Spagnuolo and Devaney: What Went Wrong

Jan 4, 2012 at 7:00 am
These guys had it right all along.
These guys had it right all along.
Steve Spagnuolo, head coach of the St. Louis Rams, gone. 

Billy Devaney, general manager of the St. Louis Rams, gone. 

The two architects of this most recent era of Rams football were both fired Monday. It should come as no surprise to anyone, really, considering what the team looked like on the field this season. A 2-14 record isn't going to earn anybody much in the way of praise, but it's really the 10 victories in three years which sealed the fate of the head coach and general manager. 

So now the search begins for the next man to fail in turning around this moribund franchise, with Jeff Fisher getting most of the press. Meanwhile, those of us in the sports writing business are left trying to figure out the answer to the most pressing question left in the wake of these moves: What went wrong?

We've seen Spagnuolo's system work elsewhere -- his Giants putting the kibosh on the Patriots' perfect season is still one of the great upsets of recent years. We've seen Josh McDaniels' system work before -- it worked in New England, and even while he was making a mess of things on the drafting board in Denver he somehow managed to make that team into an offensive powerhouse. Devaney put together the major pieces of the Atlanta Falcons team which currently looks so brilliant before coming here. So how did a brilliant defensive mind, a brilliant offensive mind, and a GM who has built winners before all combine to spit out a 2-14 dud like the 2011 Rams? 

It looked like things were going in the right direction. After an ugly end to the Scott Linehan-slash-Jim Haslett regime, the Rams were in brutal shape. Spagnuolo's first season at the helm yielded just one victory, but there were signs of better times ahead. The turning point, it seemed, came last year, when the Rams won seven games, finished just one victory shy of the NFC West crown, and debuted one of the league's hottest commodities in Sam Bradford. 

Then, of course, came the 2011 season. The Rams had one of the toughest schedules in all of football, and proved unready for the challenge. Two wins, a roster exposed by injury, and an offense that proved historically inept represented perhaps the single most shocking load of underachievement in the NFL this season. 

So where did Devaney and Spagnuolo go wrong? How did 7-9 turn into 2-14 without any notable defections over the offseason? 

First, it has to be pointed out injuries likely had the single biggest impact on the fortunes of this team. The corner position in particular had much to do with the Rams' failings in 2011. Steve Spagnuolo's system asks much of the cornerback position, putting them in press man coverage all game long while the rest of the defense shifts in and out of pass-rushing responsibilities. A secondary decimated by injuries impacted the defense entire. 

The free agents the Rams brought in to shore up holes in the defense also underperformed almost across the board. Ben Leber had been an outstanding linebacker for years in Minnesota; this season he looked completely finished as an NFL player. Quintin Mikell wasn't terrible, but he was caught out of position (particularly early in the season), far too often for a player with his experience and foreknowledge of Spagnuolo's system. 

On the offensive side, Josh McDaniels' system failed utterly to take hold with this group of players. The O-line was perhaps the single most disappointing unit on the team, regressing painfully from a useful, solid group in 2010 to an overpaid, constantly injured sieve in 2011. Free agent Harvey Dahl was the only notable acquisition, and he was the most consistent performer. Jason Smith is a bust, Jason Brown is useless, Jacob Bell confirmed every negative opinion I held about him, and even Rodger Saffold took a significant step back. Saffold and Dahl are the only Opening Day starters worth a roster spot, meaning whoever comes in next has an awful lot of line building to do. 

The receiving corps was disappointing, with Brandon Gibson failing to develop. Mike Sims-Walker was a waste of time and roster space. Danario Alexander was mostly good when he was on the field, but he missed time again due to injury and was used sparingly in games he did play. Still, he was more than good enough to stand out among a truly brutal group. Danny Amendola got hurt. Mark Clayton never got unhurt. Austin Pettis started rough but looked good toward the end. Greg Salas started rough, came around, then got hurt. Both Salas and Pettis showed plenty for me to believe in them going forward, but the mere fact the Rams were forced to shove two rookies -- neither of whom were top-10 picks like A.J. Green -- into significant service time says plenty about the offensive issues. 

The two tight end sets we all expected to see so much of never really materialized, largely due to a lack of tight ends. Mike Hoomanawanui got hurt, again, and personally I think it's time to cut bait on the Illinois product. Shame, too, because he's a dynamic presence when he's on the field. Key words: on the field. Lance Kendricks looked like a rookie, and Billy Bajema is just a guy. Stephen Spach played in ten (!) games, caught two passes, and accumulated two total yards. 

Sam Bradford, most of all, pretty much sums up the season for me. He had everything to do with the Rams' turnaround last season, and had plenty to do with their completion of the 360 degree turnaround this year. He regressed in a big way, partially thanks to the abject shittiness of his line, but also on his own merits. Sam's accuracy took a big hit, his decision making was questionable, and he's never yet met a receiver he couldn't stare down. Balls batted at the line left and right point to O-line troubles, sure, but they point more to a quarterback who telegraphs where the ball is going with his eyes. Oh, and then he hurt his ankle and Kellen Clemens came in and actually played better. Not a ringing endorsement of your franchise quarterback. 

All in all, pretty much everything that could go wrong for the Rams in 2011 did. Players got hurt left and right, and the ones who were left were terrible. The injuries weren't foreseeable, but still served as an indictment of the roster depth Devaney had built. And there, to me, lies the most puzzling aspect of the 2011 Rams. 

In the past offseason, the Rams went out and made a number of key free agent signings, bringing in a large crop of stopgap players at thin positions. Almost without fail, those free agents failed to live up to expectations. Harvey Dahl played well, and Brady Poppinga had some solid games late in the season after being invisible for much of the early going, but on the whole the Rams' free agent haul was a bust. What's worse than the failure of those free agents to make an impact, though, was the number of young players pushed off the roster in order to keep these old unproductive husks around. Jonathan Nelson, a seventh round pick from Oklahoma who plays corner and safety, was bumped off the roster in favor of James Butler. Butler recorded only eleven tackles on the season and looks old and slow; Nelson made his way to Carolina, where he looks to have caught on to a potential starting job with the Panthers. I'm not saying Jonathan Nelson is a world-beater, by any means; the point is, the Rams popped a guy in the seventh round with NFL talent and then cut him to keep a safety who hasn't been good since the Bush administration on the roster. 

Puzzling roster management is, in the end, the thing I'll most remember about the Steve Spagnuolo/Billy Devaney era. There were players on the roster in training camp with talent, players who could have developed into something useful, but most were cut loose to keep the same old stopgaps on the roster. It looked as if Devaney and Spags were building something enduring through the draft, but then this year they went for it with free agents galore and managed only to set the process back. 

Now we get to see who the Rams tab next. Personally, I'm not expecting things to get better anytime soon. Another new coach, new system, hired by an owner I don't think has any idea what the hell he's doing. Hell, I don't know how, but John Shaw's name keeps coming up as still being a real power player in the Rams' front office structure. John Shaw was the team president while the organization collapsed. Why in the hell is he still affiliated with the team? 

Oh, well. Maybe when Kroenke moves the team back to Los Angeles St. Louis can start looking around for a competent NFL franchise to bring in. One can only hope.