Being in a division with great teams isn't nearly as detrimental in the NFL as it is in the MLB, but it can't be ignored that sometimes you're only as good as the opponents you face most often. Seattle itself made the playoffs as recently as 2010 simply because there wasn't even an average team in the NFC West, we were just the least suckiest of all the sucks.
For the purpose of this series, I'll just be checking in with the teams that we'll play twice-a-piece this year, starting with the Rams.
2011 Record: 2-14
Standard League Offensive Rankings: 32nd scoring offense, 31st total offense, 30th in passing offense, 32nd in passing touchdowns, 4th in interceptions, 23rd in rushing offense, 29th in rushing touchdowns, 20th in yards per carry, 11th in turnovers.
Standard League Defensive Rankings: 26th in scoring defense, 22nd in total defense, 7th in pass defense, 9th in passing touchdowns, 23rd in interceptions, 31st in rushing defense, 27th in rushing touchdowns allowed, 28th in yards per carry, 28th in turnovers forced.
Football Outsiders: 20th in DEF DVOA, 17th in Weighted Defense, 15th against the pass, 29th against the run, 30th in OFF DVOA, 32nd in Weighted Offense, 31st passing offense, 28th rushing offense.
2011 Head Coach: Steve Spagnuolo. Fired on January 2nd, 2012 with GM Billy Devaney and replaced by HC Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead. Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended for involvement in the Saints bounty scandal. Fisher has stated there won't be a DC for the Rams this season.
Key Free Agent Additions: CB Courtland Finnegan, DT Kendall Langford, C Scott Wells, WR Steve Smith, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
"Key" Losses: RB Cadillac Williams, WR Brandon Lloyd, K Josh Brown, DE James Hall.
The Rams had the worst offense in the NFL last season by more than a few measures. Arguments could be made for other teams depending on how you look at it, but all you really need to know is that they mustered just sixteen offensive touchdowns. LeSean McCoy ran for 17 touchdowns all by himself. Heck, Rob Gronkowski caught 17 touchdowns.
All you need to know about their win over the Saints in St. Louis is that winning on the road in the NFL is hard. Fantasy owners loaded up on Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and even Chris Ivory against the leagues worst rushing defense but they only managed 56 yards on 20 carries. Other than that one game, the Rams were terrible in every way. Even for the Rams, a team that has won an NFL record-low 15 games over five seasons, this is finding exactly where the rock hits the bottom.
The punishment doled out was firing Spagnuolo and GM Devaney and bringing in Fisher, a head coach for sixteen and a half years with Houston/Tennessee. During that time, the Titans had double-digit victories six times, six playoff appearances, and one Super Bowl appearance in one of the best finishes in NFL history. However, his last playoff win came in 2003 and he has five losing seasons on his resume, too. (Not including a 1-5 rookie head coach season.)
There just seems to be an advantage, in many cases, to be "younger" as a head coach than to be older. If you are going to be successful in this regard, you have to adapt to the game and not expect the game to adapt to your style.... you know, the one that worked ten years ago. (Of course I don't count Pete Carroll in this category because he spent so much time at USC and he's always on the cutting edge!)
The 41-year-old Snead comes over to take over General Manager duties after spending the last thirteen years with Atlanta, the last three of which as Director of Player Personnel.
One might think that with such a terrible offense, the Rams would have invested more on that side of the ball, but they actually seemed to focus more on improving a terrible run defense and a decent pass defense. Although, why would anybody pass on the Rams in a threatening manner? I can't help but think of one of my favorite lines from Not Another Teen Movie when the hero wants to throw a TD pass to the "Lucas" character and Reggie Ray (Billy Bob) replies:
"Shoot, we're up 42-nuttin'!"
You don't pass the ball when you're up "42-0" and the Rams lost by double-digits nine times last season and saw just 484 pass attempts. Drew Brees threw the ball 657 times. Hell, the Browns threw the ball 570 times.
So yeah, their defense sucked too. The most immediate impacts you'll see to the team in 2012 will be on defense with Langford and Brockers on the defensive line and Finnegan, Jenkins, Johnson added to the defensive backs.
Langford and Brockers should start right away and honestly when they team up with Chris Long and Robert Quinn, the defensive line might not look too bad. Long is shaping up to be a very good pass rusher if he can get help around him and Quinn had five sacks last season when he was only 21-years-old. Hayes, a Fisher disciple from the Titans, was added for depth on a one-year deal.
If the Rams can stop opposing backs from gaining 4.8 yards per carry again that will force more teams to throw at them and they immediately upgraded when they signed Finnegan, one of the top free agents available this season. If character or off-field issues weren't a factor at all, then Finnegan might have had a broader market for his services and Janoris Jenkins could have been a top-15 pick. The potential of the secondary is high and third-round pick Trumaine Johnson is also considered to be fighting for a starting spot. The DB out of Montana has long arms, is fast, physical and has ideal size for a corner, and was seen by some as a possible late-1st, early-2nd but the Rams got him in the third.
Defensively, they should be better and if not, they just wasted a bunch of money and a first round draft pick. (Oh Hi Jason Smith, Adam Carriker, Tye Hill, Alex Barron, Jimmy Kennedy, Robert Thomas, Damione Lewis, Adam Archuleta, and Ryan Pickett!)
Offensively, the Rams got Sam Bradford a little bit of help on the line by adding Pro Bowl center Scott Wells but he won't do anything to help his blind side. The failure of Jason Smith to live up to being a first round pick, let alone the #2 overall pick, has forced Roger Saffold to protect his blind side even though he's better suited on the right.
The leading returning receivers are Brandon Gibson and Danario Alexander, each with 431 yards last year, and they'll be expecting Danny Amendola to return to health plus the additions of rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens. Austin Pettis, a third round pick just last season, is on the chopping block already. Greg Salas showed some potential and Steve Smith was a good slot receiver once, but the Rams still lack a true number one and maybe even a solid number two.
At 6'4", 220 with ~4.50 speed, Quick could develop into the number one guy for Bradford, but it won't matter if the QB doesn't get any protection in 2012. Ideally, Alexander would line up opposite of quick, and Amendola or Smith would be in the slot (and they have both shown they can be very good when healthy) but it's a guessing game at this point. At 5'11, 198 with a 40 time of 4.41, Givens could develop into another good slot receiver.
Pead will be a complement to Steven Jackson and his 2,000+ career carries, as a smaller, speedy back that should get a few touches but in a different mold than Jackson. Still, he could turn into a good weapon for Bradford as soon as year one.
I don't see how the Rams will all of a sudden be even a top-20 offense in 2012 but I do believe that Bradford can be good if he's given a real chance to succeed. They just didn't add a whole lot of experienced skill talent around him and they opted against a player like Justin Blackmon or Matt Kalil as a high draft pick, instead going with Quick in the second.
On Special Teams, they cut Josh Brown haha.
@ Detroit Lions
@ Arizona Cardinals
San Francisco 49ers
@ Seattle Seahawks
I don't like to make season predictions based on a schedule where you're also trying to predict how good the opponents are based on 2011. This isn't 2011 anymore. How many people thought that the Bengals were a playoff team? Or that the 49ers would be 13-3? I will say that it appears that their home schedule is tougher than their road schedule, which doesn't bode well for the Rams. I mean, wouldn't you rather face the Dolphins, Bills, and Bucs at home and face the Packers, Patriots, and Jets on the road? It might be more difficult to beat the Packers in Green Bay but are they going to beat them in St. Louis anyway? Well, I guess that's what we would have said about the Saints too.
Best guess is three wins on the low-end and seven wins on the very, absolutely-best-case-scenario, high end.
As of today, I'd be surprised if they didn't finish last again this season but with a much brighter outlook for the future.