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Sunday, December 15, 2013
Roller-coaster Rams are still growing up

By Nick Wagoner

 
ST. LOUIS – Fourteen games into an NFL season, the task of trying to determine what, exactly, the St. Louis Rams’ identity is has been an exercise in futility.

One week the Rams can do what they did Sunday, taking it to the New Orleans Saints -- a legitimate Super Bowl contender -- for a 27-16 win. Another week they find themselves barely competitive against a division foe such as Arizona.

The highs can be extremely high; the lows can be exceedingly low. But perhaps now in the wake of another upset sprung on the Saints, we can all embrace the idea that the hard-to-peg personality of the Rams actually is what this team is all about.

At 6-8, the Rams have had more downs than ups on the roller-coaster ride that is their 2013 season. The inconsistent play from week to week has left them searching for answers in both winning and losing locker rooms on a regular basis.

“I don’t know,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “I really don’t. I can’t put my finger on it. I wish I had an answer. I don’t know what it is. Today we were able to come and make some plays early and get some bounces our way. Some of the other games it just seems like things landslide fast. So I don’t know why it’s been like that. Hopefully we can reflect and find a way to figure that out.”

Of course, when pressed on the reason for the ups and downs, the Rams refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room: For the second year in a row, the Rams are the youngest team in the league.

Ask about it and you’ll get a steady chorus of how that isn’t an excuse. But it’s also a stone-cold truth that the Rams are as green as any team in the league, and with that youth comes a learning curve.

“It is what it is, it’s factual,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “We are a young team, that’s factual. As long as we’re not using it as excuses, it’s not a problem. This team is growing, they’re learning. This is going to be exciting. I said last week I thought we would come out here and try to get better, and I think we did.”

General manager Les Snead calls it a “grit” year, the year in which you have to suffer disappointing defeats but not get too high when things go as well, as they did Sunday against the Saints.

When a team is as inconsistent as the Rams, it can be easy to play armchair psychologist, to try to figure out why things are one way one week and on the opposite end of the spectrum the next.

For the Rams, though, the blueprint for success has actually been pretty easy to understand, particularly in their more dominant performances against the Saints, Indianapolis, Chicago and Houston.

“Sometimes it’s simpler than people think,” end Chris Long said. “You run the football, you don’t turn the ball over, you force turnovers and you stop the run and things are going to go pretty well for you. Follow that blueprint which coach does a great job of pushing on us and trying to make sure we do and we execute and we can be pretty good. We don’t execute and we’re not going to be as good. It’s simple. If we do our jobs and everybody plays hard, which they do every week here, we’ve got the right guys in the locker room for that, we can be as good as anybody.”

In the Rams’ six wins, they have rushed for an average of 141.8 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry, while allowing just 82.3 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. They’re also plus-17 in turnover margin, taking it away 20 times and giving it away just three. The result has been six wins in which they’ve outscored opponents by 104 points.

Duplicating that blueprint from week to week has been a task a little too big for the young Rams. Turnovers can be a product of luck, which makes them hard to count on, but the point remains that the Rams at least know what needs to be done to get victories.

“It’s a game of up and downs,” Saffold said. “We also need to continue to learn how to win. This is definitely big for us. We can play like we don’t have anything to lose because, honestly, we don’t.”

The franchise has been in rebuilding mode for much of the past decade, and the fan base deserves copious respect for its patience. Until things turn all the way around and the team returns to the playoffs, the cynicism that goes with so much losing will be warranted and continue. In the meantime, there is solace to be taken from winning games nobody expects them to win. Games like Sunday's, when the growth of a team is far more evident than in the losing weeks.

“They’re playing beyond their years, they really are,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “To see how they have progressed the last few months and even the last few weeks for those guys who are getting opportunities. It’s been great to watch. This is going to be a good football team for a lot of years because we have a lot of young talent that is really starting to hit their stride.”

You’ll know that to be true when Sunday’s stride becomes the same one you see on a weekly basis.