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If and buts...

I don't know if anyone saw this last week or not, but I stumbled across it last night and have been obsessing over it every since. It's an overview/prediction for the 2008 season from What If Sports. More than just pithy comments about draft picks and free agents, they map out the entire season, from week one to the Super Bowl.

I really dig it; although, I completely disagree with their 5-11, last place prediction for the Rams. Come on, are we really goning to be worse than the 49ers? No way. They do make a good point about that brutal schedule through the first half of the season. According to their predictions, the first 7 games feature five playoff teams, both Super Bowl teams (Dallas and New England in this sim) and all with a better than .500 record.

Let's delve into a couple of their findings.

The prediction glosses over the impact of last year's injury outbreak and the return of those players to full health, not to mention the addition of Jacob Bell on the o-line. That takes something away from it. Even with the injuries last season, the Rams still managed a few close games, notably a 16-17 home loss to the 49ers in week 2, a 31-34 home loss to the Cardinals in week 5, and a 19-24 home loss to the Seahawks in week 12. With healthier starters and key additions to both the defense and offense, I think their predictions of home losses to all of those teams are a bit dire.

That said, the first half of the schedule is brutal to say the least. Since when did scheduling mandate that last season's cellar dwellers had to play the playoff teams?

I also have a qualm with their identification of turnovers as the most exploitable weakness. The Rams were the worst in the NFC for turnovers, giving opponents 37. But take a look behind those numbers. Marc Bulger fumbled the ball 6 times, losing 5, and threw 15 INTs, his worst season for turnovers since 2003. I hate to trot the injury excuse everytime I hear criticism about the Rams, but I think it's waranted in this case.

With a healthy o-line in front of him, Marc Bulger would have turned the ball over 20 times. No way. That's not to say he would never have turned it over, but 20 times? Gus Frerotte had 12 INTs and one fumble lost; Gus Frerotte probably wouldn't have played without the injuries on the o-line that left Marc Bulger vulnerable to 37 sacks, a concussion and all the other bruises and bumps keeping him off his game. (it's not unreasonable to be concerned about Bulger's recovery from last season.)

The prediction makers did have some nice things to say about the Rams, though. They project Chris Long to accumulate 34 tackles and 7 sacks. But they saved their bulk of their gushing for Steven Jackson:

Steven Jackson - Dude is a monster (in all the best ways possible). When offensive coordinator Al Saunders says that Jackson has not yet even touched his potential, our jaws drop. But, we believe him. Saunders has helped to maximize the productivity of guys including Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis. Steven Jackson is not just in the same conversation as those guys; he could end up being better. In the first year of the new system, we give him 1,823 total yards and 15 touchdowns.

Like any good prediction maker, they left themselves some wiggle room, and they'll need it. I don't think there's a playoff team here, but I don't think it's crazy or homerism or crazy homerism that the Rams can get to 7 wins.

Finally, here's another "what if" for the comments section. What if the Rams do only win 5 games? Does Scott Linehan keep his job? Does Steven Jackson become trade bait? Does the team start making plans to beat feet to LA?