Rams Look Like Eight-Win Team as Opener Approaches

The Rams open on Sunday, Sept. 7, against Minnesota, and that’s probably a good matchup for them to open the season. Both teams have plenty of questions to answer coming out of the 2013 season.

Shaun Hill-2
Shaun Hill

Even before Sam Bradford went down for the year in Week 3 of the preseason, St. Louis had a question mark next to the QB position. Now, well, maybe it’s two or three question marks next to the QB position. Shaun Hill is widely viewed as one of the more solid backup QB options in the NFL, but there’s a difference between being a solid backup and a 16-game starter. Hill is experienced; he did pretty well between 2008-10, when he had his most extensive shots at playing time. But he’s hardly played the last three seasons, so it’s natural to have doubts about him as a starter.

Most of the Rams’ team seems to be in pretty good shape. The running backs look solid, the receivers finally seem to have taken a step forward (though they still have to prove it in the regular season), the offensive line is experienced and talented (if healthy, which is a legitimate concern), the linebackers seem poised to become an even more impactful group in 2014, and the defensive line is arguably the best in the NFL.

The secondary and the quarterback positions are the biggest question marks, and the season will be determined by the performance of those two units.

Before Bradford’s injury, I was really leaning toward thinking that this was a nine-win team with a one- or two-game swing possible on either side of that (depending on health and on whether or not Bradford could have a “career year”). I’ll make my official picks on Thursday or Friday of Week 1, but right now, I’m leaning toward calling an eight-win season for the Rams. I’m not sure if that’s overly optimistic or not (and I might change my mind over the next week), but I think they have a puncher’s chance in most weeks because of the defense. If they can turn some of Gregg Williams’ pressure-packed plays into turnovers, or even defensive scores, then I think eight or nine wins is a reasonable expectation. If not, you’re probably looking at another seven-win season.

Here’s how I come to the eight-win feeling right now: They went 7-9 last season (and 4-5 with Kellen Clemens starting), and I think Hill will outperform Clemens for sure. Plus, other units are better than they were in 2013. I’d count the offensive line, the receiving corps and the linebackers being better than they were in 2013. So if Hill can be better than Clemens (and I believe he will be), and those other units improve as I expect them to, then you could still see a slight uptick from 2013.

That said, the margin for error is smaller now. One or two more key injuries could put the Rams back in the five-six-win range. With reasonably good health (nobody in the NFL stays “healthy” all season), I think the Rams’ range is six-nine wins this season. It would be six with injuries and/or setbacks from certain players, and it would be nine if everything goes well.

I’m not totally set on that, still have some thinking to do, but that’s where I am today…

In Other News…

 Major League Baseball is in its stretch run. Games become even more meaningful and more tense as the finish line draws near. The Cardinals are in a two-front battle entering September, facing off with the Brewers in the NL Central and the Giants, Braves, Pirates and maybe the Marlins in the NL wild-card race.

Yadier Molina 3
Yadier Molina

Both races are too close to call at the moment, but with the Cardinals getting Yadier Molina back for the Cubs series – and with Michael Wacha inching closer to a return – they just might get the boost they need for the final month of the regular season.

The Cardinals have been a disappointment in that they haven’t met expectations – ours or their own – but they still have every single one of their goals sitting right there in front of them. I know people don’t want to hear about 2006 or 2011 because this roster isn’t the same as those, but the fact remains that those were both teams underachieving at this stage of the year, teams that people were piling on and tearing to shreds for a lack of performance – and they won it all. I don’t know if this team has it in them to pull that off or not, but I do know that Yogi Berra was right – it ain’t over until it’s over.

We finally – finally! – have a college football playoff. Even though it’s only a four-team playoff, it’s still a playoff, and it most certainly opens the door for an expanded playoff format in the future.

On the national scene, you’ll see a lot of names near the top of polls right now that are the same as last year – Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan State and so on – and, at this moment, they look like the best contenders for spots in the playoff along with UCLA, Stanford and perhaps a couple of other teams floating under the radar at the moment. After the SEC opener, in which Texas A&M dismantled No. 9 South Carolina as new Aggies QB Kenny Hill shattered Johnny Manziel’s single-game record for passing yards in his first start, maybe A&M should be looked at as a possible sleeper.

Mizzou comes into 2014 having established that it’s no SEC lightweight. I don’t know what this season will hold for the Tigers since they’ll be counting on new players at QB, RB and WR (as well as along the defensive line) but I do know that they’re capable of holding their own in one of the two toughest conferences in college football. Maty Mauk is a talented young QB, and I like him a lot – but there’s always a bit of uncertainty when a new guy takes over on a full-time basis.

I don’t think the Tigers will repeat the success they had in 2013, nor do I think they’ll repeat the difficulty of 2012. I’m thinking they’ll win eight or nine games this fall, which would be a nice season with so many new skill players taking over as starters. Then again, if South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all repeat what they did last year, that might open up a shot at a spot in the SEC championship game again.

Enjoy all the action. It’s time to strap in for the next couple of months. Then, the NHL and the Blues jump right into the mix to keep things exciting into the late fall and winter. As for the Blues, I think I’m safe in saying that most of us are expecting big things from them in 2014-15. More on that in a few weeks.

More: Austin Davis on Being Rams’ New Immediate Backup