The baseline argument, among Rams fans, for playing Null is that the Rams have to “see what they have” in their 6th round pick. And the oft-cited corollary to this argument is “hey, it couldn’t be much worse.”
In this 47-7 thrashing in Tennessee, the Rams can’t help but see what they have in Null: a grossly unrefined project with uncertain mechanics. A passer who can complete short passes by the bushelful, but whose recognition of defenses at the NFL level is far from adequate. His longest pass completion on the day went for 13 yards, unless we’re counting PI penalty yardage or negative return yardage.
He played a lot under center, but really appeared to struggle with his reads while dropping back. Indeed, the three ugliest of his five interceptions — three “what was that!?!” throws — came from under center, inside a collapsing pocket. (One of his two INTs from shotgun came on a blatantly uncalled pass interference play, and the other was his desperation 4th down try for the end zone at the end of regulation.)
The Rams also can’t help but see what they have around Null — an offensive line that has lost all of the ground that it had gained over the course of the season, in terms of impact and discipline. Richie Incognito got himself benched after two mindless personal foul penalties for head-butting. And once he left the field, the middling effectiveness of the ground game left, too: Steven Jackson picked up 39 yards on 11 carries in the first half, but only 8 yards on 8 carries in the second. And this despite Jason Brown returning to the fray.
But we need to give this game a little context, too, before passing judgement on Null and his prospects for starting the rest of the way.
Tennessee is a team on a mission, only a hair’s breadth from missing the playoffs with 7 losses, all in the AFC where the tiebreakers hurt most. Once part of a tandem with a slug of beef named LenDale White, Chris Johnson is now the focal point of the offense, making them much more dangerous with the ball. Most importantly to evaluating Null, their defense has improved significantly from their horrendous 0-6 start. This is not the defense that gave up an average of 33 points per game before the Titans’ bye — this defense is healthier in the secondary and more disciplined up front after recovering from the loss of Albert Haynesworth.
And December football is typically rough on rookie quarterbacks, who are still trying to learn the system while the intensity level of their opponents ratchets up dramatically. Witness the otherwise promising Josh Freeman’s stats this week in New York: 14-33 for 99 yards, 3 INTs, and no first downs the entire first half. (Marc Sanchez, also a rookie, didn’t play in that game.) Other notable true freshmen QBs have struggled in December as well:
- 2008: Joe Flacco‘s QB rating drops from 98.5 in November to 73.2 in December
- 2008: Matt Ryan‘s QB rating drops from 109.6 in November to 76.1 in December
- 2007: Pressed into starting duty after being benched, Trent Edwards completes only 48% of his passes in December, after completing 66.1% the rest of the year.
- 2007: Jamarcus Russell … plays like Jamarcus Russell regardless of what month it is.
- 2006: Matt Leinert actually plays his best month of football, before sitting out game 16 with an injury … and watches as Kurt Warner steals away his starting job with a near-upset of the 14-2 Chargers.
(The 2006 draft class — Leinert, Jay Cutler, and Vince Young — was actually pretty special as far as December football goes, but they are the exception rather than the rule.)
The open question for the Rams fans and coaches is: now that you’ve opened this can of worms by giving Null the start, do you play him the rest of the way and see what develops? Or have you shown enough to make the case that Spagnuolo has been making all along: that Null isn’t ready, and needs more time in the incubator? As fans, what’s your vote?