Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
In the sports world at large, there might not be a more abused, misused and otherwise overused phrase than the ever-popular but radically overplayed “must win game.”
With that said, is it possible that Sunday’s St. Louis Rams regular-season opener vs. the Arizona Cardinals could legitimately qualify as such?
At first thought, the inquiry seems ludicrous and absurd. Yes, I think I heard several of you groaning before even finishing the title.
Ideally, the must-win phrase would be locked away and only made available for critical matchups like game sevens of the World Series or NBA Finals, or for teams needing a win to ensure automatic qualification to the NCAA basketball Tournament.
Of course, that isn’t the case. We hear it used much, much more than on those rare occasions when it truly could and should be applied. Unfortunately, we see it casually verbalized at all sorts of odd, bewildering times.
Close to home, we hear fans and media alike tossing out the phrase during midseason Cardinals games. We hear spectators and announcers enunciating it far too often and much too soon during Blues seasons.
In short, we hear it far too frequently in situations that are far from concrete, bona-fide must-win situations.
However, in the case of the 2013 Rams and in the specific and strict context of a prospective playoff push, the home opener vs. NFC West foe Arizona is about as close to an authentic must-win affair as one might ever find in a Week 1 clash.
No, I haven’t yet lost my mind. There are at least three significant reasons why this week’s tilt comes darn close to registering as a genuine must-win battle.
Reason No. 1: The Extreme Youth
-As most probably know by now, St. Louis will enter the regular season with the league’s greenest roster for a second consecutive campaign. This youthful collection of individuals is comprised of more conglomerate talent than that of any Rams club since the finalization of the Greatest Show on Turf.
Being so young, an early-season defeat at home could be more difficult for this team to rebound from than a loss by a more veteran-laden club – one like the Denver Broncos or Green Bay Packers, for example. Yes, these are professionals, but many of them are just 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds entering their first or second NFL docket.
In fact, to put St. Louis’ extreme inexperience into further perspective, a full 55 percent of the franchise’s current roster is venturing into rookie or sophomore seasons. That’s young. If we equate these guys to entering such a theoretic thing as NFL school, most of them would be preparing for their initial days of kindergarten, first grade and elementary school with a few entering middle school. There are very few NFL experience equivalent high schoolers hanging around Rams Park.
Conversely, the perceived impressionability of a young roster can be a positive if a team opens with a Week 1 victory. A Sunday conquest could give St. Louis that extra confidence and swagger to head into the remaining stages of a brutally rough opening quarter of the slate and assist the Rams in getting off to a sound start.
Reason No. 2: The Rugged Schedule
The final paragraph of reason No. 1 offered up a fine segue to point No. 2: the Rams’ rugged four-game opening stretch – vs. Arizona, at Atlanta, at Dallas and vs. San Francisco – could serve to all but completely douse the team’s current hopes and expectations of a playoff run if it comes out of the gate limping to a 1-3 or 0-4 start.
Obviously, no team wants to open with a poor record to initiate the year, particularly a young one that hasn’t participated in the postseason party since the 2004 season.
After the first four weeks, the schedule looks to briefly ease up with a home dual vs. Jacksonville in Week 5. However, the entirety of the 16-game slate has been ranked as the third-most challenging in the entire league based on 2012 opponents’ records.
It is imperative, then – when considering both the team’s youth and its likely tough schedule – that it gets out of the action with a win against a beatable Cardinals team.
Reason No. 3: The One-Win Factor
If one looks at the projections of St. Louis columnists and beat writers such as ESPN’s Nick Wagoner or checks out Rams fan forums, you will see a pretty common theme in terms of a predicted Rams win total: 8-8 to 10-6.
As we see repetitively, those types of won-loss campaigns will place a team at or within a game of the playoff foray during just about any year.
Yesterday, I joined the already-packed 8-8 to 10-6 bandwagon by pegging the Rams at 9-7 in my complete 2013 player and team predictions piece.
In essence, this looks like a classic case of a club that could easily see one win or loss make all the difference in regard to whether the Rams end up participating in the Super Bowl chase for the first time in nine seasons or if they again end up watching other teams attempt to pursue a world title as they watch from home.
With the league’s rawest roster in regard to age, a treacherous opening quarter to the season’s docket, the third-most difficult overall schedule and a projected won-loss finish that shouts borderline playoff team, the quickly coming home opener vs. Arizona indeed comes about as close to a “must win” opener as one will ever witness.
St. Louis coaches, chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and general manager Les Snead have all talked of a goal of this potential upper-echelon defense leading the league in regard to third-down efficiency.
Of course, nothing helps a D more than an intensely loud home venue, one that makes it almost impossible for opposing offenses to communicate and one that breeds extra energy and adrenaline for everyone in the building – including the players on the field.
During the Greatest Show years, the Edward Jones Dome was known by many as the single loudest and most intense and intimidating venue in the entire league. Opposing coaches attested to that, and media such as ESPN discussed this advantage on many occasions.
If the Rams’ D and the entire team is going to have its optimal chance of sealing up a Week 1 win and performing at its peak, then Rams Nation and St. Louis indeed needs to #FillTheDome and #RockTheDome on Sunday. Tickets, by the way, are available at 314-Rams-Tix and stlouisrams.com.