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Rams still stuck in neutral

12/28/2014



SEATTLE -- It was a loss that played out like so many before, a loss that played out as if on an endless loop.

Sunday's 20-6 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks dropped the St. Louis Rams to a 6-10 finish, with three consecutive losses to end the 2014 season. In this week's repeat episode, the Rams jumped out to an early lead, kept it close for three quarters and crumpled in the fourth.

The NFC West division champion Seahawks might as well have been the Dallas Cowboys or San Diego Chargers or San Francisco 49ers, all teams who beat the Rams in similar fashion this season. But Sunday's loss was equally reminiscent of many the Rams have suffered since Jeff Fisher took over as head coach in 2012.

"We had some really good things happen on the football field. We just couldn't finish it," Fisher said.

Three seasons into the Fisher regime, the only way to see tangible progress for the Rams is to squint real hard. Individual players have improved, but the overall product hasn't gotten much better. Those six wins are fewer than either of the first two seasons under Fisher and dropped his record as their coach to 20-27-1.

Some will point to the Rams' upset wins over these Seahawks or the Denver Broncos as signs of a step forward. But the Rams pulled off similar victories against New Orleans and Indianapolis in 2013 and San Francisco and Seattle in 2012.

The Rams have also had their share of clunkers, such as last week's loss to the New York Giants or the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Those performances too have been apparent in the first two years under Fisher. Next verse, same as the first.

The result has been maddeningly inconsistent results from week to week but one consistently mediocre finished product featuring the same types of mental miscues that regularly result in penalties, busted coverages and other backbreaking errors. When quizzed on such matters, Fisher rarely offers much in the way of explanation but plenty of cliches and condescension.

"There are other teams that haven't been able to finish against Seattle," Fisher said Sunday. "We need to do a better job. That's something we will work on."

Fisher's track record of mediocrity now takes up the majority of his two-decade coaching record. In nearly 20 full seasons as an NFL head coach, Fisher has six winning years. His teams have rarely been terrible; they've won fewer than six games just twice in the years he's coached a full season.

Fisher is still owed nearly $14 million over the next two seasons, so it would be a major surprise to see the Rams make a change, but it's fair to wonder if he's the man who can take them from the dregs of the NFL to a legitimate contender. His history would indicate the answer is no.

Few head coaches are given a fourth season after posting losing records in each of their first three years with a team. Buffalo's Dick Jauron is the most recent example, and he only made it nine games into his fourth season before the Bills sent him packing.

For Fisher and Co. to extend their stay in St. Louis, they'll need to solve the same puzzle plaguing about half the league right now: finding a short- and long-term quarterback solution. As it stands, that plan probably includes attempting to bring Sam Bradford back at a reduced rate and using an early pick -- the Rams have the 10th overall pick in April's draft -- on another young signal-caller.

Either way, there's no obvious solution, and with the idea of bringing Bradford back and the likelihood of retaining most of the coaching staff, the Rams look poised to again push their chips into the middle of the table, largely with what's in place.

"You need everybody on the team to get better, everyone that is in the locker room," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You add a couple pieces here and there, [and] you just pray we can keep No. 8 healthy. More so for him because if he can play 16 [games], man, he can do it. I really believe he can do it in this league and do it really well. Maybe it's biased, but I believe a lot of teams, especially in our division, say: ‘If they had 8 healthy all year, who knows how many games here and there they could have had?'"

But the Rams didn't have Bradford healthy, and counting on him moving forward could be a fool's errand. In a nearly empty Rams locker room, I asked Laurinaitis what he would say to someone who believes the Rams aren't making progress. He echoed sentiments similar to his teammates and Fisher but at least didn't chafe at the mere suggestion.

"I don't feel that way, but it's hard to argue against it," Laurinaitis said. "The belief in our locker room is it's not. I can see why people on the outside would say it, though. Until we change it on the football field, they have every right to say what they want."

It's been 11 years since the Rams have had a winning record -- the same number of seasons a Fisher-coached team has had between six and eight wins. For real progress with these Rams, seeing will be believing.