OAKLAND, Calif. -- The St. Louis Rams couldn't beat their former backup quarterback Sunday.
They were too busy beating themselves.
"I had not seen or felt that this was an undisciplined football team, but how can you not think that way after a game like that?" coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
The Rams' 16-14 road defeat to the Bruce Gradkowski-led Oakland Raiders had to be especially troubling for Spagnuolo and the Rams' leadership. New owner Stan Kroenke is watching closely for signs of real progress. Not progress imagined through the shrinking margin of defeat. Real progress measured through wins and losses.
Performances like the one St. Louis put forward Sunday -- five personal fouls, 210 total yards and only 19 offensive plays in the second half -- will not be good enough in the final evaluation. These are the sorts of self-inflicted defeats against bad teams that get people fired if they persist over the course of a season.
Fortunately for the Rams, the team still has a run of winnable games ahead: home for Washington and Seattle, then road games against Detroit and Tampa Bay sandwiched around a home game against San Diego.
But if the Rams cannot beat a team as flawed as the Raiders after controlling much of the first half, who are they going to beat? If they cannot beat Gradkowski, a player the former Rams regime released in favor of Brock Berlin, are they going to beat Donovan McNabb? Matt Hasselbeck? Shaun Hill?
Not playing the way they did at Oakland.
It's just tougher to take these Rams on faith after the first two weeks of this season. They're 0-2 against Derek Anderson and Gradkowski.
They led Anderson and the Arizona Cardinals 13-10 in the fourth quarter a week ago, but lost. They led the Raiders 7-3 at halftime Sunday, but lost. It's tough going from your own 6-yard-line to the other team's 5 without getting points, but the Rams pulled it off.
"This is just where we don't know yet how to put a game away," running back Steven Jackson said.
Jackson said he's seeing good things in practice during the week, but the Rams aren't carrying it over to the games.
The Rams ran the ball effectively early and protected rookie quarterback Sam Bradford with smart screen passes to Jackson against all-out blitzes. Bradford completed his first seven passes for 98 yards and a 7-yard touchdown, the first of two scoring passes to Mark Clayton. But Bradford took three sacks in his first six dropbacks, including a head-scratcher on third-and-goal from the Oakland 5 late in the first quarter. What would have been a chip-shot field-goal try turned into a 36-yarder from the right hash. Kicker Josh Brown hit it straight, but right -- his second miss (one was blocked) in two games the Rams have lost by a total of six points.
Bradford knew he should have gotten rid of the football to avoid the sack. The Rams had scored a touchdown in a similar situation during preseason, tempting Bradford to wait for a receiver to break open across the back of the end zone. Live and learn.
"That's on me," Bradford said.
There's no sense of panic in the Rams' locker room. The players I spoke with sounded accountable. Years ago, Jackson probably would have made headlines with his mouth following a defeat as maddening as this one. He has matured and embraced more of a leadership role.
The Raiders began loading the box to stop the run after the Rams enjoyed early success, Jackson explained. OK, a reporter acknowledged, but isn't that where a team simply needs to find another way? The question tempted Jackson.
"I think -- how do I answer this?" he began. "I think if they take one thing away, that you have to find another way to make what was working work again. I don't know if that makes any sense."
It does. I'm not sure what else the Rams could have done to get the run game going. I charted their offensive personnel use during the game and noticed that Bradford completed all four pass attempts from the Rams' base offense -- all in the first half. The Rams also ran effectively from this personnel, especially early, but they ran only two snaps of it after halftime, in part because they fell behind. Injuries to tight ends Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema could have affected the Rams' options as well.
"If I knew exactly what happened, then hopefully it would not have happened," center Jason Brown offered.
Bradford showed remarkable poise despite taking some hard shots, including once when the Raiders high-lowed him on a third-and-8 play in the third quarter. Bradford did lead the offense on a three-play, 59-yard scoring drive after rookie cornerback Jerome Murphy picked off Gradkowski with 4:15 remaining in the game.
"We went into our 2-minute mode, hurry-up," Bradford said. "To go down there and score like that and give ourselves a chance to win the football game was nice, but it was just too little, too late."
Bradford began the drive with a 16-yard strike to Danny Amendola. Jackson then dropped a pass that would have gone for a loss, most likely. It was second-and-10 when Bradford threw accurately for Clayton near the right pylon. Officials ruled Clayton out of bounds initially, but guard Adam Goldberg protested vehemently, even touching the dirt where Clayton's feet had come down. Spagnuolo challenged the play and prevailed. The score was 16-14 with more than 3 minutes remaining.
If only the Rams had made that 36-yard field-goal try. If only officials hadn't flagged Ron Bartell and Oshiomogho Atogwe for personal fouls earlier in the second half (both penalties sustained Oakland scoring drives). If only veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins hadn't unnecessarily shoved Gradkowski after a second-and-9 incomplete pass with 3:03 remaining, preventing the Rams from getting the ball back one last time.
If only, if only, if only.
"It's very frustrating and very upsetting," Jason Brown said of the 0-2 start. "We know we are right on the cusp. We know we are a good football team. There are just a couple more things that need to come together."