On Sunday the Oakland Raiders kick off their home slate of games by hosting the St Louis Rams. I caught with with a colleague from my MVN days, Hal Schaeffer who wrote for RAMblings to answer some questions on how he sees the coming game.
Here's my questions and his answers:
Thoughts from the Dark Side: What are your first impressions of Sam Bradford?
Hal Schaeffer: Like almost all Rams fans I am very favorably impressed with Bradford. After seeming to be lost in the first two preseason games, he came on very strong with an outstanding performance against the Patriots in the third game and continued that with another strong showing against the Ravens, driving the team the length of the field for a touchdown on his first and only series. He looked composed against the Cardinals, a game the Rams should have won. Bradford is poised, has a strong arm and decent mobility, and he runs through his progressions pretty well. However, like many rookie QB's, he occasionally "locks on" to a receiver, and he threw a couple of balls late, resulting in two interceptions. The Cardinals tried their best to rattle him, but without much success. He's definitely the real deal in my book. If he gets hurt, things will go downhill very quickly for the Rams.
TFDS: The Rams fell off the table after the "Greatest Show on Turf" years how close are they to turning the corner?
: They are still at least a year or two away. This decline wasn't simply a case of the kind of periodic ups and downs that teams have; it affected the entire organization, from the ownership on down. Georgia Frontiere's death, while somewhat destabilizing, allowed her son, Chip, to perform some long overdue front office trimming. Not only were Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett let go as head coach, but President of Football Operations Jay Zygmunt's role with the team was terminated and President John Shaw was restricted to being a family advisor without any direct team responsibilities. Zygmunt in particular was the author of numerous bad, hyperinflated contracts that strapped the Rams' ability to deal with other teams and sign top free agents. The pro scouting operation was a mess, and the entire organization seemed rudderless. So, much of what has been done in the last couple of years, besides the hiring of Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo, has been to rebuild the organization from the very top on down. Now, football decisions are being made by football people, not lawyers and accountants. A lot of deadwood was trimmed from the roster (Alex Barron, anyone?) and the process of building an entirely new team has been undertaken. The Rams went from being one of the oldest teams in the league to the third-youngest. Devaney has chosen to build through the draft, avoiding overdoing it on big-money free agent signings. That approach takes time, and it means that you have to be able to draft very well. Still, given all of this, fans expect to see progress this year. So does new owner Stan Kroenke.
TFDS: Does Marshall Faulk get into the HoF on his first ballot?
: I don't think so. Clearly, he was a terrific player, but I wouldn't put him in the same category with Jerry Rice, Dick Butkus, and Jim Brown, for example, regarding his impact on the game. For me, first ballot election is for the truly elite. Marshall was among the very, very good.
TFDS: With the ownership situation settled, will they stay in Saint Louis?
Well, Kroenke is too savvy a businessman to give any guarantees about this. A lot will depend on whether the team rebounds, the economy improves, and the NFL puts some brakes on runaway ticket and concession prices. Remember, St. Louis is a mid-sized market where baseball is the main player, so the available dollars are limited. Georgia alienated the league office and a lot of other owners by moving to St. Louis. While Kroenke is highly regarded by other owners, I'm not sure that that means they would react more favorably to him should he want to move the team someday, unless it was to a market that the NFL wanted to establish, like, say, London. In any event, the Rams are in St. Louis at least through the 2014 season, IIRC. In order to stay after that, something needs to be done regarding the stadium that satisfies the team, the league, and the community. Stay tuned...this one is far from over.
TFDS: How does a team rebound from 6 wins in three years?
: It ain't easy, especially when the rebuilding has involved so much more than just the coaches and roster. What it takes is patience and a plan. The Rams have decided to build primarily through the draft, with some free agency pickups of players who are going into their second contracts and cherry-picking of the waiver wire and other teams' practice squads. Character players, those who meet Spagnuolo's "Four Pillars", are highly sought after. Spags wants players who are team-oriented, big, and physical, and who don't have any serious "personal baggage". He is the complete opposite of George Allen, who detested rookies and built his teams almost exclusively with 30-something players. (Interesting, though, that both were defensive coordinators of NFL championship teams with such radically different approaches.) Both Spags and Devaney have taken a lot of flak for last year's 1-15 record, but they seem determined to stick to their plan. Right now, the team is at the point where a couple of early wins could provide a huge shot of confidence and propel it to a decent season. That's why last week's loss against a beatable team hurt so much and why this week's game against a struggling opponent is so important.
*Bonus prediction for Sunday's game*
I thought long and hard about this one. The Raiders game is marked on most Rams fans' schedules as a possible win, so the pressure is there to make hay while the sun shines, so to speak. Both teams have a lot of questions going into this game, and injuries will be a factor. If the Raiders take the Rams lightly, they will find themselves 0-2. The Rams won't take the Raiders lightly; however, the concerns with them will be whether or not they can limit mistakes and take advantage of opportunities in the red zone. As miserable as their record has been, two of the Rams' last three wins have been on the road (Washington, Detroit).
All that being said, I find that I just can't pick the Rams to win until they show me they CAN win...and not just once or twice a year. At the very least, the Raiders will know they have been in a game because they will be playing a very physical Rams team on Sunday.