St. Louis Rams 2010 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
One of the toughest decisions television executives have to make is how to effectively replace a starring character on a popular program. More often than not, the swap leaves the presentation falling flat on its face.
Late 1990's comedy "Spin City" lasted just two seasons after Parkinson's disease forced the beloved Michael J. Fox off the small screen in favor of Charlie Sheen, while the more recent "Scrubs" barely limped through one season without Zach Braff in the lead. Heck, even a contract dispute by Luke and Bo Duke in 1982 led to a forgettable season of Coy and Vance that nearly deprived the nation of two more seasons of "The Dukes of Hazzard."
The point is that fans often reject change to something they love. But St. Louis Rams supporters, a gray-cloud-followed group that has witnessed just six wins in the last three seasons and a 17-game losing streak that bridged the 2008-09 seasons, hope that the coming of quarterback Sam Bradford is like their very own version of Woody Boyd.
Patience, though, will be key for residents in the Gateway City. After all, it took actor Woody Harrelson four seasons as a loveable bartender in "Cheers" to net his first Emmy and there is still a very good chance that Bradford will begin the season behind A.J. Feeley, who worked with current Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur when the latter was Philadelphia's QB coach.
Still, Bradford figures to be the top guy on the depth chart sooner rather than later.
"I think you just have to go play football," Bradford told St. Louis' website at the start of camp. "If you start worrying about all those other things, then it can really affect your performance. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed as it is. I don't think that's going to change. I have very high expectations for myself and this team this year. I think that's really what's going to drive me to work to succeed."
Either way, the Rams will have a different look under center after the exit of Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller, the duo that started the majority of St. Louis' games last year.
Like luring a big movie star to the small screen, Bradford didn't come cheap. The top overall pick of the 2010 draft -- the Rams' reward for its 1-15 campaign a season ago -- signed a reported six-year deal, with a record $50 of the $78 million being guaranteed.
St. Louis faithful, including new majority owner E. Stanley Kroenke, need to remember though that Bradford will be eventually taking over a young team with some youth on the offensive line and no proven playmakers in the receiving game. That unit took an even greater hit after a season-ending injury to wideout Donnie Avery in the preseason.
"Donnie is a quality guy and a character guy and we'll miss him," head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the Rams' website.
And while the Rams look to boost last year's lowest scoring offense, they also are hoping to improve a defense that allowed nearly 17 more points per game last year than its offense scored.
St. Louis does have a chance to impress early as four of its first five games to open the season are against teams that posted five wins or fewer a year ago.
A strong start by the Rams could have their fans feeling, ahem, cheerful for a change.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the St. Louis Rams, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 1-15 (4th, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to Atlanta, 47-17, in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Steve Spagnuolo (1-15 in one season with Rams, 1-15 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pat Shurmur
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Flajole
OFFENSIVE STAR: Steven Jackson, RB (1416 rushing yards, 4 TD, 51 receptions)
DEFENSIVE STAR: James Laurinaitis, LB (120 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 20th rushing, 28th passing, 32nd scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 27th rushing, 25th passing, 31st scoring
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Sam Bradford (1st Round, Oklahoma), QB A.J. Feeley (from Panthers), TE Darcy Johnson (from Giants), C Hank Fraley (from Browns), T Rodger Saffold (2nd Round, Indiana), DT Fred Robbins (from Giants), LB Bobby Carpenter (from Cowboys), LB Na'il Diggs (from Panthers), CB Kevin Dockery (from Giants), CB Jerome Murphy (3rd Round, South Florida), S Kevin Payne (from Bears)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Kyle Boller (to Raiders), QB Marc Bulger (to Ravens), RB Samkon Gado (to Titans), TE Randy McMichael (to Chargers), T Alex Barron (to Cowboys), DE Leonard Little (not tendered), DT Adam Carriker (to Redskins), LB Paris Lenon (to Cardinals), CB Jonathan Wade (to Lions), CB Eric Bassey (not tendered), S Clinton Hart (not tendered)
QB: Bulger was let go after struggling in the three years following a 2006 Pro Bowl season in which he completed a career-high 24 touchdown passes. He notched just 27 TD throws between 2007-09, with 34 interceptions. Keith Null, a 2009 sixth-round pick, made four starts for the Rams late last year, but he is likely to be the third QB this year behind newcomers Feeley and Bradford. The Rams were leaning on starting Feeley in Week 1 at the start of camp and that doesn't appear to have changed despite a minor thumb injury during preseason, or the fact that he hasn't started a game since 2007 with the Eagles. Owner of just 15 career NFL starts over nine seasons, he knows he is just keeping the seat warm for Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma. For what it is worth, Bradford did look very good versus New England in the club's third preseason game.
RB: Whether it is youth (Bradford) or inexperience (Feeley) under center, workhorse Steven Jackson will be expected to take the pressure off with a much- used ground game. Not that he isn't up for it. Despite the presence of little help through the air last year to keep defenses honest, Jackson led the NFC with 1,416 rushing yards, though he did score just four touchdowns. He also led the club with 51 catches for another 322 yards and played in 15 games despite a back injury that required offseason surgery. St. Louis' dependence on Jackson leaves few opportunities for backups Chris Ogbonnaya and Kenneth Darby, as the two combined for just 38 carries last year. Mike Karney returns as the fullback.
WR/TE: St. Louis' young group of receivers suffered a big blow with Avery (47 receptions, 5 TD) out for the season. There will now be more pressure on Laurent Robinson, who showed promise with 13 catches for 167 yards with a score in three starts last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Still, there is potential for the Rams with this unit. Third-year receiver Danny Amendola finished with just four fewer catches than Avery last year, but only scored once, while Brandon Gibson managed 34 grabs in nine games as a rookie after being acquired from the Eagles midseason. Keenan Burton (25 receptions) also contributed in nine games before going on injured reserve in November due to a knee injury. Rookie Mardy Gilyard (Cincinnati) is also promising, but no receiver on St. Louis' roster has more than four years of experience. That could cause the Rams to lean on tight ends Billy Bajema, a six-year vet who excels at blocking, or Daniel Fells (21 receptions, 3 TD), after the Rams decided not to bring back the disappointing Randy McMichael. Rookie TE Mike Hoomanawanui also impressed during camp.
OL: The offensive line will feature youth on the outside, experience around the center position and a leader in the middle. Center Jason Brown made 16 starts last year despite knee issues and is in the second year of a five-year contract. St. Louis' anchor will be flanked by left guard Jacob Bell, a seven- year veteran who is coming off a hamstring injury, and Adam Goldberg on the right. Entering his eighth season, Goldberg appears to have held off John Greco for the starting job. Jason Smith, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft, enters his second season after knee and concussion issues caused him to miss seven games last year, and will start at right tackle. Meanwhile, rookie Rodger Saffold replaces Alex Barron at left tackle after the Rams grabbed the Indiana product with the first pick of the second round. Veteran Hank Fraley can back up at both center and guard, while youngsters Ryan McKee and Phil Trautwein are reserve tackles.
DL: St. Louis' defensive line will feature a pair of new full-time starters in defensive end Chris Long and tackle Fred Robbins, who are both expected to anchor the left side. Long (43 tackles, 5 sacks) made just four starts last year, his second since being taken second overall in 2008, but will take on a bigger role in 2010 and the Rams are counting on him to take another step forward as he replaces the departed Leonard Little. James Hall (43 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks) and his veteran leadership were re-signed to remain on the right side next to retuning end Clifton Ryan (42 tackles, 1 sack). A back injury took Chris Hovan out of the mix for the defensive tackle rotation, but Darell Scott and Gary Gibson provide solid depth. Victor Adeyanju and C.J. Ah You back up at the end spots.
LB: Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (120 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) burst onto the scene as a rookie last year and led the team in tackles, only the second Rams rookie to do so. The Ohio State product is likely to have two fellow alums beside him in Na'il Diggs, Bobby Carpenter or Larry Grant. Diggs spent his last four seasons with Carolina and had 39 tackles in 14 games last year. He should start on the strong side opposite either Carpenter (46 tackles, 2 sacks with the Cowboys) or Grant. Last year's starter on the left side, David Vobora (46 tackles), moves to a backup role along with undrafted rookie Cardia Jackson.
DB: The Rams prevented a big hole from forming in the secondary when they re- signed free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who was second on the team last year with 74 tackles to go along with two interceptions despite missing the last four games due to a shoulder injury. Craig Dahl (65 tackles, 2 sacks) looks like he will get the call at free safety until James Butler (69 tackles, 3 INT) is ready to return from a knee injury, while new addition Kevin Payne (46 tackles with Bears) should come off the bench. Keeping Atogwe in the mix should help corners Kevin Dockery (25 tackles with Giants) and Ron Bartell (66 tackles). Bradley Fletcher will push Dockery once his knee injury from last year heals. Quincy Butler and Justin King are also in the mix for reserve roles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones return to their respective roles in 2010. Brown saw limited chances last year due to St. Louis' struggling offense, but he did hit on six of his seven attempts from at least 50 yards out. Brown brings a big boot, as his 12 career field goals from 50-plus yards are second-most in team history. Jones, meanwhile, put a career- high 34 punts inside the 20 a season ago and averaged 46.8 yards per kick. Long snapper Chris Massey played in just seven games last year due to a knee injury, but was re-signed this offseason. Amendola will again return kicks after averaging 24.5 yards per kickoff in 2009 and 11.6 yards on punts. Rookie Mardy Gilyard will also lend a hand in the return game.
PROGNOSIS: Strap yourselves in Rams fans, because the rebuilding process is about to begin. Yes, St. Louis has nowhere to go but up after a one-win season, but the team definitely went from being an older team to a youthful one in a hurry this offseason. Bradford should get plenty of snaps in 2010 -- after all, how much can he learn from Feeley -- but to expect the Rams to challenge the rest of the NFC West is a mile-long stretch. While there are without a doubt some winnable games to start the season, 2010 will mostly serve as a learning season for a majority of the Rams, who should be overwhelmed once the Chargers, Falcons and Saints of the league come calling.