Rams in St. Louis: Within Cycle of Extremes, Best Is Yet to Come

Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.

In this thing called life, time flies.

When we look back at our most memorable moments, reminisce about the triumphs and tragedies we’ve witnessed or dream about past places and times, we are often smacked with the realization of just how rapidly life proceeds.

The fact that it’s already been nearly two decades since the Los Angeles Rams moved to the Gateway City to become the St. Louis Rams is a vivid sports portrait of just that.

In 1995, the Rams planted roots in the region after current owner Stan Kroenke purchased 30 percent of the franchise under the explicit precondition that the organization move to Kroenke’s home state and the city of St. Louis – the birthplace of former majority owner Georgia Frontiere.

Yes, the NFL was back. But good NFL football was no closer to the Lou than it was in 1987 when the Cardinals left town.

In the first of three distinct cycles for the Rams in St. Louis, the franchise began an extreme rollercoaster ride that would make even the owners of Six Flags take notice.

From 1995 through 1998, the franchise took part in an ever-worsening countdown – winning seven games in ‘95, six in ‘96, five in ‘97 and just four in ‘98. From 1990 through 1998, the Rams racked up the league’s worst record.

Abruptly and without pre-notice or expectation, the franchise’s fortunes turned inexplicitly and – dare I say – almost miraculously in 1999. Sure, some signs of eventual better days abounded.

The Rams added left tackle Orlando Pace with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft. He showed signs of being dominant from Day 1.

Prior to the 1999 season, the Rams pulled off an historic trade with the Indianapolis Colts, stealing running back Marshall Faulk away from Indiana’s favorite football team. In that year’s draft, the Rams selected North Carolina State’s electrifying wide receiver Torry Holt with the sixth selection.

And the Rams returned a plethora of talented players, such as receiver Isaac Bruce, defensive end Kevin Carter, cornerback Todd Lyght and 101 ESPN’s resident defensive tackle D’Marco Farr.

But nobody outside of a few overly optimistic fans foresaw St. Louis immediately ascending to the peak of NFL performance and prominence. Nobody beyond Rams Park envisioned the Rams going 13-3 after a disastrous 4-12 campaign. Nobody outside the Rams locker room and coaching offices expected St. Louis to unleash an offense that would soon be known nationwide as the Greatest Show on Turf. And certainly, nobody expected this aforementioned O to be spearheaded by a 28-year-old ex-Arena League quarterback from Northern Iowa named Kurt Warner. Kurt who?

Nonetheless, the “gotta go to work” Rams of head coach Dick Vermeil finished the 1999 campaign as the league’s top team. They rode into the sunset with the unforgettable words of Mike Bush echoing in their ears: “St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, is now the gateway to the best … football team in the world!”

From 1999 through 2004, the Rams amassed a 64-32 record while reaching the playoffs in five of six seasons. Most notably, the Rams compiled a 14-2 mark in 2001 and returned to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. In one of the game’s historic upsets, the New England Patriots defeated St. Louis after entering the matchup as a 14-point underdog.

In three consecutive seasons, St. Louis scored more than 500 points, a feat no other franchise before or after has replicated.

Certainly the years of 1999 through 2004 qualify as a second distinct extreme.

Unfortunately, extreme No. 3 might be the most outlandish of all.

Just as era two came with immediacy and shockwaves, era three came just as fast, bringing shock to a city that had finally began to get accustomed to seeing legitimate NFL football after four years of futility from the Rams and decades of mostly bad gridiron action from the Cardinals. The downfall was a particularly cruel one for a metro area consistently clad with subpar football throughout its NFL lifetime.

Beginning in 2005, the Rams began to ease toward an era of historic ineptness. Although a 6-10 campaign and an 8-8 follow-up in 2006 were disappointing enough to St. Louis fans, those seasons were merely poor tasting, undercooked appetizers to the miserable football menu that was about to be released upon the STL.

From 2007 through 2011, the Rams put together the single worst five-year stretch in NFL history – going just 15-65 and posting seasons with win totals of three, two, two and one during that tumultuous time.

To put it in further perspective, St. Louis won but one home game in 2007, one in 2008, none in 2009 and one in 2011. In those four seasons, the Rams came away victorious just three times beneath the Gateway Arch.

But enough already about the team’s failed, forgettable third era in St. Louis. Good riddance to the days of Scott Linehan, Steve Spagnuolo and one atrocious draft (see Jason Smith, Tye Hill and Joe Klopfenstein) and free-agency period (see Drew Bennett) after another.

The 2012 offseason marked the beginning of a fourth era, an era that could legitimately end up being the best and longest sustained stretch of good football that St. Louis fans have ever witnessed.

The previous best stretch of football here occurred during the aforementioned Greatest Show period, part of a larger six-year stretch that generated five postseason appearances.

However, the franchise did not have the foundation in place then to construct a sustainable, long-term “generation” of success, such as what we have seen over the last decade-plus from the Baltimore Ravens, nearly two decades from the hated Patriots or a nearly nonstop time of competitive, successful football from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The franchise did not have anyone like vice president of football operations and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff on board during its brief run of excellence. They did not have a man in charge capable of overseeing every aspect of the organization with expertise and consistency in the manner Demoff does.

The franchise did not retain a proven head coach like Jeff Fisher following Vermeil’s sudden retirement after the Super Bowl win. Although the Rams were very successful after promoting Mike Martz to head coach from offensive coordinator, the Greatest Show Rams were never again led by an experienced field general and never won another NFL championship. Today’s Rams, though, have a highly paid veteran in Fisher who loves the front office setup and who enjoys working with Demoff, a man whose relationship with Fisher pre-dates Fisher’s STL arrival. In short, Fisher is unlikely to go anywhere for a long, long, long time, a la Bill Belichick.

The Greatest Show Rams also did not have a GM of Les Snead’s pedigree, talent or boldness. The convoluted power structure that included Jay Zygmunt and Charles Armey was destined to eventually fail, as it did.

Furthermore, St. Louis did not have the type of pro personnel department and scouting staff that it has continued to revamp and upgrade over the past year. This, too, is something that will set St. Louis up for long-term success. There was also a time when the Rams were relatively cheap in regard to adding undrafted free agents. Those days, too, are a distant memory.

All of the above sets the Rams up to compete for the foreseeable future and beyond. But this only scratches the surface as to why St. Louis should see a sustained era of good football unlike any it has previously seen.

Due to the 2012 pre-draft Robert Griffin III trade, the Rams have collected a multitude of premium prospects during the last two drafts and will be armed with two highly coveted first-round picks for a second straight year when the 2014 NFL draft rolls around, a draft that many are forecasting to be one of the best at the top end that the league has seen in a long time.

Coming off a 7-8-1 campaign that saw them go 4-1-1 in the NFC West, the Rams will enter the 2013 season with a strong nucleus in place with Sam Bradford, Chris Givens, Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Jake Long, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins on board and the league’s youngest roster to develop and nourish via one of the league’s best and most experienced coaching staffs.

In addition, the Rams should finally begin having some considerable cap space to work with beginning in the 2014 offseason. This will afford them an opportunity to go out and target any and all of the missing pieces they might feel desirous of adding to help bolster a hopeful playoff and/or Super Bowl run.

Could St. Louis be on the threshold of a fourth distinct era, an era that will take the Rams back to the top? I believe the answer there is clearly yes.

More importantly, it appears the people and organizational structure is in place for this new era to break the cycle of pristine peaks and lackluster lows we’ve seen. It appears the pieces are coming together in all areas to build a consistently good, competitive franchise that can be competitive year after year – as we see in Baltimore, New England and Pittsburgh.

With Demoff, Fisher and Snead in place, two new first-rounders on board, two more on the way in 2014 and the league’s youngest roster in place, the sky is the limit for St. Louis – now and for a long, long time.

And none of this – it must be said – would be possible without Kroenke’s vision for the organization, his willingness to spend to the cap year in and year out, the hires of Demoff, Snead and Fisher, and the willingness to allocate tremendous resources to the signings of a top-tier coaching staff and to the undrafted free agent budget, among other things. A sustained era of consistently competitive football appears to be impending and – make no mistake – that starts at the top with Kroenke.