Bear with me, as this one is going to take a bit.
I just got back from a trip to London to see the greatest soccer club on Earth, Arsenal. For those of you who don't follow soccer (which I'll assume is everyone), Arsenal is a British team from the north side of London that combines everything I love about sports: diversity (they have the highest percentage of "non-white attending supporters" of any English club), loyalty to the spirit of the game, and an ability to play the game in ways that leave you in awe. These are the three reasons I was drawn to the Rams when they were in Los Angeles, though often what left me in awe was how horrible they were.
On Saturday, I made my way to the Emirates Stadium, which I can say is one of the most beautiful temples to sport I have ever seen. You can hear the chants of supporters as soon as you exit the tube (read: subway). I walked a good mile and a half with hundreds of other fans in the classic red jerseys. The excitement as I made my way towards the stadium was palpable. Soccer has a notoriously rabid fan base, and I absolutely revelled in it.
Arsenal's opponent this weekend was against newly promoted Hull City. Every year, the bottom three teams in the Premiership, essentially the major leagues of British soccer, are "relegated" to the Championship, the AAA equivalent. Conversely, the top three teams from the Championship make it to the Premiership at the end of each season. Hull, who placed third last season in the Championship, hails from a decent-sized town from northeast England and was seriously overmatched in talent. Arsenal has some of the best young soccer players from around the world, almost all of whom are featured in their national teams, so the expectations were incredibly high, especially since they had won 6-0 midweek.
What I witnessed was a spectacle that confirmed a certainty that all sports fans recognize: effort and determination outweigh anything else on a good day. With all the talent Arsenal trotted out in front of 60,000+ fans, Hull clawed back from a 1-0 deficit to shock the soccer world by winning 2-1. For 45 minutes after the game ended, the 5,000 or so Hull supporters in the corner celebrated what has to be the greatest game in their team's history. They had come to London in one of the true temples of the game, and slayed Goliath leaving nearly everyone in attendance stunned.
With all the drama in this first month of the season, Saturday reminded me of some of the core principles of my love for sports. Wins and losses are unavoidable. Your team will never be perfect, and anything can be fixed. What remains after every game, is the loyalty of the fan base. Casual fans come and go for all kinds of reasons, but the true fans stay. True fans suffer through the losses, they agonize over injuries, they deal with the often robotic dealings of the business side of sport out of the hope that one day they will be the champions and the heroes they watch will hold the trophy.
Linehan has left, and we're all in accord that this is a good thing, but simply firing the head coach does nothing to address the fundamental issues the Rams have. Under GM Jay Zygmunt's tenure, the Rams have been unable to make the most out of the NFL Draft, a necessary exercise for any successful football team. We haven't made the huge free agent signing that invigorates a football team and often carries them to the next level of success (see TO or Randy Moss), both as a business and in the win column. For all his mathematical wizardy when it comes to the finances of the NFL, Zygmunt has proven himself to be a horrible evalutor of talent, and a caustic personality to have in the front office to boot. The Rams' lack of talent is a gaping chest wound on the franchise; firing Coach Linehan applied a band-aid when we need surgery.
You can win a game every now and then without talent. Hull proved that on Saturday. But one game does not a season make. At the end of the season, Arsenal will finish high in the standings and Hull near the bottom. If the Rams are willing to remain at the bottom of the NFL, surprisingly winning a game once a month, we can keep the management we have. I'll still support the team, the spirit of the franchise, and what that means to me, but I don't want the Rams to be a Hull.
I don't want to go into every season predicting 2 or 3 wins. I don't want those wins to be upsets. I don't want to lower my expectations for this to be a marginal franchise. I want the Rams to be an Arsenal. I want them to have players that every now and then amaze you at their physical prowess. I want the team to stand for what's good about the game and decry what's reprehensible. I want them to be envied, and I want them to be mimicked. I realize we are far, far away from that reality, but I'm willing to wait. My loyalty is unwavering, my approval isn't.
Arsenal will bounce back, and, at some point this season, show the kind of heart Hull showed on Saturday. That's a testament to how well the team is run. Am I confident that the Rams will be able to summon that same passion? Is a new coach, Haslett or his successor, going to be able to evoke the kind of determination needed to be successful in this league? With the same mentality running the personnel decisions that provide the coach with the players he governs, are the Rams going to be able to compete even against mediocre teams? Nothing has shown us this is the case.
This team is at the bottom of a trench, and a new coach isn't going to get us out of it. It's going to take a manager who can provide our head coach with the talent to win.
As I left the Emirates, I passed by a row of pictures of the Arsenal board of directors, since the team doesn't have the same ownership system the Rams have. One of those pictures was of Stan Kroenke, minority owner of the St. Louis Rams. The Rams world is a small one, but it's one I care about and that's not going to change anytime soon. If the front office stays through this season, the Rams' misfortunes won't either.