I glanced at the fan confidence poll the other day (that zig zag line on your left) and notice that despite the lockout, the offseason and a draft that still has some scratching their heads, fans are feeling pretty good about the St. Louis Rams right now. And how could you not? They have a talented young QB united with an offensive coordinator known for getting production out of his teams. On the other side of the ball, a strong pass rush added a premier defensive end in the first round of the draft. A group of tireless, humble, dedicated group of football minds lead the team both on the field and in the front office. Springtime for the Rams!
So why do I want to go and bring up a thing like regression to the mean? Because it's something on people's minds when they look back at a team that overachieved slightly by going 7-9 last year and faces a much tougher schedule this year. Today's regression to the mean meanness from via Cold, Hard Football Facts. This article looks at how teams fared after a six-win jump in the previous season. Of the 30 teams since 2002 that fit into that category, only six followed up those surprising winning seasons with the same record or a slight increase.
Will the 2011 suffer the most common fate of those fortunate teams or will they improve upon their surprising 2010 run?
It's the schedule, stupid
This is the single biggest factor that has pundits thinking the Rams are unlikely to be as success this year. And why not? Games against the NFC East and the AFC North offer some tough competition. One thing to remember is that June's impossible game could become a gimme in October depending on injuries or other factors that can change the makeup of a team overnight. One of those "superior" opponents is bound to fall on some bad luck this season, but let's leave that out of the equation for now.
The key to the Rams schedule is the NFC West. Last year, games against division opponents were a mixed bag. St. Louis split each series with their division counterparts, most memorably in the final week of the season. Spagnuolo's team will have to do better against the division this year, if not sweep it outright.
Among the non-division games, three games - against Washington, Cleveland and Cincinnati - look winnable from this vantage point.
Now, Philly, New York, Baltimore, Green Bay and Dallas - that's just the first half of the season - are much tougher games. A legitimate Rams team has to compete and win at least a couple of those games. If not, it will be hard to categorize the Rams as a truly competitive team this year.
This is easily the biggest area for improvement. Compared to the hapless bunch from 2009, the Rams offense last year looked truly prolific, scoring a full touchdown more per game. Don't be fooled; their 18.1 points per game was ranked 26th in the league, tied with the Arizona Cardinals. You and I both know that the Rams offense struggled last year, scoring 20 or more points just six times, winning all but one of those games. They scored more than 21 just three times.
I struggle to think that the Rams offense will be worse in 2011, outside of a key injury or two. However, this is where you have to take a certain leap of faith that Sam Bradford and his receivers and tight ends can glean enough of Josh McDaniels' playbook without the usual spring workouts. I'm pretty confident Bradford can, and it sounds as though he already has a solid command of it on a theoretical level.
Regression to the mean looks like it could hit this group hardest of all, given that last year's results smack of out performing expectations. Taking nothing away from the results, some illusion is tied up in the numbers from last year.
Against playoff-bound opponents last year, the Rams defense allowed an average of 22.2 points per game. Take out two games against the Seahawks, and it's almost 31 points allowed per game. As far as the pass rushing productivity goes, the Rams had a total of 4 sacks against the Falcons, Chiefs and the Saints, with three of those sacks coming against the Chiefs.
My point is that when the Rams played the superior opponents, the defense did not exceed expectations. It's an area for improvement, and they'll certainly be tested early and often this year. I think with another year of experience and the addition of some talent, this unit should improve this year.
One red flag with the defense is their susceptibility to injury at key positions, Fred Robbins for example. Yes, that's true of a few players on the team, but Robbins is a 34-year-old defensive tackle.
I think the most likely outcome for the Rams is improvement, but improvement that may be camouflaged by a .500 record.