Three Things That Will Sting For a While
1. The Inability To Get To .500
The Rams - yet again - found themselves in Seattle in the final week of the regular season, and the results were typical. Seattle claimed the NFC crown with the victory yesterday in the loudest stadium in all of sports. It marked the second loss to the Seahawks on the year. The Rams have won only one game in Seattle  since the Seahawks moved into the NFC West .
Let’s face it, though. The inability to get to 8-8 cannot solely be placed on this game. The Rams were consistently inconsistent, despite big wins against some very good teams: Colts, Bears, Cardinals, and Saints. Others slipped away with the game in their grasp.
2. Zac Stacy Not Rushing For 1,000 Yards
It wasn’t until Week 5 that Zac Stacy took any meaningful snaps for the Rams. It was at that point it was evident that he was the team’s starter. Stacy - late in the season - was finding himself in Offensive Rookie of the Year discussions. He gashed the Seahawks in their first meeting of the season [Week 8] when he rushed for a season-high 134-yards. Coming off of back-to-back 100-yard performances against the Saints and Buccaneers, he needed only 42 yards to give the Rams a 9th consecutive season with a 1,000 yard rusher. A dinged up Rams’ offensive line was unable to get the ground game going against the Seahawks on Sunday afternoon, and Stacy finished the game with 15 yards on 15 carries [973 total rush yards].
3. Just Missing Out On The Deacon Jones Award
There’s probably no more disappointing statistical short-coming than that of Robert Quinn, who just missed receiving the first ever Deacon Jones Award [most sacks] by 0.5 sacks. Following a stat adjustment from the Colts vs. Chiefs game, Robert Mathis entered Week 17 only 0.5 sack behind Quinn. Mathis - this year’s award winner - tallied two sacks against Jacksonville yesterday, solidifying the honor. It’s a tough pill to swallow considering the tremendous year Quinn put together, and it would’ve been fitting for the Rams to have won an award named after one of it’s own legendary players. Congrats to Robert Mathis, nonetheless. It is indeed a great honor.
Three Things To Smile About
1. This Team Never Gave Up
Despite double-digit wins by all three of the Rams’ divisional foes [and potentially two Super Bowl contenders], the Rams are still the youngest team in football. At times it showed. During others, they amazed. Being a young team requires rapport-building, timing, and comfortability with one another. It doesn’t happen overnight, and the Rams are clearly headed in the right direction.
Sam Bradford going down was a huge blow for the team, and the psyche of the fan-base. Losing their starting quarterback to a season-ending knee injury at the end of the Week 7 matchup [vs. Carolina] jump-started many a conversation about the upcoming NFL Draft. Meanwhile, the offense rallied. The Kellen Clemens-lead offense [with a lot of help from the running game] won four of the team’s last nine games, including the aforementioned [more so unexpected] wins against Indianapolis, Chicago, and New Orleans.
The defense played it’s part too; especially the defensive front. Aside from Quinn’s elite pass-rush abilities, the Rams remained in [and won] many games as a result of stout front seven. The defense finished the season 9th in the NFL at 102.9 rush yards allowed per game. They tied for 2nd [w/ Cardinals] for rush yards per carry [3.7]. While penalty flags piled up on CenturyLink Field on Sunday, the Rams’ defense made it clear that they hadn’t given up on the game…or the season.
2. Young Players Stepped Up
It makes sense, right? The Rams are the youngest team in the NFL, so they almost require young players to step up.
The most pleasant of surprises - offensively - was rookie RB Zac Stacy. Though Stacy just missed the 1,000-yard mark in his rookie campaign, he proved that he can be a viable between-the-tackles runner…something the Rams have been unable to replicate since the exodus of Steven Jackson. He finished the year with 1,114 total yards [rush and rec.] and 8 touchdowns.
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, rookie wideouts from WVU - Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey - both showed their value to this team, and in different ways. Austin was asked to make an immediate impact in the Rams’ offense. Unfortunately, the play-calling in the early portion of the season didn’t facilitate the big plays the team [and fans] would’ve liked to have seen. Austin did turn it on late in the season though. His ability to change the game was probably never more evident than in Week 10 against the Colts. Austin finished the year with 1,247 all-purpose yards and 6 scores. He did not play in the team’s final three games [ankle]. Bailey was another pleasant surprise from the 2013 draft. Bailey had a quiet - borderline non-existent - first half of the year. Prior to the team’s bye [Week 11], Bailey had only made catch [12 yds]. Proving to a be a reliable set of hands for Kellen Clemens, Bailey caught 16 more balls in the final six weeks of the season [214 yards], and a 27-yard scamper for a score.
Defensively, Alec Ogletree was as advertised. Since joining the team in 2009, no player other than MLB James Laurinaitis has lead the team in tackles. That is until this year. Ogletree’s ability to play sideline-to-sideline lead to a team-high 117 tackles on the season. He also tallied 1.5 sacks…and a 98-yard pick-six. You remember it, right?
Ogletree got it done at the age of 22. And though he’s not a rookie, I find it poignant to note that Robert Quinn is only 23.
3. The Rams Are Sending Two Players To The Pro Bowl
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Congratulations to <a href="https://twitter.com/JHekker">@JHekker</a> and the <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Rams&src=hash">#Rams</a> punt team on the best single-season net punt average in <a href="https://twitter.com/nfl">@NFL</a> history. <a href="http://t.co/JpkkMwBKhw">pic.twitter.com/JpkkMwBKhw</a></p>— St. Louis Rams (@STLouisRams) <a href="https://twitter.com/STLouisRams/statuses/417475226771804160">December 30, 2013</a></blockquote>
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Both Robert Quinn and Johnny Hekker will be making the trip to Hawaii, and it’s much deserved for both. Hekker was dominant in the punt game this season, leading the NFL in return yards allowed , return avg. [2.6 yds], and setting an NFL record for Net Punt Average [44.2]. Quinn was a no-brainer. The best 4-3 defensive end in football becomes the Rams’ first defensive player to earn Pro Bowl honors since 2003; when the team sent Aeneas Williams and Leonard Little. The team’s last offensive player to get the invite was Steven Jackson .
Three Things To Look Forward To
1. Free Agency
There’s probably no bigger name to monitor than Rodger Saffold. The 2013 season, to include the offseason, was a bit of a roller-coaster for Rodger. There was speculation before the season even began that Saffold was upset by the team’s move to acquire Jake Long; a move that pushed Rodger to right tackle. Whether it be for the impending free agency offeres, or just a hit to his self-esteem, the move has had fans wondering if he’d be back in a Rams’ uniform in 2014. Interestingly enough, Saffold was moved to guard following a Harvey Dahl injury, and his versatility allowed him to excel. Saffold was moved back to left tackle [Week 17] after the season-ending Jake Long injury, and it was evident that he - nor his agent - should be spending much time/effort in seeking left tackle compensation. Saffold’s not the only offensive lineman the Rams will have to re-sign or replace, though. For a full list of the 2014 Rams’ free agents.
2. The Recovery of Jake Long and Sam Bradford
Nobody likes seeing players get injured. And if there were two players on the Rams’ offense that you’d never want to see go down, it’d be the quarterback and left tackle. Unfortunately, both found themselves on the injured reserve list at season’s end. Bradford, who was having a career year, went down [torn ACL] near the conclusion of the Week 7 matchup against the Panthers. He had his left knee operated on by Dr. James Andrews in early November, and is already in "take it day by day" mode. Long - who suffered tears to his ACL and MCL - may not even be ready at the start of the 2014 season. He, too, was having a great year at tackle, and finally provided the Rams with the elite blindside security they’d been missing for years. Fresh off signing a 4-year, $34mil contract, one might wonder what the Rams intend on doing with their veteran left tackle. Nick Wagoner [ESPN] provides some great insight.
3. The 2014 NFL Draft
Nothing would have made Rams' fans happier in Week 17 than a Redskins loss, and a Houston Texans win. Ok, maybe a win against the Seahawks. They got part of their wish. And though the Rams aren’t holding the first overall pick in next April’s draft, they obtained second overall selection…which they traded away for RG3 in 2012. They’ve since turned that pick in seven players [Brockers, Jenkins, Pead, Watkins, Olgetree, Bailey, and Stacy], and with plenty of leverage to make more picks out of their 2nd and 13th overall.
We can debate "Who won the RG3 trade?" all day, but four of those seven players are starters, one showed promise at season’s end, and one [at least] will be had via the second player selected next year. Debate over.
Three Things That Make You Wonder
1. The Status of the Offensive and Defensive Coordinators
A lot of the team’s shortcomings this season are a direct reflection of coaching and leadership. While young players are going to get a pass due to inexperience, the Rams’ coordinators are not. Brian Schottenheimer has been a name in the mix for a Head Coaching job prior to even settling in at his desk at Rams Park. His play-calling and utilization of players [namely Tavon Austin] were brought into question early and often in 2013, though, leaving many fans yearning for an offensive coordinator who can properly utilize the speed and elusiveness that the Rams’ offense has at it’s disposal. It wasn’t until the team began relying on Zac Stacy that any form of balance was established on offense.
Tim Walton was a disappointment in his first year as defensive coordinator. The Rams were able to finish 7-8-1 in 2012 with a coaching-by-committee approach on defense. Walton was brought in to solidify a defensive corps ready to make a perennial push as a Top 10 unit. The front seven played admirably in 2013, but the secondary - Walton’s forte - suffered. Soft coverage allowed offenses to chew up chunks of yardage in maddening fashion. And even when adjustments were made, personnel in the secondary weren’t adequate. Outside of rookie safety T.J. McDonald, the Rams entered the season with two undrafted [and unproven] free agents - Rodney McLeod and Darian Stewart - and journeyman Matt Giordano. Cortland Finnegan, who was put on IR in November, had a down year. He was allowing opposing QB’s to complete 76% of their passes thrown in his direction, and a 136 passer rating when targeting him.
There’s been no progression in the Rams’ secondary in Walton’s first year as DC. You’ve got to wonder if he’ll get a second shot at it...
2. Pay For Performance?
Face it. When a player doesn't live up to expectations, it often times has to do with the checks that are being cut. It’s human nature, I suppose. And whether wrong or right, the thought process exists. Rookie players come cheap, and [monetary] mistakes in free agency can hamper a team’s ability to put together sound offensive and defensive units. There are a few players from the Tennessee Titans that many fans probably chalk up as busts. But is it feasible for them to be cut? It’s not that easy. Who stays? Who goes? Who restructures? Here are the Top 10 cap hits for the Rams in the 2014 season [via Spotrac].
3. What’s Next?
To say another losing season wouldn’t be disappointing would be a lie. A lot of things just didn’t go their way this year, and many of them are listed above. The future is bright, though. The Rams are still very young - and with continuity - can be a force in the NFL in the next few years. There is a lot of work to be done, though, regarding both players and coaches. Continuity, however, won’t be realized if the Rams are already searching for new coordinators. Set backs aren’t optional in a division that boasts three double-digit game winners.
The free agency period and draft are going to be another exciting time for the Rams. With a lot of very good pieces in place, the Rams need to focus their attention on game-changers at positions of dire need. There are a lot of questions surrounding the offensive line and secondary [amongst others] that need to be addressed. Kevin Demoff and Tony Pastoors are going to be very busy [re]evaluating player’s contracts between now and February, when the 2014 free agency period begins.
Jeff Fisher will be the Rams’ head coach in 2014, but who will remain from his staff? Sam Bradford and Jake Long will be returning from serious injuries, but what effect will if have on their games? Is Zac Stacy the answer at running back? What is it going to take to put together a formidable secondary that will complete a dominant defensive unit? Who will Rodger Saffold be playing for next season? How will Les Snead utilize two first round picks?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I’m assuming few do. The good news, though, is that there’s plenty to look forward to as a Rams’ fan. The future is bright. Thanks for a great season. Onward and upward!