Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
SAN FRANCISCO -- Inept and bereft, overrun and undermanned, the St. Louis Rams held onto their dignity Sunday.
It was all they had.
"At this point, I don't really know what you can say," running back Steven Jackson said following a 35-0 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. "You try to get your thoughts together and maybe on Monday talk to the young guys."
Jackson ran Sunday with a fury that built as the Rams' cause faded.
"Not to say that I was holding anything back," Jackson said, "but you got to understand that when you are down like we were, you don't give up."
Sometimes volatile to a fault when things went wrong in past seasons, Jackson stands as the key variable in coach Steve Spagnuolo's efforts to keep the team pulling in the same general direction as the losses pile up. And the losses are going to pile up for a while -- the schedule brings Minnesota, Jacksonville and Indianapolis before a Nov. 1 date with Detroit.
The hard part for the winless Rams comes in the brutal realization after only four games that this team is less talented than the one that underachieved on its way to 2-14 record last season. That was a risk the organization took in blowing up the roster and starting almost from scratch.
The Rams could have bought a couple more victories this season, at least on paper, by bringing back Torry Holt, Orlando Pace and some of the other older players let go during a massive offseason roster purge. Holt and Pace had asked for their releases, for good reason. Both had seen too many promises go unfulfilled for the Rams to expect their unconditional allegiance. Keeping them around against their will would have made a rookie head coach's job tougher.
Not that it's easy losing by 35 points to a 49ers team that played its worst game of the season on offense, at least for three quarters.
"You just have to put it behind you and move on," Spagnuolo said. "The leaders and the vets have done that and I would expect the rookies to follow that, and I think they do. We have some young guys I saw on the sidelines when it was tough going in the fourth quarter that were still pushing to get some things done. I was impressed."
Unproven coaches get one chance to blow up a roster. That chance comes in the first year. Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney took that chance. Their biggest problem might be that the young players they're trying to develop haven't shown enough.
The Rams need to see more from receiver Donnie Avery, tackle Jason Smith (injured), defensive end Chris Long, cornerback Bradley Fletcher and cornerback Justin King. All five are younger than 25. None jumps out as a sure-fire talent.
Right guard Richie Incognito, 26, has struggled. Alex Barron, 27, has disappointed at left tackle (Spagnuolo called his mid-game benching in favor of John Greco a temporary thing). Losing second-year linebacker David Vobora to suspension gives the Rams four fewer games to evaluate him.
Bad luck has prevented Spagnuolo from enjoying one of the moves that did pay off immediately. Leading receiver Laurent Robinson, acquired from the Atlanta Falcons, suffered a broken leg that landed him on injured reserve.
Rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (nine tackles) is quickly justifying his status as a second-round pick. Left guard Jacob Bell, limited by injuries in 2008, his first season with the Rams, is playing much better now that he's healthier. Center Jason Brown, the Rams' marquee addition in free agency this year, has provided needed stability in the middle of the line. Avery showed signs Sunday of emerging from a season-long funk, and Jackson is still one of the best players anywhere.
But the Rams still could emerge from 2009 needing starters at quarterback, right tackle (assuming Smith moves to the left side), receiver, defensive end, strong-side linebacker and possibly cornerback.
Not that there's any sympathy in the NFL.
"For the other team? Absolutely not," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "Because those teams are the dangerous teams. I felt like if we would have left them hanging around late in the third, that game would have been way different. I know because I've been on teams like that."
Spikes, 32, spent five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, four with the Buffalo Bills and one with the Philadelphia Eagles before landing in San Francisco last season. He knows what the Rams are going through because he's lived it.
"What they are lacking right now is belief," Spikes said. "Believe it or not, that team is getting better week by week, probably not as an entire team, but different phases. They are getting better. You don't give teams like that an opportunity."
The 49ers almost couldn't impress in this game. If they won convincingly, hey, it was only against the Rams. And if they lost, they were frauds.
"This is the type of game where, you play with fire, you get burned," Spikes said, "and that team is fire. I've seen it too many times."
The Rams committed 10 penalties. They had trouble getting the right number of players in the huddle. They botched a punt coverage, allowing 49ers linebacker Scott McKillop to recover in the end zone, giving him as many touchdowns this season as his team's wide receivers.
The Rams eventually gave up big plays in the passing game even when the 49ers had only one wide receiver on the field. They mysteriously handed the ball to Samkon Gado instead of Jackson on an ill-fated third-and-1 play. Quarterback Kyle Boller made mistakes befitting a rookie, none worse than when he threw across the field for Keenan Burton, allowing 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis to jump the route and return the gift for a touchdown.
Marc Bulger couldn't have looked better if he had played.
"I know you are looking for answers right now, as far as what is going on and what happened," said Brown, the center signed from Baltimore. "I know that is what the fans want to know as well, and to tell you the truth, I have got the same concerns. A lot of us in this locker room have the same concerns. We are looking for answers right now. The main thing we are trying to do is just stay positive."
The schedule isn't cooperating. Expect plenty of Vikings fans in the Edward Jones Dome for Week 5.
"It doesn't end, it doesn't stop," Spagnuolo said. "We don't have any breaks in here."