50 yard Line : a season in review, part 1
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
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
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
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
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
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
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