No matter how well things were going at different points of the season for the St. Louis Rams, coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney always cautioned that things weren't always what or how they seemed. They knew where the flaws were and did their best to disguise them, but that could only last as long as they weren't exposed.
The veil was lifted in St. Louis' most important game of the season, the all-or-nothing NFC West title finale at Seattle. The receivers Spagnuolo and Devaney propped up, despite them knowing they weren't top tier, dropped open passes over and over. The defense was okay, but didn't manage enough plays to negate quarterback Charlie Whitehurst in his second career start. At the worst time possible, the cracks in St. Louis' mortar turned to valleys and it ended up out of the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
Despite that bitter ending and sub-.500 mark, it was a six-game gain from 2009, when St. Louis finished with the worst record in the NFL. The main reason for the turnaround was the selection of quarterback Sam Bradford with the top overall draft pick. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year is "the goods" and because of that, a losing mark from here on out won't be good enough.
Here are the reasons for optimism, of course, with some potential trapdoors.
1. What happens when schedule toughens up?
First off, St. Louis plays in the NFC West and with all regards to San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona, the division isn't the AFC North, NFC South or NFC East. So St. Louis' division schedule is still very favorable. While we're on the AFC North and NFC East, that's who St. Louis has to play, as well as the Super Bowl XLV champion Packers and Super Bowl XLIV champion Saints.
And St. Louis has the division's best quarterback.
2. Is McDaniels good for Bradford's development?
It sure isn't a bad thing. Former Broncos coach and new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a pass-first schemer and play-caller. He will help Bradford learn to read defenses and diagnose routes and options quickly. McDaniels is very adept at breaking down defenses and adjusting on the fly, so Bradford's growth could actually be accelerated.
McDaniels also is used to coaching teams that don't have a stable of great receivers. With an abundance of short and intermediate routes, he'll be able to help the Rams overcome their talent issues at receiver and make players out of some of them. A key personnel decision will be whether the Rams opt to re-sign free-agent wide receiver Mark Clayton. Clayton was having a magnificent rebirth to his career before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. He is viewed as a valuable player and a good presence in the locker room.
Also, Bradford should flourish in McDaniels' spread scheme. Remember, the knock on Bradford (other than his shoulder injury) when he came out of college was he could struggle playing under center as a spread quarterback at Oklahoma. Well, he didn't struggle under center, but he's also going back to concepts of a scheme in which he's experienced.
3. What could scheme change mean for Jackson?
This is where things could get interesting. Jackson is the guts of the offense, yet McDaniels is a pass-first coach/coordinator. S-Jack has carried the ball 654 times in two seasons under Spagnuolo (and former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur). The only other time in his seven-year career that he had 300-plus carries was in his remarkable 2006 season, when he had 346 attempts for 1,528 yards. The Rams need Jackson to run the ball for the offense to succeed and to offset Bradford's inexperience.
Here's the catch -- literally. Jackson also is an adept receiver. He had 46 receptions last season and, in 2006, he had 90 catches for 806 yards and three touchdowns. So while Jackson might not get as many carries under McDaniels, his overall touches could be in the same ballpark because he'll likely be targeted in the passing game.
4. What must improve on defense?
Moving Chris Long to left defensive end and the further development of Laurinaitis gave the Rams some nice long-term pillars. Veteran end James Hall had a monster year (10.5 sacks, six forced fumbles) as did defensive tackle Fred Robbins (six sacks). Cornerback Ron Bartell and safety O.J. Atogwe are solid on the back end.
St. Louis must get faster and better at outside linebacker, and it has to add some younger depth on the defensive line. The Rams were one of the better scoring defenses in the NFL (20.5 points per game). They also garnered 43 sacks last season. If the crafty Spagnuolo can add more playmakers (St. Louis had 14 interceptions and 26 total turnovers -- marginal numbers), this defense could be something to reckon with.
5. How might the Rams improve their roster?
St. Louis hasn't been too involved in signing big-money free-agents, but part of that could have been because the team was for sale. Now that deep-pocketed Stan Kroenke owns the team, he could try to make a few splash moves. With the need to upgrade passing targets, players like wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Marcedes Lewis (if they aren't franchised by their respective clubs) could be on the radar (Vincent Jackson could be a target, too, but the Chargersplaced a franchise tag on the receiver).
St. Louis could also add a wideout, like Alabama's Julio Jones, through the draft. The Rams also have to look hard at getting a play-making, pass-rushing outside linebacker, depth along the offensive line and some help at running back behind Jackson. The Falcons' big-play, but injury-prone, running back Jerious Norwood seems headed for the open market and he could be an inexpensive option for tailback depth and in the kick-return game.