ST. LOUIS -- Signs of progress for the St. Louis Rams have been few and far between for most of the past decade.
A drastic improvement to 7-8-1 in 2012 provided some real hope that the sinking ship that was the U.S.S. Rams was finally going to come up for air.
This season was supposed to provide more signs of progress, to provide tangible evidence that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel down in the deepest depths of football purgatory.
“Everybody in the building is disappointed,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Our fans are pissed. We’re pissed.”
Dallas manhandled St. Louis last week, but this week we were told the Rams would bounce back. One game can be a hiccup, two can be a trend. In retrospect, it might be generous to not extend that to three given how Atlanta dominated the Rams in the first half of their Week 2 matchup.
Playing a division rival on a short week on a prime-time stage offered St. Louis a chance to recover. The 49ers flew halfway across the country for this game and played without linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. They, too, were coming off a poor performance.
If nothing else, the 49ers appeared to be an opponent the Rams could use to get back on track. The only problem is that the Rams’ current track isn’t the one they seemed to put themselves on a year ago.
It’s not so much that the Rams are carrying a 1-3 record that’s alarming. It’s how they’ve arrived here.
The defense that kept the Rams in games by getting key stops, rushing the passer and slowing down opposing run games? It’s now a group with no direction other than backward.
San Francisco didn’t even hint that it would do anything but run Frank Gore over and over. No matter, Gore did whatever he wanted on his way to 153 yards and a touchdown.
That performance didn’t even match the 175 yards Dallas’ DeMarco Murray put up last week.
“It’s disgusting. Really, it just is disgusting,” Long said. “When you give up that many yards in the run game, there’s a lot of things going on and we have got to fix a lot of things.”
The 49ers were without injured wideout Michael Crabtree, and tight end Vernon Davis is playing hurt, leaving Anquan Boldin as the team’s only proven receiving threat. That didn’t stop Boldin from posting 90 yards and a touchdown.
Things certainly aren’t much better on the other side of the ball. The Rams spent big money and draft capital to give quarterback Sam Bradford the pieces needed to make the offense his own.
The return of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was supposed to give the offense the continuity it needed to take the next step. The Rams signed tight end Jared Cook and drafted wide receiver Tavon Austin with the belief that the duo would more than be able to compensate for slot receiver Danny Amendola's exit.
None of those suppositions have proved true in the first four weeks. The running game, in particular, is a complete non-starter. The hottest debate in St. Louis right now might be whether the running game isn’t working because of a lack of blocking or the lack of a starting-caliber back.
The answer is probably both. Whatever it is that the Rams call a running game right now carried 19 times for 18 yards. The longest run of the night came from rookie Benny Cunningham, who gained 7 yards on a late carry. The 49ers had 219 rushing yards Thursday night; the Rams have 189 in four games.
“We had two less carries than they did at halftime for no yards, and that’s pretty much the issue we’re facing right now,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Because everything spins off of that.”
The list of red flags piling up around the Rams right now is too long to fit this space. Penalties continue to be a problem (they had eight for 82 yards), and what might be the second-hottest debate in St. Louis is whether the offense or the defense has been worse on third down.
Thursday night, the Rams converted three third downs on 17 attempts (17.6 percent) and allowed the 49ers to convert 6 of 15 attempts (40 percent).
The Rams are again the youngest team in the league, a fact that they insist will not be used as an excuse. It shouldn’t be. The Rams were 2-2 after four games a year ago with a team that also was the youngest in the NFL.
That was the team that looked poised to deliver this franchise back into contention. Through four weeks this season, that seems like nothing but a distant memory.