It’s a beautiful time of the year for St. Louis sports fans. Summer hitting its peak before fall enters the equation. Leaves start popping up. Mowing the grass ceases to to exist on your chores list. And, football begins. The Cardinals are in playoff push mode, but the Rams are just getting started. Blues hockey less than a month away. It’s the time of year where the sport merge if only for a few weeks or days. Being a die hard baseball fan, it’s hard to think too hard about The St. Louis Rams in August, but as the season rolls around I gather my data, put together a few blunt thoughts and share them with the rest. Here are 10 things about the Rams to look forward to, beware and generally expect. I don’t like predictions. I save those for bookies and the casino junkies with their mortgage payment in their hands. I provide expectations based off what I see and what I expect to happen in the coming season. Let’s start.
1. Sam Bradford’s time is now. Yeah, it’s been said a few times but I’m making it clear. Sam needs to take this car out for a long drive. He’s got protection in Jake Long, a new batch of wide receiver toys and most importantly, a healthy medical chart from his trainers. With so many vital bodies falling around the NFL, the Rams made it out clean. No big injuries. No problem. Bradford is ready to roll. If you keep your ear to the paper and internet, you’ll find out people are fed up with the Oklahoma kid. They say he is a bust. No good. Why didn’t we take Robert Griffin III and those shaky knees in that draft? Well, wake up and get smart my friends. Sam Bradford is entering the first year where he is expected to be produce very good things. He has the same offensive coordinator from a previous season for the first time. He is healthy and knows the playbook. He actually has targets to throw to that aren’t named Danny Amendola. Bradford isn’t a bust. He just needed some consistency from his coaching staff and a new set of toys to throw to. After being sacked 105 times in 42 games, Bradford has Long to protect him. It would be nice seeing what he can do off his back. He has a tight end in Jared Cook that can make plays. Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, and Brian Quick are among the targets. It’s fair to expect more from a #1 draft pick who was pegged to lead this franchise out of the gutter. It’s wrong to ignore the details. For his career, Bradford has decent to average numbers. However, when healthy, Bradford has the potential to be above average. This team is his own squad now with Steven Jackson gone. The playbook revolves around his arm and not Jackson’s legs. Bradford’s 4th season will reveal to us what the kid is made of. His staff is young but fast. He is a book smart all business no play mind. If you think Bradford isn’t ready to win, you aren’t watching the tape. Sam Bradford is set to roll. This team is framed around his potential for the first time in 3 plus seasons. I am not 100 percent sold on Bradford and I feel few are in this town but don’t ride him away yet. He does hold onto the ball too long and had trouble with the deep ball, but slowly those things are improving. We gave him the time and his room to shine is now. This is his team. Can he lead it?
2. The young arsenal of receivers will provide Bradford with many versatile targets. Austin was selected 6th overall for his ability to elude defenders and make quick breaks in the open field. He’s a game changer. Quick is your downfield high target. Givens had an impressive rookie season and only figures to improve. Stedman Bailey is another threat. Cook is a big body who plays tight end but can make plays like a receiver. The only drawback of this group is their age. There’s little experience among the lot but that also creates problems for the defense. Rookies carry their own bag of tricks. If anything, this group will be exciting.
3. Running back is a questionable area for a few reasons. Darryl Richardson was solid for a few games in 2012 before defenders found him down below and started stuffing him before he could get his legs moving. Richardson is a little back without the power to move bodies forward. Is he really a starter or will his wear down early? Can Isiah Pead hold onto the ball and make plays when inserted into the lineup? Will we see Zach Stacy? This is the biggest question mark and one that leaves you puzzled. All the Jackson haters can now rest their anger on a trio of shoulders. Chase Reynolds and Benny Cunningham are also on the depth chart but they leave little background to get excited about. The running backs and wide receivers are exciting on paper but have little backbone to base an opinion on. Who will take over this job or will it be a group of producers? If it’s one guy, who is the smasher? If it’s earth, wind and fire, then name the bodies. Confusion fills the mind here. If you can’t run the ball, you have to be putting a large amount of confidence in your receivers getting the job done. Lots of flash here. How much substance?
4. The identity of the offense. The playbook is under wraps. What is up Fisher and Schotty’s sleeve this year? Both LOVE to run the ball but they have no proven #1 back. Will they open up the passing game and hand the keys to Sam? Conservative or aggressive? What is the thesis statement of this movement? The preseason showed little to none in the true plays department. Once opened up, what is the identity of this offense?
5. The defense has a high ceiling of potential and only foolhardy off field antics can get in the way of greatness. Chris Long and Robert Quinn create the most underrated defensive end tag team in the NFC and Michael Brockers only got better at stuffing the run as 2012 went on. Kendall Langfold is a sneaky body who can make a big play. William Hayes and Eugene Sims are solid 3rd down defenders. The linebacking crew is led once again by tackle machine James Lauranaitis and he is joined by returning veteran Will Witherspoon and the raw talent of Alec Ogletree. Fisher took a gamble on Ogletree’s head because his ability was off the charts. You saw it in the preseason when he created two turnovers against Denver and made huge plays. Sure, he can miss an assignment and needs to learn the whole playbook but the potential is infinite for Alec. Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins will get their fair share of takeaways but most take away the big play from the defense. The safety position isn’t strong but can hold steady if Darian Stewart can stand up straight and not break down early. If the raw talent, good behavior and skill sets can mesh well on this squad, the Rams will once again win some games on defense.
6. The offensive line looks solid for the first time in years. Long sits at left tackle with Roger Saffold at right tackle and in between you have the monstrous force of Harvey Dahl and the healthy body of Scott Wells as well as Chris Williams. If this crew can keep Bradford upright more often than not, and I think they can, the offense won’t need magic from their inexperienced group of playmakers. The most underappreciated spot in the league in pass blockers and run protectors. You won’t see Dahl on a Madden cover but if he stuff the interior defensive line of opposing teams, Richardson and Stacy can find holes. If Long keeps the big pass rushers off Bradford, big throws can happen. It’s as simple as that. If the QB is in constant trouble, the offense will flat line and the defense will break and games will be lost.
7. Special teams didn’t look too shabby in the preseason but the real question is this. Will Austin change the Rams return game and give them a threat to run the ball back? It’s been a long time since Tony Horne rocked the house of the Ed Dome and one of Tavon’s attributes was his ability to return kickoffs and punts. The unit didn’t allow too many huge returns and if the offensive end of the group can provide some fireworks, the pressures slips off Bradford’s shoulders just a little more. Will the Rams special teams department be relevant again?
8. It’s hard to question the commitment of owner Stan Kroneke. He spent big dollars on Jeff Fisher and Les Snead and paid the money to bring in playmakers like Finnegan, Long and Cook to stabilize the operation. He is an active business man and has provided the resources to make them successful. Don’t worry about the team’s future in St. Louis right now. Worry about playing football. Kroneke didn’t fight to have full ownership of this team to run them out of a town he has held ties to for over 15 years. He did his part to push this team and now the team needs to respond.
9. That schedule allows the Rams to make a statement in their division early. We face the Cards, 49ers, and Seahawks at the Ed Dome first in the first half of the season. We get a firm test at Atlanta in week 2 and in Dallas in week 3 and in Indianapolis in week 10. However, I don’t see many games that are completely out of the realm of victory. We get the Bears and Saints at home. We travel to Carolina and Houston but get Tampa Bay and Jacksonville at home. Unlike getting New England in London or Aaron Rodgers at home, the Rams have a chance to be competitive in every one of these games. Houston has a suspect defense. We proved our mettle against our divisional foes last year. We nearly beat Tampa Bay in their house. We will have to deal with Cam Newton in his own temple but we don’t have to travel to Soldier Field to make Jay Cutler’s life miserable. The Saints have no defense so that will be an offensive show. Every game provides an opportunity to win.
10. My expectation for this team. 9-7 record. I could shoot it right down the middle but I’m not. I want improvement but I expect some fireworks and if they let me down, I won’t feel as bad as I did during the Linehan-Spagnuolo era. This team has kissed the bottom of the barrel too many times for me to get mad about them falling short of an expectation. We saw this team play good football in 2012. I expect better in 2013 with the same coaches, new fresh young talent, stronger O-line and the defense remaining a force. Looking at the schedule, I think this team can win 9 games. Call me crazy because it’s been done before.
Kickoff is tomorrow at 3:15 on FOX. Two hours of baseball and then Rams football….and baseball. The Rams start the season at home against an Arizona team that finally found a quarterback in Carson Palmer. They will not be a pushover but neither are the Rams. It’s exciting to come into a St. Louis football season and expect more wins than losses. Goodbye dismal depravity. Hello competitive action.