The first week of the season brings a lot of excitement and hope for all 32 teams in the NFL, even Buffalo. Well, maybe not them, but for the other 31 teams, SUPER BOWL BABY!!
The Rams and her fans are no different than us, in many ways. They have a young team (the youngest in the NFL), they've drafted wisely in the last couple seasons, and the have a head coach in Jeff Fisher who commands a lot of respect in the locker room. The team suffered a major blow last week when starting QB Sam Bradford was lost for the season with a torn ACL, but is there enough to still make a run in the always tough NFC West?
We asked 3K over at Turf Show Times about that, and some other things. We hope you enjoy. If you're interested, I answered some questions for them over at TST. You can find that right here, if you're so inclined.
Sam Bradford, ouch. The star crossed quarterback has had a rough start in St. Louis, and his recent season ending ACL injury was a crippling blow. It seems like, from an outsider's point of view that lives in St. Louis, Bradford is entering the Christian Ponder zone with regards to popularity with the fans. His injuries and play on the field hasn't lived up to the expectations fans wanted when he was drafted #1 overall in 2010. Is that an accurate representation the Rams fan base has towards Bradford, and will he be on the roster in 2015?
The Sam Bradford saga will be something Rams fans will point to for decades. It was a collision of factors that made the promise and the potential bigger than the performance itself. You had the college career (Heisman as a RS sophomore, national championship berth and loss to Tebow's Florida, rebuts NFL Draft to stay in school and win a national championship...gets hurt and misses season), the final contract before the CBA was reorganized to get a hold of the insane growth of early 1st round deals, and the offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010. There was a ton to deal with early, but things looked good. 2011 fell apart. Steve Spagnuolo's three year plan imploded and Bradford suffered from an ankle sprain for much of the year, missing the final three games. The franchise rebooted under Jeff Fisher who let it be known that Bradford's place as the starter was a significant factor in why Fisher opted to take the helm of the Rams with other offers on the table.
Fisher's first year nearly took a nosedive, but he and Bradford pulled out some strong results late in the season narrowly missing out on the postseason. Things were primed for 2013. And the ACL injury against the Panthers, things looked decent enough. He was on pace to have an opportunity for 4,000 passing yards and was working with a TD to INT ratio that was better than 3:1 (for reference, Ponder's best was 1.5:1 in 2012). It was just kind of a freak injury as he scrambled out of bounds. The odd thing is that the team got better in his absence. And now in 2014, this is the best roster overall since the post-Greatest Show era.
Moving forward, it's tough to know how things will play out. You've got a worse-case scenario in which the team falls apart, the Rams fire Fisher and GM Les Snead and prep for a move to LA. In that case, I'd think that taking a QB early (assuming the draft stock of guys like Oregon's Marcus Mariota and FSU's Jameis Winston) would make sense. You've also got the dream scenario where the team turns a corner, makes the playoffs and proves that they don't need much QB exceptionalism to win with this roster, making Bradford an unnecessary risk. The likely output though is that this team remains stuck in mediocrity, winning enough games to not be horrible and succumbing to the strongest division in the NFL and yet again watch the playoffs and not participate in them. That would leave a decision to be made at team HQ, and if Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have proven anything in their commitment to Sam Bradford from day one, it's that they're stubborn enough to stick with him for as long as they want. I, for one, wouldn't be surprised at all if the Rams go into week one of the 2015 season with Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback.
2. With Bradford out, the Rams turns to Shaun Hill. Hill, a journeyman that started his career in Minnesota, and a guy that actually has pretty respectable numbers when he's played at stops in San Francisco and Detroit. What are the expectations the Rams have with Hill in there, and in what ways will the offense need to be scaled back or adjusted to fit Hill's game, if at all?
I think the main thing Rams fans are looking for is to avoid mistakes. Kellen Clemens took over the QB reins in Bradford's absence over the final nine games. While he exceeded most expectations (which weren't very high, because hello....Kellen Clemens...), the mistakes proved too costly. The Rams went 0-4 in the four divisional games Clemens started in last year, throwing two touchdowns and seven interceptions throughout. That's what Shaun Hill has to avoid. This team is built to run the ball and play defense with the occasional intermediate passing game sprinkled in. Hill's main charge is to avoid mistakes.
As for scaling back the offense, it's already scaled back. Brian Schottenheimer's scheme is built around the shortest of passes, much to the frequent dismay of Rams fans (he's not a very popular OC these days...). We were obviously hoping things would be a bit more aggressive downfield, but at least for the time being it's probably more practical to keep things risk-averse until Hill starts clicking and then open things up.
3. Speaking of offense, the Rams have moved on from long time running back Steven Jackson, and the running game now seems to go through Zac Stacy. Stacy had almost 1,000 yards rushing last year, and seven TD's. What are the expectations for Stacy this year, and how reliant will the Rams be on him early on as they transition to Shaun Hill?
Oh, I think plenty reliant. Stacy did have a plus rookie campaign, though it's worth offering fair criticism that the Rams started Daryl Richardson for roughly the first third of the season. It was a move I criticized at the time, that in retrospect looks even less sensible given how Stacy played. The rookie numbers might have looked even more impressive had he been handed the starting gig earlier. In any case, the expectations are high and with Bradford's injury, as you alluded to, there's even greater reason to think he'll get a ton of work. I would, though, point out that his performance degraded pretty significantly at the end of the season. Whether that was because teams had a better feel for the Rams' run offense on tape by that point, or if Stacy had just hit a rookie wall or if teams were increasingly less concerned about a Kellen Clemens-led passing attack, I'm not sure. There's still plenty of reason for optimism though, and I think Rams fans are eager to see him on Sunday.
4. Enough about offense--the Rams defense is legit. Chris Long, Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers, and Robert Quinn form one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, and when you add guys like James Laurinaitis (Ohio State, WOO HOO), and Janoris Jenkins, the Rams have a defense that might be able to carry this team a long way. Other than the guys that have already been mentioned, give us the name of a guy we need to be on the look out for as Vikings fans on Sunday. And will a great defense and a quarterback that will be asked to be a game manager be enough in the NFC West?
Aaron Donald. The Rams second first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft was spent on Donald, which a lot of people were surprised at. As you mentioned, the Rams already had a strong front four. Picking a DT in the middle of the first round when the D-line is undoubtedly the best unit on your team is a bit strange. But you see why the Rams couldn't pass him up when he plays (and for every fan who goes into the draft whining about drafting the best player available regardless of any mitigating factor that might influence the decision, Donald should be their favorite pick of all time). He's insanely quick for a DT and is able to get through any blocking scheme he's faced so far in the preseason. I think the concern is that he's a bit undersized at 6'1", 285 lbs. and might struggle in a power contest. I say who cares. He sneaks through just about anything you throw at him. I'm interested to see how Fisher and reunited DC Gregg Williams rotate Brockers, Langford and Donald.
It's worth noting that Brockers has been dealing with an ankle sprain all preseason (supposedly on pace to play week one though) and Langford had his rolled up as well, so Donald might get a bit more work than he would have were those two healthy. Put it like this: in the obvious passing situations, Donald will be on the field. And I'd be willing to bet Vikings fans will notice him at least a couple times throughout the game.
5. Finally, the Rams are going through a new stadium dance that the Vikings just went through. The Vikings, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, were able to get a new stadium, and will move into their new facility in 2016. What's the latest on the stadium front for the Rams, and will they ultimately get a new deal done? If so, when? If not...what happens next?
Oh man, I honestly have no idea what's going to happen. The thing is, Stan Kroenke has all the leverage. He's a sports owner across just about every league there is, he went out and bought a ton of land in LA just to poke St. Louis and he's incredibly media-averse. On the other hand, St. Louis as a city has serious issues it needs to deal with, so dropping a ton of money into a sports franchise that is at best second fiddle to the baseball team doesn't seem likely or pragmatic. The move to St. Louis was always a message to LA to get its act together. Losing the Rams and the Raiders didn't push the city into immediate action, but they've put the right things in place by now and they're going to get a team. At this point, the city of St. Louis has already gotten the message. I'm just don't think they want to make a decision until the last minute, and I would say it's only third down...but third down and long.
6. Okay, bonus question--Give me a prediction for Sunday, and give any Vikings fans (namely, me) a good place to go tail gate before the game because I GOT TICKETS YO--ahem, I mean in case any Vikings fans are making the trip to St. Louis.
I'll go with 26-17 Rams. And now that I'm at the end, I realized the Rams and Vikings may have the best two players in the league at their position and we didn't even mention them......so forced reference here for Blair Walsh and Greg Zuerlein. Kickers are people too.
As for tailgating, I have no idea. I'm a non-St. Louis Rams fan, but I know we can get some TSTers over here to help you out.
Thanks again to TST and 3K for some great stuff on the Rams. Here's to a good game with no injuries on Sunday.