Well, the Rams' 2008 campaign has finally, mercifully, come to an end. And you know what's just a little bit sad about that fact?
They actually started to look a little bit like a real team there toward the end.
Yes, they lost to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon. But guess what? The Falcons are
Against all of that, the Rams lost 31-27. Did it suck? Yes, it did. Losing almost always does. But to lose by only four points, against a team that still had an outside shot at winning its division, on the road, when the game meant absolutely nothing to the Rams, was more than just a little bit impressive.
Still, no matter how you care to slice it, a 2-14 season is a 2-14 season. There aren't a whole lot of positives to take from such a debacle.
But hey, I am nothing if not a student of both sports and life. Thus, I must search for meaning. I must search for answers, for lessons, for something to take forward. And here are the five things that I will take forward from this maddening, often depressing, always frustrating St. Louis Rams squadron of 2008.
1. Steven Jackson is criminally underrated
He really is. Look at the numbers this guy has put up. He becomes the first running back to put up four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons
in a Rams' uni since Eric Dickerson. That's some pretty elite company. This season, Jackson accomplished the feat in only twelve games. Yet tune in to any post-game show you like, and you'll hear just how awful Steven Jackson is. You'll hear that he just doesn't grind it out. He's soft. He runs east-west way too much, and not enough north-south. And most of all, you'll hear that Steven Jackson, regardless of the numbers he puts up, simply isn't a "difference maker."
That last one, by the way, I heard on a radio call in show just a couple of weeks ago, after Jackson played very well in a game the Rams gave away at the end with shoddy defense and turnovers in the last two minutes. (You want to know which game specifically? Ha! Does it matter?) Apparently the fact that Steven Jackson just continues to produce, in spite of one of the worst offensive lines I've ever seen just isn't enough. Something about him just isn't there.
If you want to argue that Steven Jackson spends too much time on the training table, I can't really fault you there. He has missed more time than one would hope nearly every year of his NFL career. But to claim that the man doesn't produce just flat out isn't true.
2. Steven Jackson needs to learn when to shut up
This is the other half of the equation with Jackson. In fact, this "other" half is probably a big part of the reason why Jackson is so underrated, when it comes right down to it.
See, we Midwesterners just don't take all that kindly to millionaires who go popping off at the mouth every time someone sticks a microphone in front of them about poor attendance, or this, or that, or pretty much whatever. We like the strong, silent types who do their jobs on Sunday, collect their paychecks, and then disappear to wherever it is the privileged amongst us go.
Personally, I like an athlete who occasionally says something a bit untoward. At the very least, it makes them easier and more entertaining to write about. I am, however, in the minority.
So listen, Steve (you don't mind if I call you Steve, do you?), I know that you were perfectly within your rights to hold out in training camp. Hell, I defended you to everyone I spoke to back then. Hey, the contracts in the NFL aren't guaranteed, right? A team can cut you any old time they like, and not pay you, right? Right on both counts. I don't think a player should be beholden to ownership. Get what you can get. But you know what? When you hold out before a season like this one, just put your head down and do your job. Don't answer any questions. Speak to no one who looks like they might have a microphone anywhere on them. Because when a season turns out the way this one has, those nice Midwestern fans are going to look for somebody to bear the brunt of their anger, and the high-priced holdout who just doesn't seem to know when to zip it up is always going to be the guy.
3. Marc Bulger needs some time off
Let's face it. Marc Bulger has spent more time on his back the last couple of years than both Spears sisters combined. The man has legitimate reason to be a little punch drunk. That being said, Bulger looks, to me, like a quarterback who just can't properly hang in there anymore. Even in Sunday's game, when he was putting on his most impressive performance of the season, Bulger just seemed to constantly be throwing a little too early, just a tad too jumpy. I honestly don't know that I've ever seen a quarterback throw off of his back foot as often as what Bulger has seemed to this season. That, to me, indicates a quarterback who just desperately wants to get rid of the ball before he gets clobbered.
How do you fix this? Well, we saw the same thing with Kurt Warner at the end of his tenure here in St. Louis. Warner, having been impacted, badly, by Mike Martz and his playbook full of seven, nine, and occasionally fifteen-step drop plays, showed a lot of the same symptoms. Constantly rushing throws, throwing off balance, just trying to make the play and avoid yet another hit. Call it the quarterback version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadly, there are only two cures for this. One is the way Warner did it. Get away from the speed of the game for a bit. Kurt went to New York and struggled for the Giants, then went to Arizona and didn't have to go out there every single Sunday and face the struggle. Given some time, the game came back to speed for Kurt, and we all saw what he was still capable of this season. Sadly, this doesn't appear to be an option for Bulger, who, for better or worse, remains the man here in St. Louis.
The other remedy, of course, is to get the guy some damn protection. A decent offensive line would go a long way toward making it possible for Marc Bulger to have some comfort in the pocket. You get him time, and he should return to the Bulger we all used to know. How realistic is that? Well, the second pick in the draft has to be worth something, doesn't it?
4. This secondary is still soft
You know what? I've been really encouraged by the way the Rams' secondary has played here lately. Well, mostly. Ron Bartell has shown signs of being a pretty okay regular at times. If he comes back in '09 and has improved on what he's done this season, Bartell should find himself on the field every game next year, with plenty of playing time. And Oshimago Atogwe? Wow. The guy has turned into a turnover machine. I don't remember the last time the Rams had a safety that you actually tried to keep track of on the field, because he seemed to be involved in every play, but I do know that I like it. A lot.
However, outside of those guys, the Ram secondary is still imminently exploitable. Tye Hill may take away your girlfriend, but passes? Not so much. When it comes right down to it, Hill has proven a whole lot of his doubters right. When he was drafted, they said he was too small, he looked to make the highlight play instead of just playing coverage, and he had more than the occasional mental lapse. And Hill just can't quite seem to stay healthy. Corey Chavous has his moments, but I'm pretty sure there isn't a team in the NFL whose scouting report on the Rams' D contains the words, "watch out for Chavous." Jonathan Wade, much the same. Wade certainly has the athletic ability to make a play now and again, but he simply isn't a big impact player most of the time.
The Rams have some real talent on defense, I think, particularly up front. The trio of Adeyanju, Chris Long, and Carriker is the sort you can build a defense around. I really do believe that
. But until the Rams get some real help in the secondary, preferably in the form of a true shut down sort of corner, the defense is going to keep getting beaten.
5. The draft will always be the thing
So how do you fix a team with so many holes? The answer is simple, and the same as it has been in football pretty much forever: the draft. You look around the NFL, and it seems that every team is able to draft and develop at least some of the talent that it needs to compete, with just a few exceptions. And who might be at the top of the list of those exceptions? You got it. The Rams.
Luckily, we can already begin to see the difference that having actual football side personnel running the draft makes. Bill Devaney took over the Rams' personnel department last year; the 2008 draft was his first. And when you look at the quality of player the Rams took in this past draft, it immediately becomes apparent that there really is a difference. Chris Long is already looking like a solid pick as a defensive lineman. Donnie Avery is looking like he may end up being a steal as a second-round pick, considering his explosiveness and the level of play he's already managed to attain. Keenan Burton, taken in the fourth round, may lack the big play ability that Avery has, but he's shown he can catch the ball and then hold on to it. My favorite draft pick, though, may just be John Greco.
Greco, you see, was a third round pick of the Rams in the most recent draft
, an offensive tackle out of Toledo, Ohio. Greco wasn't a hyped pick. Well, obviously, right? He was a good college player, had good size, good feet, good hands. What John Greco can
do, though, is play football. He started on Sunday. He played most of the game the week before. And guess what? He played very well. He didn't get burned every other play. He didn't let a rusher come free and give Bulger another concussion. Steven Jackson had his biggest day of the year. Am I saying that John Greco was the reason Jackson went off? No. But he was
on the field, and he certainly looked to be doing his job out there.
John Greco is not a superstar. Most likely, he won't ever be. But what John Greco brings to the Rams is the sort of thing that good drafting teams get all the time. Teams that draft well pop a guy in the third round, and he turns into a starter. Maybe a pretty good one. It isn't a huge story. You don't see features on the network pregame shows about the long odds that a player faced because he was a third-round pick. It surprises few when a third-rounder becomes a good NFL player, and it shouldn't. But when you're the St. Louis Rams, and you have the draft history that you do in recent years, well...
John Greco is the way that you build a great football team. Yes, you have to draft a couple of big time impact players. Yes, you're probably also going to have to sign some players. But when it comes right down to it, you look at the backbone of a truly great football team, and it's always a bunch of guys like John Greco, guys who just flat out get the job done. If the Rams are going to get this thing turned around, and I think that Bill Devaney will, then players and draft picks like John Greco are going to be a huge part of the answer.