Sometimes change comes in different forms, especially in sports. It takes longer to notice than usual and even challenges your judgement. As I watched the season opener of the St. Louis Rams, bad nightmares came back into my head. Horrible penalties. Broken down drives. Secondary breakdowns. Bad fumbles. For some reason, I wanted to check the sideline for Scott Linehan feeling for the hair that had fallen from his head or Steve Spagnuolo on his knees desperately looking for a positive spin. I looked for the various offensive coordinators that have tried to hustle fans into thinking touchdowns weren’t extinct but I would need a lineup card. What were these band of misfit toys?
In the first 3 quarters of the football game, the Arizona Cardinals, equipped with a quarterback who can hit receivers and make quick reads, were making their move. A 13-10 Rams lead was suddenly a 24-13 Cardinals march. Like the cold water bottle lying in the middle of the desert, Carson Palmer flipped the switch on these Arizona receivers and made them fantasy hopefuls against our defenders at times.
At this time in the past 6 years, the Rams would fold up and die in front of their home crowd. For years, the team punished out better judgement and made fools out of us for telling others they were our team no matter what. As I struggled for hope yesterday, I remembered something. Jeff Fisher is on that sideline. Sam Bradford is out there and looks like The Sundance Kid before he stepped out in front of those guns. Fearless and ready to lead instead of shell shocked. This team looked different. Who were these quick receivers catching passes and stretching the defense? Who was the mini me version of Steven Jackson at tailback? Who is that monstrous playmaking pencil charity producing tight end who makes Antonio Gates look like a lazy security guard? The 2013 Rams are still a bloody mess readers but the one thing they aren’t coming to close to be calling is quitters.
The defense tightened up and starting getting to Palmer. I am sure if you approached Palmer in a restaurant this week and suddenly said the name Robert Quinn, Carson would duck beneath a table. Quinn had 3 sacks and a fumble recovery. He rocked the veteran quarterback’s body and mind. James Laurinaitis stuffed the run and gave the birds nowhere to go. The secondary broke up a few passes.
And then, the offense engaged and took over, scoring 14 unanswered points, led by Bradford’s ability to play great 4th quarter football. The kid completes passes, and suddenly showing an ability to move in the pocket and not freeze up during a pass rush. At least three times, Bradford stepped up in the pocket and ran around and made a play. On a late and vital two point conversion, he ran right up the gut for the extra points. Tavon Austin on a post route. Brian Quick on a slant. Chris Givens anywhere Arizona future hall of famer Patrick Petersen wasn’t. The real star of the day belonged to the biggest off season acquisition in my mind. A man named Cook.
After fumbling a sure touchdown in the first quarter, Cook collected 2 touchdowns and over 120 yards receiving. A man with the body of a semi truck and the breakaway ability of a Ram, Cook sliced and diced Cardinals defenders. After coming up lame in his first real attempt at a touchdown, Cook finished strong like the rest of the team. He is a game changing tight end and at that position, a cornerstone talent that may end up with better stats than Ricky Proehl.
The biggest difference I saw was the coaches ability to turn things up a notch in the second half instead of staying plain jane. For the first three quarters, the offense was slightly quicker but lacked creativity. Defenses could easily keep this in check. Brian Schottenheimer unleashed a fresher set of plays that required daring playmakers. Fisher tightened up the defense and let his coaches go to work. The coaching staff adjusted to adversity and that is a first in years.
In short, the Rams took charge. They didn’t welt and die in the spotlight of heightened expectations. They rose up out of the ashes. They came together and beat a divisional opponent. This will mean a lot later when the race tightens up and this team looks for the flicker of hope in the dog days of the winter. When things get cold and dry in a few months, this team will remember the win in the burning heat of the kickoff the season. Unlike last year in Detroit, the St. Louis Rams got busy late instead of settling for a good effort.
There were problems. Too many penalties after the whistle. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan(a Fisher loyalist) committed two personal fouls that were simply heinous. This was the bad side of Mr. Finnegan, a well known agitator with a history of losing his edge when desperately trying to get under the skin of opposing receivers. For one game, he was trying to be Richie Incognito, the famous hothead who negated a long Steven Jackson run years ago after smacking a man’s helmet clean off. Finnegan also got burned by Larry Fitzgerald, which isn’t as bad as the personal fouls. Plenty of corners find themselves on the wrong side of Fitz, who looks rehabilitated with Palmer. However, Finnegan has to be smarter. He stood out the most in the overall lapses. The Cook fumble and Bradford tipped pass(should have NEVER been thrown) for a pick 6 are also there. These are real problems that could cause trouble down the road if not handled.
All mistakes aside, this group of football hounds smelt blood in the 4th quarter on Sunday and fought out a victory. The Rams are 1-0. Don’t go crazy yet. There are 15 weeks to go. Atlanta and Dallas await this team in the coming weeks.
For more of my thoughts, go to my site, http://www.doseofbuffa.com.
-Dan L. Buffa
@buffa82 on twitter