The culmination of the 2013 National Football League season brings the country’s biggest game to the country’s biggest city. This Sunday thousands of fans and media will descend on the New York area with millions more tuning in from around the globe to watch the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks do battle for the sport’s biggest prize and be crowned NFL champion.
Everyone knows the clichés “Defense wins championships!” and “The best defense is a good offense.” This year’s Super Bowl is one of the most anticipated games in recent memory because it will pit those two clichés head to head as the number one ranked offense (Denver) battles the number one ranked defense (Seattle) in Super Bowl 48.
Just how good is each offense and defense respectively? The Peyton Manning-led Broncos had the top-ranked pass offense, the top-ranked total offense, and the top ranked scoring offense. Manning himself had a historic 2013 campaign, setting single season records for both passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Couple this with the Seahawks defense that was tops in the league in pass defense, scoring defense, and total defense, and you get a very rare matchup: the clear-cut best defense going against the clear-cut best offense. This will be only the sixth occurrence of such a matchup Super Bowl history and only the fourth since the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970. The last occurred in 1991 (before most of the students in my classes were even born) when the top-ranked defense of the New York Giants defeated the top-ranked offense of the Buffalo Bills 20 to 19 in Super Bowl 25 (my older readers will remember the name Scott Norwood). Sunday also marks only the fourth time in the current playoff system that the top seeded team in each league will play each other, with both teams winning 13 games in the regular season to secure the number one seed.
The 2013 campaign for the St. Louis Rams kept fans on an emotional roller coaster all season long. There were the highs of blowout wins over Chicago, Indy, and New Orleans, the emergence of Zac Stacy as a feature back, and Tavon Austin racking up 3 touchdowns of over 55 yards in a little over a quarter against the Colts. There were the lows too, though: an injury that prematurely ended Sam Bradford’s season (which was statistically the best early season of his career), abysmal losses to Dallas and Tennessee, and coming up one yard short against the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football.
Throughout this topsy-turvy season, however, there was one constant: Defensive End Robert Quinn was dominant. He was not just one of the Rams’ best players; he was one of the best players in the entire NFL. This was confirmed last week when Quinn received the prestigious PFWA (Pro Football Writers of America) Defensive Player of the Year Award. And the honors didn’t stop there. He was selected to the Pro-Bowl as a first-team all-pro and earlier this week was picked to be one of the four Pro-Bowl captains.
The NFL is back! Every year the first weekend of August marks the unofficial kickoff of the new pro football season with the Hall of Fame Game. With this game, the six month long separation between football and fans ends and the new season begins. Also during this time, NFL teams are wrapping up their training camps, preparing to move into preseason workouts.For the second year in a row the St. Louis Rams concluded training camp with “Fan Fest.” This year’s event allowed fans the opportunity to tour the locker rooms, attempt a field goal, test their passing accuracy, or just hang out on the field.
The Rams also allowed a limited number of fans to attend a Q & A session with team executives Kevin Demoff (VP Football Operations and C.O.O), Tony Pastoors (Senior Assistant) and Les Snead (General Manager). Needless to say, you know where I spent my time at this event.
I had the opportunity to ask Demoff what the internal expectations are for the 2013 season.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the record is. Whether it’s 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, or even 9-6-1; it’s to win the NFC West and host a playoff game,” Pastoors added.
In order to achieve (or even get close) to those goals, the Rams are going to need a big impact from their new talent to complement last season’s strong defensive effort with a down-the-field offense that translates into points. The Rams have to improve in the red zone and on 3rd downs. The team ranked in the bottom half in red zone touchdown percentage at 51.35%, and Rams quarterbacks had a red zone passer rating of only 74.7, which was 27th in the league. Additionally third down conversion percentage was only 32.1% (29th in the league), and 26.37% of the time the Rams had a three-and-out, the 5th worst percent in the league. When asked about how the Rams would improve the offense, GM Les Snead said, “I told these guys (scouting and personnel staff) ‘go find people to score touchdowns.’ The more weapons you can get on offense to make the defense try to figure out where to go, the better.”
Following perhaps the most disappointing season in recent memory, the St. Louis Rams fired both head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney earlier today.
After finishing last season 7-9, 2011 was seen as a measure of optimism, perhaps a turnaround season that could get the Rams back into the playoffs, or at the least at the brink of respectability. Many pundits predicted the Rams to win a weak NFC West. Unfortunately, this never really panned out. A much tougher schedule combined with a plethora of injuries to key players sank the season almost as soon as it began, and the Rams finished the season 2-14.
As a Rams fan (yes, I’ll admit it, I watch the Rams), I tried to approach each week with a sense of (irrational?) optimism. Even after starting the season off 0-6, they somehow managed to upset the New Orleans Saints 31-21. After that, though, other than a 13-12 win at Cleveland, it was pretty much a grab bag full of desolation and shattered dreams, much like my love life.
Spagnuolo finished his tenure as head coach with a 10-38 record. Having never met the man, word is he’s a generally likable guy, respected by his players. The greatest evidence of this can be found in the effort put forth by the team each week. Even yesterday, when a loss (coupled with a Colts loss) would have provided them greater leverage in the upcoming draft, the Rams went down fighting, losing to the San Francisco 49ers (who clinched the second seed in the NFC) by one touchdown.
In the end, however, the NFL is a results-driven league, and simply put, he didn’t get results. He also ruffled feathers to a minor extent earlier this season when he removed pictures and memorabilia around Rams Park that pertained to the Greatest Show on Turf. Some people called for him to get another chance next season, given the rash of injuries, the lack of a training camp this season, etc. The problem with this, however, is that EVERY team faces injury problems and had to deal with a lack of a training camp.
Had Spags been the manager of the Cardinals and had a .208 winning percentage, that’d amount to a 34-128 record. Now imagine him removing pictures and memorabilia around Busch Stadium that pertained to Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and other icons who won World Series.
How long would you see him staying manager? Exactly.
I’m simplifying this, of course, but in layman’s terms, the Rams weren’t winning. As for Devaney, the drafts of the last few years were extraordinarily hit-or-miss. Although the Rams have drafted some good talent in the last few years, such as James Laurinaitis and Sam Bradford [more on him in a minute], many of their players have been too injured to determine their future (Bradley Fletcher, Jason Smith, Rodger Saffold), while some have just been flat out busts (hello, Mardy Gilyard).
So now, where do the Rams go from here?
Obviously, the first step will be to look for a head coach. Rumors flew last week about Jon Gruden, but were quickly squashed. Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy have both expressed a desire to remain in their current position as tv analysts. The Rams plan to speak with former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher this week. Fisher, who coached against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, will most likely be in high demand around the league, as several other teams such as the Dolphins, Chargers, and Bucs will all most likely be pursuing new head coaches.
At this point, perhaps you’re a bit pessimistic about the future of the Rams. On top of that, whispers are going stronger that Stan Kroenke, the Rams’ owner, may decided to re-locate the team in 2014 after the lease at the Edward Jones Dome is up.
So, basically, things look like they suck for the Rams, eh?
Well…they do. But, things may not be as bad as some are making it out to be.
Just…stop laughing and hear me out.
- The Rams still have Sam Bradford. After a solid rookie season, he certainly regressed this year. Adjusting to Josh McDaniels’ offensive system, he never got fully in sync with the offense, and other than the game at Green Bay where he threw for 328 yards, he never really seemed comfortable.
Many people are ready to dismiss him already, citing various problems. He isn’t perfect, certainly. He would, however, benefit from a healthy receiving corps (losing your best receiver, Danny Amendola, at the outset of the season certainly didn’t help) and a consistent offensive line.
Even with this year’s struggles, he still has the potential to improve. Compare the first two years of these quarterbacks. I’m only counting the first two seasons they were full-time starters.
Quarterback A, through 26 games played:
57.6% completion rate, 5,676 passing yards, 24 TD, 21 INT, 6.0 YPA, 10.4 YPC, 218.3 YPG
Quarterback B, through 27 games played:
59.5% completion rate, 5,392 passing yards, 28 TD, 31 INT, 6.1 YPA, 10.3 YPC, 199.7 YPG
Quarterback A’s rating was 74.2 through his first two seasons, and his team went 8-18 in the games he started. Quarterback B’s rating was 73.1 through his first two seasons, and his team went 10-17 in the games he started.
Quarterback A is Sam Bradford. Quarterback B is Drew Brees.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and predict that Bradford will have anywhere near the success Brees has had. I’m simply suggesting that perhaps a bit of patience is needed before people write off Bradford as a bust and get rid of him. Brees benefited by placement into a system with the scheme and personnel that best suited his strengths. It’s not a simple transition, but there’s no reason to assume Bradford’s incapable of overcoming one bad year.
What of his contract, you say? Didn’t he just sign some outlandish contract to play for the Rams? He did, and he received some substantial bonuses this year and last year for it. With those out of the way, however, his base salary and signing bonus for the next four years are pretty manageable; the final season of his contract, he’ll be due $7.405 million, not an unreasonable amount for a starting quarterback. There are incentive bonuses, certainly, but I think if he manages to reach them, we’d all agree they’re worth the money.
- The Rams also hold the number two overall draft pick in April. While the Colts will most likely hold the most leverage (should they decide not to draft Andrew Luck), the Rams could potentially trade the pick to another team in dire need of a franchise quarterback. With Matt Barkley heading back to USC for one more season, the list of top quarterbacks in the draft are scant, but Heisman winner Robert Griffin III is likely to command some attention. The Rams could possibly leverage the draft into several top-round draft picks, which they could use to re-build their offensive line or draft a playmaker, perhaps a wide receiver (Justin Blackmon and Alshon Jeffery are likely to be the two names floated at the top). Should Brandon Lloyd follow through with his idea to follow offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wherever he goes (McD has one year left on his contract, but with the ousting of Spags combined with the woefully inefficient offense, it’s no guarantee he’ll stick around), the Rams will be in need of someone for Bradford to throw the ball to, even when Amendola returns.
- The Rams will also have a large amount of salary cap space to try to lure impact free agents to St. Louis. Should they be unable to procure their future via the draft, they might be able to do it through free agency. There are, admittedly, several areas that the Rams need help in: offensive line, running back (to back up Steven Jackson), wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, cornerback…it’s a pretty extensive list.
- Steven Jackson might be my favorite St. Louis athlete now that Albert Pujols has defected to the Angels. An absolute pro, Jackson has toiled year in and year out for a team that’s given him few dividends in return. Against the Steelers this year, Jackson became just the seventh running back in history to have seven consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing. Steven also surpassed Eric Dickerson for the most yards rushing in Rams history. Jackson missed one game due to injury and had just six rushes combined in two other games, but he still finished with 1,145 yards on 260 carries and five touchdowns. Although he is approaching the age at which running backs begin to wear down, Jackson is still going strong. He’s declared his desire to play his entire career in St. Louis; unlike other athletes who’ve said the same thing (ahem), he seems legitimately interested in following through.
- The Rams struggled with the run defense this year, allowing 151.7 yards per game (31st in the league), but this was inflated by three absolutely terrible games in which they allowed 236, 294, and 268 yards. Removing those from the mix, and the Rams allowed a much more respectable 125.3 yards per game. The Rams also actually ranked statistically in the top ten in passing defense, allowing 206.7 yards per game through the air. St. Louis has the potential to have one of the best pass rushes in the game, with Chris Long (13 sacks) and Robert Quinn (five sacks) looking to anchor the pass rush in the immediate future. 34-year old James Hall, who led the team with ten sacks last year, contributed six sacks this year.
- The Rams also have a monster middle linebacker in James Laurinaitis. I’m still not sure how he managed to slip to the second round. In three years, Laurinaitis has become the captain of the Rams defense (even if he isn’t officially). He’s not flashy or overly fast, but he’s a solid tackle, and he knows how to play. He, Long, and Quinn, could lead this defense for a long time.
Wow…1600 words already. This is far from an authoritative entry on what all went wrong this year. Any thoughts you might have are welcome at the bottom.
Ok, I know. They still finished 2-14. Chances are they’re at least two full years away from competing, if they can have some monster drafts and free agency acquisitions. It’ll be an interesting off-season, though. And who knows? Stranger things have happened than a one-year turnaround.
Well, I’d say there was a veritable amount of action occurring in St. Louis sports this weekend. The Blues shook up the core of their roster, the Rams released one of their top players, and a Cardinal legend (near legend?) bid his farewell to baseball. Some thoughts on each.
Rams Release Atogwe
The guy’s done nothing but perform at a high level for an underachieving Rams team, but it seems like they just don’t want to pay him anything. In a payroll-saving maneuver, the Rams have once again released Oshem…Oshimmeg…OJ Atogwe. Perhaps one of the most underrated strong safeties in the game, Atogwe’s more than lived up to his third-round draft pick. Last season, the Rams signed him to a five-year deal, but apparently they decided he isn’t worth the $8 million roster bonus he was due. This marks the second time the Rams have done this to him to save money, and yet he insists he wants to remain a Ram. I sincerely hope that the Rams can re-sign him. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be for a while with the impending labor issues facing the NFL.
Blues Make Trades, Score Touchdown (and a safety)
In an effort to make a playoff push and re-tool the core of their roster, the Blues traded three players this weekend, including their captain and an alternate.
They traded captain Eric Brewer to Tampa Bay for a prospect and a draft pick. I didn’t hear too many cries of anguish over this one. Whether justified or not, Brewer drew the ire of a lot of Blues fans over the course of the last few years. Certainly he wasn’t mentioned among the top defenders in the league, but he always put forth his top effort, which is perhaps why Blues players consistently and unanimously decided to make him captain. He undoubtedly never gained popularity due in no small part to the fact that he was the main prize the Blues got in their trade of former captain Chris Pronger.
The second trade, however, shook the Blues community even more. After Friday night’s win over Buffalo, it was announced that the Blues had traded Jay McClement and Erik Johnson, the first overall draft pick of 2006. McClement was a solid third- or fourth-line center who contributed solidly on the penalty kill. It’s the trade of Johnson that caught most people off-guard. Johnson was expected to take over the throne of top defenseman for the Blues from Pronger and Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, but after two and a half seasons (not including the lost one due to a vengeful golf cart), he never fully lived up to that billing.
In exchange, however, the Blues got two promising young players, both of whom contributed immediately. In exchange for Jay and Erik, the Blues got defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and power forward Chris Stewart. Shattenkirk’s a rookie but is putting up solid offensive numbers, posting 27 points thus far in 47 games. Stewart, however, is the focal point of the trade, as the Blues have been desperate for top-notch scorers. Last year, in just his second season, Stewart posted 28 goals and 64 points in 77 games. This year, he was slow to return from a broken hand, posting just five points in his last 13 games with the Avalanche. Before that, however, he had 11 goals and 25 points in 23 games. He proceeded to score two goals in his Blues debut last night, with Shattenkirk assisting on one, as the Blues managed to score a season-high nine goals against the Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim. Or whatever they’re called.
This could potentially set the Blues up with a potent offense, if they can consistently stay healthy. David Backes is considered a top power forward in the game today, and Stewart gives them a potent tandem. If the Blues can gain full health for a stretch, this could turn into some exciting hockey as the season unwinds. As long as the Blues goalies don’t give up three goals in five shots on a regular basis.
Jimmy Ballgame Calls it a Career
Finally, in a move that I pretty much expected from the moment they announced the signing, Jim Edmonds announced his retirement after it was determined he’d put himself at great risk if he tried to play baseball on his injured foot. Although it’s possible Edmonds may have made the team if he were healthy, his limits and the Cardinals’ desire to develop outfield talent would have likely made him a fringe player. And it’s highly doubtable Edmonds would have accepted a demotion to AAA.
I’m happy the Cardinals decided to sign him, even if it was just to retire as a Cardinal. His career was derailed in the end by injuries, but such is to be expected from a player who had such a reckless style of play. To make a highlight reel of Edmonds’ career in the field and at the plate would fill a DVD. Edmonds won eight gold gloves, six of them with the Cardinals, and for the first six years he was here, he was a solid, stable offensive force. In the eight years he was here, he hit .285 with 241 HR and 731 RBI.
For most Cardinals fans, perhaps the culmination of Edmonds’ career was the 2004 NLCS, when his two-way skills truly shone through. Game 7 was, of course, the catch on Ausmus, when he prevented two runs from scoring. But Game 6 was, for me, his finest moment as a Cardinal. The raw emotion when he hit the walk-off home run into the October night…that’s what baseball’s all about.
Edmonds may not have a strong Hall of Fame case, and he may never get his number retired as a Cardinal, but he will go down as one of the best to play in a Cardinals uniform. It was a pleasure to see you play, Jimmy, and you will be missed. I hope that down the road, everyone may truly appreciate just how much fun you made the game.