When the Rams closed out the 2011 season and the Steve Spagnuolo/Billy Devaney era against San Francisco on New Year’s Day of 2012, they did so with six offensive starters who would never start another game in the NFL, four of those offensive linemen, and eight players who are out of the league as we start the third season of the Jeff Fisher era. The only three Rams who started on offense that day who are still in the league are Kellen Clemens, Steven Jackson and, after a year off, Brandon Lloyd. On defense, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Josh Gordy and Darian Stewart are on rosters to start 2014. Of the seven other starters that day who aren’t in the NFL now, five of them – Fred Robbins, James Hall, Brady Poppinga, Chris Chamberlain and Rod Hood – combined for one more start, by Poppinga, in the NFL.
Twenty-two starters, seven of whom are in the NFL in the third season removed. That wasn’t a talented team. In fact, only three of the talented 49ers who played that day are out of the league: tight end Justin Peelle and wide receiver Brent Swain, who was replacing injured Kyle Williams, and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.
As the Rams start the 2014 season Sunday against Minnesota, they are far more talented than they were. As opposed to that offensive line that had one player start another game in the league, the group the Rams will start against the Vikings has a good present and future. Most of a line that paved the way for the Rams to be second in rushing in the league over a 10-game stretch will be on hand, and upgraded with Greg Robinson and Davin Joseph replacing Chris Williams.
The Rams’ receiver corps may have the most promise since the end of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce’s Rams careers. Going back to the 2011 finale, Rams wide receivers who caught passes that day were Lloyd, Danario Alexander and Brandon Gibson. The current group of Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis and Chris Givens has more talent and explosiveness than that one.
Jackson and Cadillac Williams played running back that day. Williams never played again. Jackson has continued a sad trend of getting injured. The young, competitive group of Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, Tre Mason and Trey Watts not only has a better present than that group had, but a much brighter future. The talent at tight end now easily trumps the group of Billy Bajema, Steven Spach and rookie Lance Kendricks.
While that defensive line had a couple of guys who never played again, this one might be the best in the NFL. The current linebacking corps is deeper and more athletic, and there is no comparison between the corners on that team (Hood, Gordy, Chris Smith, Nate Ness, Justin King) and this one.
The talent level has been enhanced. The special teams are better. Fisher’s coaching staff is head and shoulders above what Spags’ staff brought to the table. For the third year in a row, the Rams will be the youngest team in the league.
So what can hold the Rams back? I see three items. The first, obviously, is the division. Not only do the 49ers still have an exceptionally talented team, but they’ve replaced Alex Smith from that team with the more explosive Colin Kaepernick. The Seahawks have clearly upgraded and are the defending Super Bowl champs. And the Arizona Cardinals 10 games last year, although they’ve been depleted by suspensions, free-agent defections and age.
Secondly, while Fisher has built an extremely tough, physical, grind-it-out team, the NFL is, more than ever, a league of explosive plays and scoring. Of the 12 playoff teams from 2013, seven were in the top 10 in passing. Ten of the top 12 scoring teams in the NFL made the playoffs. Are the Rams going to be that explosive?
And third, is it even possible to be that explosive with Shaun Hill at quarterback? Not a knock against Hill, I just don’t know. He’s never been a starter for a whole season before. Certainly, the surrounding cast is better than anything he’s ever played with, but can he win those games when the Rams can’t impose their will on the opponent physically?
My concerns outweigh my hopes, but it’s not like there is no chance. One of the teams that made the playoffs last year that didn’t throw the ball around the yard and didn’t score a ton offensively happened to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were tied for eighth in scoring, but they ran the ball the second-most times in the league, 31.8 times per game. They were second-to-last in pass attempts per game and 26th, just ahead of the Clemens-led Rams, in passing yards. Russell Wilson made those attempts count, however, throwing 26 TD passes to rank 10th. Despite being 22nd individually in attempts, Wilson’s touchdown percentage of 6.4 percent was third in the league.
If Hill can come close to that, the Rams’ running game, special teams and defense are good enough to carry the day in the rest of the categories. It’ll be a daunting task, and the odds are against the Rams; but if the quarterback situation falls into place, they can be a playoff team.