Since the season ended, I've seen plenty of optimism regarding this year's draft and next season. While that's all good and well, that creeping fear so familiar to Rams fans has started to well up in me. So what would things look like if the Rams tanked again, a la 2011? If things just went entirely wrong?
Aircraft engineers spend a lot of time thinking about all the different ways things can go wrong - this is called "failure mode analysis". So let's look at some of the Rams' failure modes for 2014, starting with the defense.
1. Tim Walton. As OCR pointed out, there are serious questions about his ability to coach the defense out of its current mediocrity. The soft-zone coverage was a sloppy way of coaching around our secondary's weaknesses, but in fairness, a lot of it had to do with Jeff Fisher's defensive style. For the short-attention-span crowd, it's easy to forget that the Rams had the same issues with the soft-zone in 2012 - which means it can't all be blamed on Walton.
Jeff Fisher's also publicly stated his dedication to a single-high-safety system. I've written about its strengths and drawbacks at length before, but basically, it's a gamble for negative yardage that necessitates defending deep against big plays.
So where could things go wrong? Well, the stage is pretty much already set. Unless we load up on top secondary talent in the first few rounds (FA is unlikely given the current cap crunch), we'll have most of the same crew back, with the same weaknesses as before. Walton's already hamstrung by Fisher's defensive philosophy, and that's going nowhere. You really think he'll be able to improve on last year's performance? The only thing he's really got on his side is youth - at least he's not coaching a bunch of old men.
2. The Secondary. Speaking of those guys, we've already got Finnegan on IR, with one foot out the door in FA. That leaves Tru, JJ, TJ, and McCleod stuck as our starters. It's already starting to look a lot like 2011 - just one CB goes down, and there goes the neighborhood. We've seen Rams CB carousels before, but the lack of depth here is just scary.
The safeties are slightly less of a concern - TJ and McCleod were barely producing above JAG (Just Another Guy) level to begin with. But that's like being proud that none of your friends broke any of your nice shit at last weekend's rager when you didn't have any nice shit to begin with.
3. Depth. Dunbar's another FA who probably won't be back this year, so we've got to address the linebacker spot yet again. Alec Ogletree, after a Janoris-Jenkins-like rookie year, could also have a Janoris-Jenkins-like undisciplined sophomore slump. But even worse, here's a nightmare scenario for you: What if Robert Quinn goes down?
That happens, and we're back to Chris Long being our premier defensive end - not that he's anything to laugh at, but there's not much after him. Will Hayes on the other end will be a good fill-in, and does a great job on 3rd-down plays. But he's not a starter. More importantly, losing Robert Quinn not only takes away a huge chunk of our pass rush, but devastates our defense's big-play production. He played a major role in easily half of our defensive touchdowns last year, and a good number of key defensive stops. Without him, I see it being much easier for other teams to mount decisive comebacks even when we do manage to claw our way to an early lead.
4. Sam Bradford. Love him or hate him, this is a big season for the Rams quarterback position. A lot can go wrong here.
Start with the most obvious thing - his knee. Is Sam going to be hobbled like he was in late 2011 and early 2012? When he's not injured, he's proven that he can use his legs pretty well for a pocket passer. That doesn't change a horrible lot of our offense, but he's kept us in a lot of games by keeping drives alive on scrambles.
We could also see a big dropoff in his deep-pass production. It was already lagging when he got injured last year, but the ACL will uniquely affect his ability to plant and heave a long one. A little wince of pain at the right moment will mean the difference between a game-breaking touchdown and a drive-killing drop, or worse, a pick-six.
So, we end up with a slow QB who's already shown tendencies to lock down on receivers, panic and check down, is unable to recognize blitzes, and can't throw a deep ball to save his life. Great.
5. Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin. Before Stacy came onto the scene, Daryl Richardson was the hot hand. Could we see the same kind of fade into nothingness? Stacy looks like an amazing, Ray-Rice type RB, with tenacity, speed, agility, decisiveness, and power. That bad ankle could turn him into another Isaiah Pead, or at minimum, the later Steven Jackson (with regard to his hamstring issues).
As for Austin, his ankle is not a good development either. The best thing I can say is that these two at least look like the least glaring liabilities on this team going forward; the problem is that the battle is all uphill from here for them. Defenses are only going to get smarter and tougher on them the longer they stay in this league.
Even worse, if Les Snead goes along with his plan of "not drafting anyone", we're stuck in the same spot as last year - struggling with a group of receivers who can't get it together enough to start complementing each other's strengths. Brian Quick's magical 3rd year burst never materializes, Pettis continues to be astoundingly average, Givens drops everything, leaving Bailey and Austin overworked and underpaid, two talented stars barely able to keep the offense moving because of the immense slack they're picking up.
6. Schottenheimer. The big difference between Shotty and Walton is that while Walton is held back by his players' skill and head coach's idiosyncrasies, the opposite could be said of Shotty. That's not to say he hasn't had some cool things go obscenely right for him - Tavon Austin's fake-reverse TD, Stedman Bailey's double-reverse TD, and one of Stacy's later goal-line TD's where the much-hated pre-snap FB motion drew the safety away from a weak-side run off-tackle. But he's no Mad Mike.
The way I see this going south is, fittingly, the same thing that happened with our defense last year - we repeated history. If we pick up a #1-type WR in the first few rounds of the draft, it'll be right back to the GSOT spread-offense fantasies for much of the fan base, and Fisher and Shotty thinking, "Hey, we got the right guy, so we're doing it right this time. Maybe it'll work!". Wrong. We end up with another losing four-game start (okay, let's be generous to Fisher's ability to learn from experience, and say he puts a stop to it after 3), and a return back to the ground-and-pound offense. Maybe next year, right?
7. Draft Busts. Snead makes a major miscalculation this time around. No one bites on the trade, because he runs out of leverage after the Browns declared that their pick was up for grabs too, and everyone knows that we won't take an OT, QB, LB, or WR so high. He's forced to take Clowney, who quickly turns into a diva of TO-like proportions. Evans, Watkins, Barr, Matthews, and Dix are snapped up after that, so he's left picking from the pile of "also in contention for the top __ picked in the draft".
Moreover, in spite all the prognostication of it being a deep draft with all the underclassman talent available, the entire year turns out to be a bust throughout the league. The underclassmen turn out to have been too young, too raw to compete in the NFL.
8. Free Agency. This one's easy. The Rams sell the farm to keep Saffold, but without Dahl and Wells, who were let away to free up cap space, the OL takes a step back. In a Matheny-esque display of loyalty, they prefer to stick with the rest of our "proven veterans", which means we ride out another year of poor production from a recovering Finnegan, aging and PED-free Dunbar, and weak replacement-level FA's on our OL like Smith and Williams.
I know, it's all pretty depressing. Like I said, these are worst-case scenarios. Some of them are even kind of contradictory, I'll admit, but each one of them could happen. Amid all the beer and cheer, there's plenty of doom and gloom to find in this Rams offseason. Let's hope none of this actually happens!