By Rams Nation's Rob Williams
You don’t need me to tell you when something smelly stinks. It was a disastrous season for the Rams, where three years among the league’s elite came crumbling down in a horrible mix of injuries, loss of form, erratic coaching and bizarre player’s wife-related media scandals. So, at season’s end, I thought I’d add my two-penneth with a position by position breakdown of where the Rams currently are, and what needs working on for next season.
I’ll start with the offense…
Quarterback: For three years Kurt Warner put up numbers that made him the highest ranked quarterback in NFL history. He was league MVP twice and Superbowl MVP once. Rams fans were spoilt. Suddenly we’re in limbo. Whether due to physical problems or pure bad form, Warner was awful in 2002/03. His tendency to force passes (always the case) suddenly became more pronounced, his arm had lost power meaning he couldn’t throw sideline patterns or deep balls. He couldn’t even grip the ball properly, leading to horribly un-aerodynamic passes that hung in the air and begged to be intercepted. Frankly, he didn’t look like a NFL-quality quarterback. The off-season gives Warner a chance to get healthy, something he desperately needs. But with constant, recurring hand injuries and doubts over his shoulder, whether Warner can return to his MVP form is a doubt. The mind may be willing but Warner limited the offense with his inability to stretch the field this season. If he’s healthy he should remain the team’s starter. If not… there’s little room for sentimentality in the NFL.
Mark Bulger was sensational when he was given his opportunity after Warner and Jamie Martin’s injuries. Bulger COULD do all the throws and, as a result, the Rams offense became more effective. His ability to throw bombs or deep outs meant that the defense couldn’t just pack the middle. And Bulger was accurate and, encouragingly, he was able to do something Warner was never able to do for the Rams, bring them back from a fourth quarter deficit to win. Bulger looks an excellent prospect. The one doubt? In limited action this season he was knocked out with injuries twice. The poor play of the offensive line contributed to this but Bulger’s a slight figure at QB. Could he withstand a whole season as a starter? The answer will be no unless he can prove otherwise.
Jamie Martin was disappointing in his appearances this season, aside from the enjoyable fight back against the 49ers second string in the season closer. Martin’s arm strength was lacking. He brings veteran experience but little else.
Outlook: Warner and Bulger can fight it out for the starting job in training camp. As far as I’m concerned, if Warner’s 100%, he starts. It makes sense to keep them both, considering the injuries sustained by both this season, and the fact that Bukger can be kept for a relatively low salary. A better third option than Martin should probably be sought out in the off season.
Running Back: Like Kurt Warner, the Rams’ other league MVP suffered an injury riddled season. Marshall Faulk may not have that many years left at the top but, when he’s healthy, and has a strong line in front of him, he’s still probably the best all-round running back in the league. Faulk’s injuries are increasing with age, however. He deserves (as do the Rams’ QBs) a better offensive line to work behind. As long as Faulk wants to play, the Rams have few problems at running back. He’s also undoubtedly the Rams’ team leader.
At backup, however, things aren’t as clear. Faulk’s injuries mean the Rams need to have confidence in his understudies. Both Lamar Gordon and Trung Canidate don’t inspire that. Gordon had a tough rookie season , and showed promise, but his fumble issues are well documented. If he can’t cut them out he won’t be in the NFL long, regardless of talent.
Trung Canidate can, unfortunately, pack up his troubles in his old kit bag and hit the road. He may be quick but he’s fumbled whenever he’s had the chance to play and just doesn’t appear to be a NFL quality running back.
Outlook: Faulk’s a Hall of Famer waiting to happen and Gordon deserves more chances. The Rams could do with picking up another runner in the off-season, though, in place of Canidate. Maybe a low- price, experienced free agent. Someone who may not be a Pro Bowler but who, at least, wouldn’t put the ball on the ground in tough situations.
Full back: James Hodgins doesn’t contribute much to the passing game, and doesn’t carry the ball often, but his blocking’s a large part of the reason why the running game works. Hodgins was injured for part of the season (who wasn’t?) and a healthy Hammer is needed. His backup, Chris Hetherington, was somewhat disappointing. Long snapper Chris Massey and tight end Ernie Conwell were forced to contribute at full back.
Outlook: Hodgins means this isn’t a priority, but the Rams could do with picking up a quality backup at full back, or investing in a low round draft pick or street free agent that can be developed.
Offensive Tackle: Orlando Pace was banged up during 2002/02 but still managed to be voted to another Pro Bowl. He’s still relatively young and, even though it will be a large contract, the Rams NEED to resign him this off-season. To lose him in free agency would be a disaster, regardless of the compensatory draft picks it would bring.
The right tackle position was the exact opposite of Pace’s quality this past season. John St Clair had a torrid ‘rookie’ season as a starter, giving up numerous sacks, some of which were vital (the probable season ending moment – St Clair allowing Lavaar Arrington to sack Kurt Warner at the end of the Washington game). St Clair’s inability put the Rams’ quarterbacks health in jeopardy. He was that bad. Frankly, he doesn’t look good enough to play tackle in the NFL. The Rams’ front office messed up big time by making St Clair their starter. And as for quality backup? Grant Williams was adequate before his broken leg and there was little else. The Rams need better offensive line depth for next season if they are to succeed. Simple as that.
Outlook: Adam Timmerman, it has been announced, will switch from guard to tackle next season. If Pace is re-signed, that means the Rams will have two Pro Bowlers on the edge, which should help keep Warner or Bulger out of the E.R.. Timmerman’s a great guard, does he have the physical tools and skills to be more than an emergency tackle? We’ll find out. A couple of competent backups have to be found, regardless.
Offensive guard: The Rams’ entire line was injury prone and messed up this season, which contributed greatly to the team’s offensive drop-off. Adam Timmerman is a Pro Bowler when healthy, but he was gimped and often had to move around the line due to other injuries. Tom Nutten, always an overachiever, didn’t appear to be up to his normal standards prior to the injury that ended his season. Frank Garcia and Heath Irwin played a lot of football thanks to, yes, injuries, and neither exactly lit up the field.
Outlook: The Rams’ O line was pretty woeful this year, and guard appears to be a major off-season priority. Adam Timmerman is moving to tackle, and we don’t know if Tom Nutten will return next season, being a free agent. Regardless, the backups didn’t really perform this past year. The Rams need to pick up two, possibly three, guards this off-season, two of which probably need to be starter-level. Free agency will be the way to address this, with veteran experience a necessity.
Offensive Centre: Andy McCollum was probably the Rams’ one constant on the O-line and his play was consistent, which is especially amazing considering the revolving door he had at quarterback behind him. McCollum doesn’t get much praise, but he gets the job done.
Outlook: McCollum is a trusted veteran, but he’s not getting any younger, still, the Rams could do with resigning him in the off-season providing he’s modest in his contract needs. The position could be upgraded, yes, but the Rams have more pressing needs. Perhaps a low draft pick project is needed ready for McCollum’s retirement? John St Clair was a college centre, although he’s only been a tackle in the pros, and, at the time of his drafting, it was said that he was too tall to play centre.
Tight End: Ernie Conwell had another excellent season. He’s not quite one of the league’s elite tight ends, but he’s not far away, and his leadership skills are apparent. Brandon Manumaleuna, despite Mike Martz’s plaudits, doesn’t contribute much to the passing game, although his blocking seems good.
Outlook: Conwell’s fine for another season or two, but better depth would be welcome. This isn’t a pressing off-season need, however, unless Conwell leaves through free agency, which appears unlikely.
Wide Receiver: Not so long ago this group was seen as the best in the league, but this year they were too many drops and too few touchdowns. Az Hakim was missed, as, in the past three years his ability and speed at third receiver didn’t allow defenses to concentrate on Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. With Hakim gone to Detroit, the Rams’ receivers became easier to cover. Add some poor quarterback play and the Warner Brothers no longer looked like superstars. Even poor quarterbacking couldn’t be blamed for the amount of drops that superstars Holt and Bruce succumbed to, however, which was just sloppy.
Statistically Holt and Bruce still had excellent seasons, with 85 and 75 catches respectively, but the big plays dropped away. Bruce caught six touchdowns, three of which came in a superb performance against San Diego, meaning he only caught three touchdowns in the other 15 games. Holt didn’t have a touchdown catch until way into the season, ending up with four for the year. Not so big play Torry Holt.
Ricky Proehl is possibly the best fourth receiver in the league, however he’s not able to stretch the field as a third wideout. Proehl had another good year with 41 catches and four touchdowns and continued his unerring ability to make first downs.
The other wideout spot was a mess with Hakim never being properly replaced. Terrence Wilkens hardly saw the field due to an apparent inability to learn the offense. Troy Edwards showed flashes and may have done enough to win the position next season, but he’s small and tends to fumble.
Outlook: Once the strength of the team, the receivers looked somewhat sketchy this season. Bruce and Holt are still good receivers, but if they want to be counted as the league’s best they need to cut the drops and make more plays. Holt appears to believe his hype too much. Still young, and with amazing talent, he needs to let his football do the talking. Bruce is entering the latter stages of his career and he appears to have lost a step. Still, despite the grumbles, Holt and Bruce remain an excellent starting duo.
Holt could take a leaf out of Ricky Proehl’s book – with desire and guts making up for 87’s physical shortcomings. His Rams career may be over, however, as his one year contract is up and its initial length hardly screamed out that the Rams wanted to keep him. The Rams would do well to get the veteran back for one last year if he chooses not to retire. With the team facing something of a rebuilding project in many positions will Proehl choose to come back?
It’ll be interesting to see what Troy Edwards can do with a full off-season behind him but, regardless of what happens with Proehl, Martz’s offense needs another receiver badly. The team could easily use one of their blue-chip draft picks on the position. An excellent receiver could be gained with the number 12 pick (as long as a quality linebacker can be gained in free agency). Isaac Bruce is no longer a deep threat, it appears, and a fast, strong receiver who is over six feet tall could be a real asset to this team. With a glut of quality receivers in the draft this seems like a perfect opportunity.
Offense Off-Season needs:
1. Offensive guard
2. Wide receiver
3. Offensive centre
4. Offensive tackle
5. Running back