The Rams have been through a complete metamorphosis over the last eight months, getting younger in both the front office and on the roster. It's part of an effort to salvage the franchise's reputation, prevent them from becoming a perpetual laughing stock like the Lions. Fans turned away in mass in the wake of back-to-back seasons of three and two-wins. Home games were blacked out, and away games got ratings more akin to the World Series of Pinochle than NFL football. However, the commitment to changing course and rebuilding a winning franchise is real and there is finally a sense of excitement about Rams football making even this week's preseason opener a can't miss event.
There are some notable similarities between the Jets and Rams lately. Most obviously, there's the hiring of a new defensive-minded head coach. In fact, I can recall a time this winter when it seemed like a sure bet that the East Coast connected Spagnuolo would be working for the other New York team and the St. Louis connected Rex Ryan would be at the helm for the Rams. Funny how that works out, huh?
In terms of rebuilding the roster, Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney are employing a strategy that should be familiar to Jets fans, installing a tough, big and physical offensive line to make the running game the spring from which all offense flows. Similar to what the Jets did by bringing in G Alan Faneca to play alongside Nick Mangold, the Rams made center Jason Brown a very rich man to play next to the G Richie Incognito, a heap of meanness and talent, forming a powerful middle of the new offensive line. Coaches and fans are hoping RB Steven Jackson can get back into Pro Bowl form and emulate the kind of results Thomas Jones produced for the Jets.
Another major story line playing out in camp and through the season this year is the rehabilitation of Marc Bulger's career. Immediately after signing a massive contract in the summer of 2007, Bulger turned in two season of below average, well below average, play. Much of that had to do with the Rams numerous other problems, not the least of which was an oft-injured, undersized, and aging offensive line which failed to provide protection for the QB or any advantage in the running game. Everyone will be watching Bulger closely, and expect to see even casual fans talking about whether or not he's throwing off his back or front foot. If he doesn't rebound the Rams will be in the hunt for a new QB in the draft next year and Bulger will be looking for a backup job somewhere else.
On defense there are a couple important subplots making camp interesting. Of course, the main story on defense is the installation of a Jim Johnson influenced defense under Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole, former Panthers LB coach. The Rams have two guys at very opposite points in their careers who are expected to shine, DEs Leonard Little and Chris Long. But the real effort for the Rams this year has been to get bigger and tougher in the middle - recognize a theme here? - and that starts with second round pick MLB James Laurinaitis. The Rams have been among the league's worst when it came to linebackers, largely because they lacked a true middle linebacker, stubbornly opting to play the miscast Will Witherspoon in that role. With Laurinaitis in the middle and Witherspoon back to his natural spot on the weakside, the Rams expect to get much better on defense. The addition of SS James Butler also helps that plan.
Behind the linebackers, the Rams have Ron Bartell and a bunch of question marks at cornerback.This is a make or break camp for former first round pick Tye Hill. He's fast enough, but if he can't succeed in Flajole's more physical version of man coverage, then he'll officially be a bust. Third round pick Bradley Fletcher fits the mold for this system, and last year's fourth round pick Justin King is working hard to rebuild his reputation after his impressive camp in 2008 ended prematurely with a foot injury. Practice squad veteran Quincy Butler has come on strong in camp this year. People will be watching him closely to see if he's more than just a August hero.
This is a young Rams team, and expectations are realistic. We know that double digit wins are unlikely this year. What we do expect to see, however, is a competitive football team that's heading in the right direction.
Head over to TST for my writeup on the Jets.