The Los Angeles Rams, then in St. Louis, weren’t always this good.
The team’s newfound success under Head Coach Sean McVay can make it easy to forget the franchise’s struggles in the not so distant past. Struggles that existed before the Jeff Fisher era or before the team moved back to Los Angeles from St. Louis.
Struggles that tested the allegiance of the fanbase.
Before McVay, Rams fans wore their colors with pride and an ever-present sense of disappointment. Forget a Super Bowl. Just win more than seven games. Win more than five games. Hell, win more than one game.
For the better part of a decade, not even a playoff appearance seemed within the franchise’s grasp. From 2002 to 2016, the Rams had a 87-149 record, two playoff appearance (2003, 2004) and three seasons without a losing record (2003, 2004, 2006)
The lowest point of the franchise was in 2009, the franchise’s worst season since 1962. It was a season led by a new head coach, a young roster and no sense of direction.
A new coach
Before Jeff Fisher, there was Steve Spagnuolo, the New York Giants defense coordinator. At the time, he was the up-and-coming coach credited with stopping Tom Brady in Super Bowl 42 with his swarming defensive front.
Like McVay, Spagnuolo was hired without prior head coaching experience. McVay brought an offensive mind. Spagnuolo brought the Four Pillars: Faith, Character, Core Values and Team-First Mentality.
“It’s going to be a slow, gradual process,” Spagnuolo said to the NFL Network prior to the 2009 season. “And we’ll take it step-for-step and hopefully when we line up in the first game in the fall, something good will come of it.”
One win. Fifteen losses. From 1999-2001, the Rams were the Greatest Show on Turf. But in 2009, the Rams were the worst on the turf — dead-last in the league in scoring offense. They scored 16 total touchdowns that year.
A decade prior, in 1999, the Rams won the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner. In 2009, Warner was making his second-consecutive Super Bowl run with the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams were just trying to keep their heads above water.
After starting the 2009 season 0-7, the Rams earned their only win against the Detroit Lions. On the road, of course. Then the Rams resumed their winless streak, going 0-8 to close out year.
Spagnuolo was eventually fired after the 2011 season. He went 10-38 in three seasons.
Competing until the end
Keith Null threw three touchdowns in four starts in 2009. Starting quarterback Marc Bulger went 1-7 before getting injured and eventually being placed on injured reserve. The Rams split time with Null and back-up quarterback Kyle Boller.
Null was a sixth-round draft pick out of West Texas A&M, a Division II program. A decade later, Null admitted that he wasn’t ready to be the starter that season.
“I wasn’t ready to be out there playing,” he said on Monday.
Still, the team rallied around him.
“I felt there were guys rallying around me, supporting me the best that they could, knowing I wasn’t in the best situation at the time,” Null said.
But instead of a Super Bowl, the Rams went 0-8 between Null and Boller. Null described the environment around Rams Park and the locker room as a good atmosphere, despite how the season was unfolding. Guys still wanted to compete.
“I feel like we had guys there that wanted to compete,” Null said. “I think when you get to that level there are true competitors. So no matter what the future holds — playoffs or not — guys are going to go out and compete.”
Finding an identity
Brandon Gibson was a rookie wide receiver during that 2009 season. But he didn’t originally start that season with the Rams. Instead, he was in Philadelphia with the Eagles who were building what they thought would be a Super Bowl roster.
“At the time, I think Philly was one of the more talented rosters in the league,” Gibson said.
The Eagles had Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Asante Samuel, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, to name a few. The Rams had Steven Jackson, the only Pro Bowl player on the roster in 2009. The Eagles finished 11-5 that season and were eliminated from the postseason by the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round.
Gibson, who was the seventh receiver on one of the best corps in the league, was traded to the Rams at the midpoint of the season.
“All I knew was I was going into a situation where I was going to play, the team wasn’t very good and it was a new head coach,” he said.
“Wasn’t very good” would be an understatement. While Rams fans now enjoy the high-scoring offense of Sean Mcvay, there was a point where the team couldn’t average 11 points a-game. Despite having Jackson in the backfield, the Rams’ offense only scored four rushing touchdowns.
The West Coast system was new for the young offense. Gibson said the Rams were still trying to figure out the offensive roles.
“That kind of stuff takes time,” he said. “You have to figure out who is going to be your guy. Who’s going to be your guy on first down? Who is going to be your guy on second down?
“This team was so brand new I don’t think anybody knew that.”
Then and now
Null, who is now an associate pastor at the Pathpoint Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Tex., didn’t watch football after his first and only full season in the NFL. He didn’t start watching the game until a few years ago.
“It was hard to watch (football) for a while after I got done playing,” he said “You sort of go … through this phase of wishing you could still play, thinking you can still play, wanting to still play. So, when you watch it, it almost brings up all those emotions.”
Now, the game brings up good memories for Null.
“I really enjoy it,” he said.
He didn’t get to watch much of the Los Angeles Rams this season, but he did see the divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Null gave his opinion on the Rams current starting quarterback, Jared Goff.
“I think he’s more athletic than people give him credit for,” he said.
Gibson, who is now an assistant coach at Central Washington University, said he enjoys watching the Rams offense.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “They have a really versatile running back, they’ve got great wide receivers. That Robert Woods is just as good as any No. 2 — kind of bordering on No. 1 (receiver). He can do just about everything.
“Goff’s been tremendously better under McVay rather than Fisher. Obviously, you got to give the nod to McVay for being the offensive-minded coach.”
McVay can be credited for more than the growth of Goff and the offense as a whole. He’s changed the culture of the franchise and is transforming the team into a perennial contender.
“The team has grown from (2009) to now,” Gibson said. “Big time, as everyone can see ... It’s a brand-new, stinkin’ team. It’s fun to watch but the team’s different from when I was there.”