The NFL lockout has ended or just-about-ended and the St. Louis Rams can get back to trying to build on an encouraging 7-9 record in 2010. They've already replaced departed Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur with former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels. They've bolstered the defense with first round draft selection Robert Quinn and the wide receiving corps with Austin Pettis & Greg Salas.
Now's the time to fill in the rest...
The Rams, just like every other NFL franchise, have had several months to think about what they needed to do when this moment came, but only days to execute their plans - audibles and all. It would be a terribly unfair thing to expect big things from the Rams in a matter of days under normal circumstances. But whatever it is we're about to see is unprecedented and probably undervalued.
Decisions are going to be made that could hurt teams in a big way. It's going to get intense.
So what specifically do the Rams need to do to make it back to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 2004-05? Let's break it down:
1- Get a number-one wide receiver. I'm in favor of giving Mark Clayton a contract that gives him a chance to prove that his 2010 season wasn't a fluke. I think that Danario Alexander could be a very intriguing prospect with an entirely healthy off-season. The '11 draft class looks like it might have a couple nice prospects to get in the mix for Bradford as the season progresses.
But where is that DUDE?
Options include Santonio Holmes, Vincent Jackson and Sindey Rice - all free agents (Jackson's availability TBD.) But the DUDE that the Rams can build on for the next 3-4 years? Stevie Breaston.
He's got breakout potential and is being overshadowed in Arizona by Larry Fitzgerald and the lack of a pro QB. Bring him to the Rams and let him and Bradford create some magic.
2- Acquire a backup running back.
If you think the Rams need to re-invent the wheel here, you're wrong. Many time the vox populi of football fans is awful. But the Darren Sproles chorus that has been growing for months IS the right call.
Shifty and quick, McDaniels can use him in multiple sets and formations all over the field. He can return kicks and punts if needed. And for his size isn't afraid to run inside and grind out a couple tough yards - so Spags isn't losing that pound and ground he loves with SJ39 in the backfield.
Feels like this one is all but in the bag - so let's just hope the Rams close.
3- Learn fast. It's never easy to bring a new OC on to the job. And it's no easier when it's your franchise players 2nd coordinator in as many years. But the Rams don't have the luxury of taking their time getting to know each other very well before the hammer called the Rams first quarter comes in and smacks them in the face.
Eagles. Giants. Ravens. Redskins.
That leaves about zero room for any sort of covering up for mistakes by playing some weak defenses. The Rams are going to depend on McDaniels to really make his offense not only manageable, but also more innovative. A tough balancing act for a guy who prides himself on his system.
4- Progress, not regress, on defense.
All said, the Rams had a very solid defense in 2010. Bernie did the research over at the Post-Dispatch:
"Seventh among the league's 32 teams in sacks, second in percentage of third-down stops, tied for fifth in fewest touchdowns allowed from scrimmage. Only Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New Orleans and Baltimore gave up fewer TDs than the 2010 Rams defense. The Rams were 14th in takeaways, gave up only seven rushing touchdowns, and limited opposing QBs to a passer rating of 80.4, which was the ninth-best performance by a pass defense. The Rams ranked 12th in points allowed, 20.5 per game."
So while the offense has rightfully taken the brunt of these types of columns for the past five months - the defense can still get better- especially in the Points Allowed per game.
This isn't going to shake out like we expect it to. Not by a long shot. But just like any of the games we watch, we're going to see some big winners and some big losers the next couple of weeks.
The Rams in the past have been more of a plodding and calculating franchise that reacts more than it acts. In 2011, that could spell disaster.
The NFC is ripe for the taking and the Rams have the opportunity to upgrade their team in a couple of key areas that will put them in prime position to get back to the big dance.
Can they deliver?