awful, the offense unimaginative, and the special teams anything but. The coaching staff seems to be over-matched and out of touch with the modern NFL. The Rams now sit at 1-2 with the defending NFC West/NFC Champions coming to town. A loss on Thursday night would leave the Rams at 1-3 and all but end any realistic hopes of the team making the playoffs this season. So, is it time to panic?
The season is only 3 games in and already the sky is falling in many cities around the NFL. History - or common sense in the case of the Jaguars - tells us that the 0-3 Giants, Redskins, Vikings, Buccaneers, Steelers, and Jaguars will not make the playoffs. Such is life in the NFL. Three games in and your season is effectively over. Time for players on those teams to play for pride and their jobs. Thankfully the Rams aren't one of those teams... yet. Yes, 1-2 sounds and feels a lot better than 0-3 even if it's only a one game difference. History tells us as much. Funny how that works. Such is life in the NFL.
In other NFL cities, such as Atlanta, Green Bay, and San Francisco, their teams' 1-2 starts are considered deeply disappointing due to each entering the season with well-earned and perfectly realistic Superbowl aspirations. There is some panic amongst the masses. Despite presiding over the most successful 5 year run in Atlanta Falcons history, with a .687 winning percentage, 4 playoff appearances in 5 years and enduring no losing seasons, Mike Smith will be in deep trouble in Atlanta should the Falcons fall short of the Superbowl, never mind the postseason, in his 6th season at the helm. A 1-4 record in the postseason, including two terrible home losses after securing the NFC's #1 seed loom large over his tenure in Atlanta. Such is life in the NFL.
The Rams fall somewhere in the middle. They are not perennial favorites (Green Bay) or newly minted Superbowl contenders (Seattle). Nor are they any longer considered to be one of the dregs of the NFL (Jacksonville). The Rams are considered a young, talented team on the rise. So at first blush a 1-2 record, with road losses at Atlanta and Dallas, seems like a reasonable start. Atlanta is almost unbeatable at home, with a 33-7 home record in the regular season since 2008. Dallas is a talented, playoff caliber team (and has been for a while) that will finally win the NFC East this season. Young teams have trouble winning on the road. Heck, veteran teams have trouble winning on the road. Such is life in the NFL.
So why all of the vitriol directed toward the youngest team in the NFL after a 1-2 start? From what I gather in the comments made by so many here at TST it is not so much the 1-2 record, but the way the team has played in earning that 1-2 record that is drawing criticism. But is all of that criticism warranted? Let's look at some of the most common criticisms directed toward the Rams thus far.
1. The defense has regressed. This is probably the biggest complaint I see here on TST. I agree that the defense stinks right now. But how much has it really regressed from last season?
Last year's unit finished 14th in points allowed (21.8/game), 14th in total yards allowed (342.6/game), 15th in pass yards allowed (225.1/game), 15th in rushing yards allowed (117.5/game), and 19th in yards allowed per pass completion (7.2 yards/completion). The defense also finished 1st in sacks (52), 2nd in pass plays over 20 yards allowed (36), 4th in passing TDs allowed (16), 10th in pass plays over 40 yards allowed (7), and 12th in INTs (17).
This year's unit so far ranks 20th in points allowed (24/game), 26th in total yards allowed (393/game), 24th in pass yards allowed (288/game), 17th in rushing yards allowed (105/game), and 29th in yards allowed per pass completion (8.5 yards/completion). The defense currently sits at 22nd in sacks (7), 13th in pass plays over 20 yards allowed (9), 29th in passing TDs allowed (7), 16th in pass plays over 40 yards allowed (2), and 29th in INTs (1).
The numbers above seem to show the defense has taken a step back in every area except rushing yards allowed. Of course, the Cowboys were the first team the Rams played that actually came out and tried to run the ball consistently against them and we all see how that turned out. I found one set of numbers that particularly intrigued me - Last year the Rams ranked 30th in the NFL in completion percentage allowed, allowing opposing QBs to complete 66.2% of their passes. Only the Titans and Panthers were worse, and those teams combined for a 13-19 record and the Titans surrendered more points than any other team. This year the Rams, not surprisingly, rank dead last, allowing opposing QBs to complete a whopping 71% of their passes.
The Rams defense has been a sore spot for just about everyone here on TST, and for good reason. The defense ranks in the bottom third or worse in the NFL in most important categories so far, and is coming off its worst performance of the young season. Why? Are they just lacking talent/experience or is the coaching staff failing them?
Ramsfan1313 put up an interesting post last week that basically stated the Rams defense wasn't that good last year either, but rather it benefited from playing a bunch of teams with bad or young QBs which resulted in inflated rankings that made the defense look better than it really was. He makes a strong case for that viewpoint. Last year's team played a ton of off coverage too - remember how good Sanchez looked against the Rams because of the soft coverage? Now that the Rams are playing better QBs in 2013 so far, the argument goes, the true Rams defense is being shown for what it is. I believe it is true to an extent, but I also believe that the scheme and playcalling has a lot to do with the problems the Rams are experiencing on defense.
2. The offense isn't what it should be. This is also a common thread here on TST. All of the offseason talk really raised expectations for this side of the ball. I think those expectations were unfair for two reasons.
One, While the Rams acquired a veteran TE in Jared Cook, the rest of the skill position players are terrifyingly young. D-Rich is in his 2nd year and is "the guy" at RB. There is nothing behind him. Pead is a bust, Cunningham is a rookie and another rookie, Zach Stacy (who the Rams traded 2 draft picks to draft - another discussion for another day) can't even make the active roster on Sundays. Austin Pettis is the "vet" of the WR corps and is in his 3rd season, which is about the time WRs start to "get it" in the NFL. The best WR on the team, Chris Givens, is only entering his 2nd year, along with the mystery that is Brian Quick. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are both rookies. Other than Cook the TE group is really young too. Harkey is in his 2nd year, and Kendricks and McNeill are just in their 3rd. That is a lot of youth at the skill positions. Hell, look at how much the Pats offense is struggling with the youth they have at WR, even though I'm told they have the greatest QB in the history of football at the helm. The point is that it is going to take some time for all these young guys to find their way and get to the point where they can just go out and play without having to think too much. It is up to the coaches to help them in that transition and speed up their growth. This leads to my second reason.
Two, while the Rams do have a bunch of young, explosive talent on the offensive side of the ball, they do not have the OC to maximize that talent. Ol' Schotty keeps running the same unimaginative plays that the opposing defenders see coming a mile away. Just about every time Sam completes a pass there's a crowd of defenders there ready to crush the receiver. He refuses to call plays that stretch the defense. He neglects the run in favor of a "dink and dunk" passing attack and opposing teams know it. Further, since defenses adjusted after week 1, he just can't seem to scheme a way to get Jared Cook the ball. And if that isn't bad enough, he can't even manage to come up with plays that can get the ball to other players to make the defense pay for focusing so much attention on Cook. As Bernie Miklasz says, that's a "double fail" by ol' Schotty. How about his use of the 8th pick in the draft? Tavon Austin is just another guy in this offense. He was a waste of the 8th pick in the draft if all he's going to do is run short little routes in the flat that the defense sees coming a mile away. And the worst part? Schotty just keeps calling the same play for Austin over and over again. He's going to get him killed if he keeps it up. Finally, Schotty refuses to go with more of an up-tempo offense earlier in games. Why? Some mumbo-jumbo about the defense needing rest doesn't fly. The "3 and out" offense the Rams are currently featuring doesn't keep the defense off the field anyway. As everyone knows you don't have to run a true "hurry-up" offense just because you are increasing the tempo or running the no-huddle. And maybe if the offense got going early the Rams defense might actually get the chance to play with a lead for a while. I'm sure they might like that. Of course, it would help if the defense could get itself off the field quickly once in a while too.
3. Special Teams mistakes. The Rams have killed themselves the last two weeks with ST penalties. While I don't think any of us believe the Rams would've beaten the Cowboys had Austin's punt return TD stood, as they were thoroughly outclassed in every aspect of the game on Sunday, it was the fact that the Rams ST had committed yet another costly penalty at the worst possible moment that irked everyone. The poor field position the Rams suffered in the loss to Atlanta was directly attributable to the play of the ST as well. There is a simple solution to this problem - it is due to poor coaching. If you look across the NFL rosters you're not going to find a huge gap in talent or experience on the ST units from one team to the next. It's not like the QB position, where one team has Peyton Manning and another has Chad Henne for goodness sake! Coaching makes all the difference in the world when it comes to ST play, and obviously the Rams are not well coached or they wouldn't keep killing themselves with the same stupid penalties. Speaking of coaching...
4. Poor coaching. This has become a popular topic as of late, starting with attacks on Schotty and Walton and even extending to the head man, Jeff Fisher, as of late.
I am on record that I hated the Brian Schottenheimer hiring. I wanted Hue Jackson. That doesn't mean I didn't hold out hope that Schotty would prove me wrong and show a creative side I didn't think he had. So far he is failing badly in my book. I already touched on my feelings about his abilities as OC a bit earlier, so I won't waste any more time here.
I am also on record that I wanted Rob Ryan as DC. Unlike the Schottenheimer situation however, I didn't have a problem with the Tim Walton hiring. Tim Walton coached a horrible secondary in Detroit. Most have said it was a lack of talent, not a lack of his abilities as a coach that resulted in Detroit's poor secondary play. He is now with a new team, and is a first-time DC at the NFL level. I am sure he will need some time to find his comfort zone. I am sure just like any new position there is a learning curve. He is an unknown commodity at this point. Is the defense performing poorly thus far? Yes. Do I dislike the defensive scheme the Rams are running? No, I hate it. Do I think this is all Walton's fault? I honestly don't know. I do know one thing though, this defense better improve the way it's playing soon or this season will be a lost cause.
John Fassel is failing. Special Teams play is all about desire and coaching. The coaching is failing this unit.
The position coaches. Are the position coaches doing their job in "coaching up" the players under their tutelage? Is Ray Sherman to blame for Brian Quick's slow development as some have suggested? Or is it the player? How about RB coach Ben Sirmans? Is he to blame for Pead's lack of development or did Snead just screw up in picking him? Or is it maybe that these guys just need more time? We've heard Fisher and Co. talk about poor technique leading to problems on the defensive side of the ball while maintaining that the overall scheme is sound. Maybe the youngest team in the NFL needs a bit more time to grow up both as individuals and as a team?
Jeff Fisher has taken some heat. Everything flows from the top. He's being paid in excess of $7 million per year to turn this team around. This team and coaching staff is his baby. He put the coaching staff together, so I imagine they are in-line with his offensive and defensive philosophies. Is he too stubborn to adapt to the "new" NFL as some on this site have suggested? Is he a better fit for a veteran team rather than a young team? As the top man I blame him for coaches who don't perform, and for the undisciplined play of the team as a whole. Also, why did the Rams come out so flat against Dallas? Big game, big stage... and they came out flat and got steamrolled. How does that happen? Youth and inexperience? Lack of confidence in themselves? Lack of confidence in the scheme? Lack of overall talent? We'll learn a lot more about Jeff Fisher, his coaching staff, and the players Thursday night.
Speaking of the players, how much of this falls on them? For the most part they haven't received too much criticism (other than Sam of course), but they are the ones who play the actual game. They are the ones dropping passes, missing blocks, throwing INTs, getting gashed by opposing offenses, and continuously committing penalties. Take Jared Cook for example. He's 6'5" and 254 lbs. Shouldn't he be able to beat press coverage off the line of scrimmage with his combination of size and speed at least some of the time? Coaches need to design plays that put the players in a position to succeed, and good coaches know how to do that to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of their players and Schotty has failed to do that thus far, especially with Cook, but it is football after all, so where's the physicality in his game? How about the #8 overall pick, whom Schotty has also failed, not lead the team in dropped passes? How about the "franchise" LT actually block somebody and not have to get pulled from the game? Hard to call or execute any plays that take time to develop (i.e. deep passes) if your "best" O-lineman is barely a speed bump for the opposing DE. How about the interior of the O-line get some push up front for the run game? How about the team actually come out fired-up and ready to play when the game starts? How about Cortland Finnegan start playing respectably? In fact, how about JL, CL, and KL do the same. Hard to be a good defense if the veteran leaders of the defense aren't performing.
So, Is it the coaching not being able to get the most out of the players? Is it that the schemes employed don't maximize the players strengths and put them in a position to succeed? There are a lot of veterans playing poorly on this team right now, so are those players just not good enough? This is a young team, do they just need more time? Wow, a lot of tough questions being asked of a young, up and coming team only 3 games into the season. Such is life in the NFL.
After all this blather, I return to the initial question, followed by a bit more blather... Is it time to panic after a 1-2 start by the youngest team in the NFL? They are, after all, coming off an unexpected beatdown in which the team came out flat and was soundly beaten in every phase of the game in what I feel was the most disappointing performance in Jeff Fisher's 19 game run as HC. The defense has been bad from the start and has only gotten worse. The offense has been unable to run the ball, whether by choice, inability, or being so far behind they had to abandon it. The OC seems incapable of any creative playcalling, or of scheming to get his playmakers the ball in a position to succeed. The team has been undisciplined and penalty-prone. And one more thing... the defending NFC Champions are coming to town desperate for a win.