The pregame narrative was laid out as a story of princes and paupers.
The Cardinals were crowned NFC West champions the Sunday previous, while the Rams have not won a divisional game since November 18, 2007. The Cardinals start two Pro Bowl talents at wide receiver, and their quarterback is the most-sainted St Louis athlete since Stan Musial. Their defense isn’t content to wait until January to play at a playoff level, as top talents Antrel Rolle, Adrian Wilson, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie make up perhaps the best secondary in the NFC, and Darnell Dockett has been emerging as a legitimate threat to the health and safety of the league’s quarterbacks. Meanwhile, the Rams’ only Pro Bowl hopeful, Steven Jackson, was sidelined just before the start. So was Leonard Little (injury), and James Hall (birth of a new baby boy — congrats!), while our starting quarterback would be still holding the clipboard and wearing his visor for nearly every other team in the league. And our secondary features the two lowest-rated corners in the NFL in ProFootballFocus’ player rankings.
In fact, as Howard Balzer at the St Louis Globe Democrat points out, 30 of the 45 active Rams players were bottom-of-the-draft choices: 6th rounders, 7th rounders, and walk-ons.
In short, it was a game the Cardinals were supposed to win and they did. Vegas gave them a 14-point handicap and they covered. Most importantly, though, it was a game that the Rams could have laid down for, but they didn’t.
The talent disparity points out an obvious flaw in this year’s team construction, but at the same time, it points out the greatest virtue of this year’s Rams team versus the creaking, toothless beasts of the Linehan years. The guys that took the field this Sunday and fought like the Hells Angels at Altamont for four quarters are exactly the kind of gritty, hard-nosed players that you want filling the gaps in your scheme. We have an active roster full to overflowing with “glue” guys like Cliff Ryan, Craig Dahl, Adam Goldberg, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Mark Setterstrom, Chris Chamberlain, Mike Karney, Billy Bajema, Larry Grant, David Vobora, Ken Darby and Chris “Silent G” Ogbannaya. These guys and more are potential diamonds that Billy Devaney has mined and Coach Spagnuolo is in the process of cutting down and polishing up.
These are the guys who have been impacted most by the example Steven Jackson has set down all season long, slamming into plays like a man possessed, even if the play isn’t there. And whether the play gets stuffed or goes for 20, he gets up and gets ready to do it again. Today he was awarded with the ultimate validation possible in a year like this: an invite to the Pro Bowl. And while his candidacy is often couched in terms like “while playing for the struggling/lowly/awful Rams” by the overdressed and overgelled sports media, I prefer to think that his vote-in is a testament to the attitude and fight that so much of this team carries.
Of the other teams falling to the bottom of the league and toward the top of the draft chart, some are legitimately embarrassing. The Redskins are in open mutiny, and the Seahawks appear to be not-so-quietly heading in the same direction. Leadership questions surround the Chiefs, Browns and Bears. And while the Bucs are showing a lot of heart in their season-closing upsets, there are still strong rumors that their raw-as-sushi head coach is going to be replaced.
Sure, there are a few fans who are trotting out paper bags, and plenty more who have stayed home rather than drive downtown for these last home games. (Those that did missed a really strong performance against Houston, and those who stay home this Sunday will likely be missing out on one of the most heartfelt efforts of the season.)
But there is no embarrassment surrounding these Rams, led by Jackson and a gutty, glue-y coach whose “team first” mantra is the glue-iest in the NFL.
- — Steven Jackson, quoted in Charles Robinson’s excellent Yahoo Pro Bowl profile
This has been a rebuilding year from the very foundation of the franchise up, with SJ the lone towering talent. The Cardinals know very well how that goes. But the good news for this team is that the men toiling in Jackson’s lengthy shadow are proving their worth, and are truly helping to rebuild that foundation.
When the Rams start getting the top-flight offensive and defensive talents to match the Cards, some of these guys will get pushed out of starting roles on the team. But that shouldn’t stop them from being hungry to contribute in any way they can. Jackson’s Pro Bowl berth is the only glory for these guys to share right now, but you know they’re hungry for more. When that glory starts coming in the form of wins, the script for this division rivalry will get flipped in a hurry.