St. Louis Rams (2011 record: 2-14)
What went wrong?
Sam Bradford did enough in 2010 to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, leading the down-and-out Rams to a 7-9 record.
In fact, had the Rams beaten the Seahawks in the last game of the season, St. Louis would have claimed the NFC West, but it wasn’t meant to be.
A year later, and the offense went from scoring 18.1 points a game to bottoming out at 12.1, the worst in the league.
The biggest shake-up on offense was the exit of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who took the head coaching job in Cleveland. Filling Shurmur’s shoes was the exuberant, if polarizing, Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels may have been the air traffic controller for the Patriots’ record-setting offense in 2007, and the guiding light for Matt Cassel in 2008 after Tom Brady tore his ACL, but that’s about the end of the line for his positive accomplishments. After a tumultuous and controversial run as Denver’s head coach, McDaniels was brought to St. Louis to do for Bradford what he’d done for Brady and Cassel previously as coordinator.
The difference in one year was clear: Bradford played ten games in 2011, winning just one. His completion percentage sank from 60% to 53.5%. Bradford may have been without his diminutive speedster Danny Amendola, who played only one game due to a triceps injury, but he gained one-time receiving champion Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd, despite playing just eleven games, was the only receiver with more than two touchdown receptions.
It was the defense, however, that had the biggest collapse. After allowing a mediocre 20.5 points per game in 2010, that number bottomed out to a league-worst 25.4 PPG last season. Across the board, sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles all decreased, and the run defense went from allowing 113 yards a game in 2010 to 152 in 2011.
What have they done to fix it?
Head coach Steve Spagnuolo was expectedly canned after the season finale. After all, when you’re a defensive guru that learned from the late Jim Johnson, and installed the ‘magnificent eleven’ that ruined the Patriots' perfect season, expectations for your defense tend to be high.
Replacing Spagnuolo is Jeff Fisher, who in his sixteen full seasons as Oilers/Titans head coach, led his team into the top eight in points allowed four times, and the top seven in yards allowed five times. There were some bad years in the mid 2000s, but one could argue his Titans teams were wrought with injuries.
To that end, Fisher changed his practice approach, and de-emphasized the amount of contact in those practices. With an eye on maintaining a healthy roster, Fisher values continuity week to week, even though it didn’t translate to playoff success in the latter portion of his Titans’ run.
Immediately, Fisher’s focus has been on revamping the pitiful defense. With the 14th pick in the Draft, the Rams chose LSU’s Michael Brockers, who is a mountain of a man capable of forcibly stopping the run. Not only does this pick provide much needed clogging in the middle of the line, but the extra blockers needed to keep Brockers from breaking through will free up Chris Long to build on his 13-sack season of a year ago. To add to the defensive line upgrades, Fisher brought in former Titan comrade William Hayes, who’s been a go-to starter since 2008.
The Rams had four other selections within the first 65 picks, and two of them were used on corners: Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. While both may blossom into key components of an improved defense, the real catch-of-the-day was Fisher bringing in another familiar face: the brash and abrasive Cortland Finnegan.
The Rams' defense didn’t pack much oomph outside of Long, as well as James Laurinaitis’ reliable tackling, last season. Finnegan’s approach of pronounced swagger with frustratingly-tight coverage adds a significant edge to a defense that surely needed one.
With the exit of McDaniels, Sam Bradford will now answer to new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who comes off a six-season tenure with the New York Jets. Schottenheimer’s biggest weakness has been when his teams abandoned the run for long stretches(2008, when Brett Favre wore himself out, last season forcing Mark Sanchez to throw 57% of the time). With Steven Jackson and second-round pick Isaiah Pead in the backfield, plus a healthy Amendola to dump off to, Schottenheimer shouldn’t have to wear out Bradford’s arm or psyche out.
It’s going to take a lot to catch the San Francisco 49ers and their stonewall defense, and Jeff Fisher’s version of Rome won’t be built in a day. By fixing the problems on defense with players he trusts, it’ll give Bradford the peace of mind in knowing that he doesn’t have to rush his way into regaining the lead. A slower, more conservative offense will serve him well in his third season, especially as he bounces back from a high ankle sprain.
Bottom line: to bring out the best in Bradford, Fisher needs the defense to keep the games from getting out of hand. With considerable attention paid to improving the D as a whole, if they hold up their end, Bradford can manage the game efficiently, earning far more than just two paltry wins.