Expectations for the 2011 Rams season dissipate

Sam Bradford and the rest of us were crushed on Sunday. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Sam Bradford and the rest of us were crushed on Sunday. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Our season prediction for the Rams had them at 1-2 at this point in the season, just a game better than 0-3 in the black and white, wins and losses. But they were supposed to be three hard-fought games, fires of competition that would forge a stronger team. We were supposed to be able to see the winning DNA of this team, even in losing.

So far, we’re seeing a drive here, a play there, a defensive series or two, and that’s it. And we’re being asked to imagine these few positives as seeds from which a playoff team can grow. While the team is much changed from the pitiful pre-Bradford days, our job as Rams fans hasn’t changed at all. We’re still being asked to hope, without being allowed to expect.

Yes, for perspective, this same Ravens team gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a 35-7 whipping eerily similar to this one. But it’s one thing for the Steelers to bounce back, as they’ve done, and win games. They have an identity to lean on, a blueprint for winning that’s carried over from the Bill Cowher era. As Ryan at Turf Show Times eloquently writes, no one knows what the Rams’ identity is yet.

I think the question within the question is this: whose team is this?

Sam Bradford’s team? 

Bradford gives the Rams hope at quarterback, hope for the franchise, that they haven’t had since Marc Bulger signed his big contract and had his team and his body fall apart. The team’s construction, from the preparation of the offensive line to the hiring of Josh McDaniels to the acquisition of a whole new receiving corps, was done with Bradford in mind. 

But while the offense now revolves around Bradford, it’s hard to call this his team. Not until he starts demanding accountability for the continuing breakdowns in protection, the mystifying dropped passes, the mistakes that are hamstringing this team. Not until he shakes off the dink and dunk approach, and demands that his downfield talent be put to better use. As Brennan writes, a fan’s relationship with Bradford is as much about expectation as about hope.

By comparison, former Ram Ryan Fitzpatrick has earned the complete trust of his coaching staff, and they lean on him fully to drive their team. He was a 7-0 underdog from his first play from scrimmage — a daring 33 yard strike down the sideline. While it was followed by a tipped pass and INT, his fearless approach set the tone for the massive upset to come. His mistakes helped dig a 21-0 hole. His determination and trust in his receivers, and the resilience of the entire team around him, allowed them to overcome it.

The Rams need Bradford just as much as Buffalo needs Fitzpatrick. But they dont seem to want to admit it yet.

Steven Jackson’s team?

Bradford was generous in deferring to the longest-tenured Ram, when Steven Jackson was named captain. It was smart locker room politics, as Jackson has earned universal respect for the way he conducted himself through the long years of losing, and through the many battles that NFL players must face — fan hostility, bad press, coaching changes, salary negotiations, even new ownership. 

Jackson has been the model warrior. His return was supposed to invigorate the team. Indeed, the relative success of the running game against the Ravens’ vaunted defense (4.5 ypc) was one of the few things you could point to as a positive.

But it’s hard to lead from the stationary bike, which was where Jackson spent much of his day, while Cadillac Williams again got the lion’s share of work. His role in the team was supposed to be transformed by McDaniels’ offense. Instead, it is being slowly eroded by the physical toll of his career.


Coach Spagnuolo’s team?

Spagnuolo is a team-builder, and undoubtedly, this is Spags’ team. This roster was built by Billy Devaney and Kevin Demoff according to his desires. And six days out of the week, we’ll tell you that this team is better now than they were before he arrived, by leaps and bounds.

But on gameday, the guy who built the team can’t seem to transform into the guy who demands results from them.

His coaching decisions seem stuck in a development mode, particularly on offense. Each drive is supposed to have the purpose of building momentum for his young quarterback, building confidence, learning to walk before he’s allowed to run.

When the Rams fell into a 21-0 hole, the team seemed more concerned with chipping away toward a single first down than to take the big leaps necessary to get back into the game. Even as the game slipped further and further out of reach, the Rams’ urgency on offense never ratcheted up. Bradford didn’t attempt a long pass until late in the second quarter, and when he did Danario fell down and the ball was intercepted. Rather than write off that mistake and continue the necessary work of going for broke to win this game, Spagnuolo settled for small successes, small steps on the longer road of team-building.

The tens of thousands of Rams fans that filled the Dome sat in disbelief as Spagnuolo asked them all to have the same faith in the process, the long road, as he apparently does.