NFL Nation: Kellen Clemens

Clemens & Mallett & WhitehurstAP PhotosKellen Clemens (L to R), Ryan Mallett and Charlie Whitehurst give their teams a veteran option at the backup quarterback position.
The heavy lifting done, we've reached that point in the NFL offseason when it's acceptable to obsess about backup quarterbacks. And so here we are.

At the moment, two franchises -- the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings -- are refusing to trade backups to teams where they might have a better chance to play. Their approach, while different in the details, has in a larger sense helped illuminate the smartest approach to the position, one that bucks conventional wisdom but aligns with supply and demand.

The career backup, a veteran who has played enough to prove he isn't a starter but is still valued as a fill-in, should be a quaint notion in 2014. Smart teams are using the spot as a developmental rather than caretaker position, understanding how rare it is to find a veteran backup who can maintain a team's performance when the starter is injured.

Recent history suggests success is far more connected to a starter's durability than the experience level of the backup. Over the past three years, 31 of the NFL's 36 playoff teams have had a 15- or 16-game starter at quarterback. Only three of the remaining five got winning performances from their backups, and all of them -- Tim Tebow (2011), Colin Kaepernick (2012) and Nick Foles (2013) -- were decidedly inexperienced at the time of their ascension.

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Not everyone will accept conclusions based on a three-year sample size, but if nothing else, these figures help support an intuitive inference: There aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around and you're fortunate to have one. If he gets hurt, your path to the playoffs will be difficult no matter how experienced your backup is. That's the nature of the talent drop-off at this point in league history. Faced with a choice, why not choose the upside of a promising youngster over the low ceiling of a veteran?

Some teams seem to understand the consequence of those facts better than others. The Patriots often are hailed as a model franchise, much to the chagrin of those who wonder what would have become of them if Tom Brady had been drafted No. 198 overall instead of No. 199, but they have been ahead of the curve on this issue for a while. It has been eight years since the Patriots have employed a veteran backup (Vinny Testaverde, a mid-year acquisition in 2006) and they have since backed Brady up with inexperienced youngsters from Matt Cassel to Brian Hoyer to Ryan Mallett.

A traditionalist would argue that the Patriots, a perennial title contender, are better off with a veteran who could presumably navigate them to the playoffs. A realist would wonder if such a player exists. Is there really a net difference between Mallett's experience in the Patriots' system and, say, the experience of Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who has started 77 NFL games but lost 49 of them?

This is not to say a team should make a haphazard, hands-in-the-air decision at such an important position. A young backup must at least demonstrate proficiency in the offense during practice, and it's fair to assume Mallett has convinced the Patriots he could run their plays in a game setting if Brady were injured. Second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had time to do that yet, which to me explains coach Bill Belichick's reluctance to trade Mallett this spring.

That's a big reason the Vikings haven't parted ways with Christian Ponder, who seems unlikely to start ahead of Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater. Their stance might change as Bridgewater moves through the offseason, but for now Ponder -- like Mallett -- represents a more comfortable option to back up their starter than someone signed off the street. As with other positions, smart teams prefer to develop their own backup quarterbacks.

That's what the Green Bay Packers tried to do earlier this decade with Graham Harrell, and the folly of their shift to veteran Seneca Wallace in 2013 was exposed when starter Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after a 5-2 start. Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn won only two of the eight games Rodgers missed a part of, and the Packers won the NFC North at 8-7-1 only after Rodgers returned for Week 17.

So what does this mean for the league overall? If you've committed to a starter, as roughly 26 of the 32 teams already have for 2014, it makes sense to prioritize development behind him rather than fool yourself into thinking you can prepare more reliably for his absence.

A Baltimore Ravens fan might be nervous with Tyrod Taylor behind starter Joe Flacco. I wouldn't be any more optimistic with, say, Charlie Whitehurst or Jason Campbell in that role. If Flacco is injured, chances are the Ravens are going to have a much more difficult time making the playoffs. Backups such as Taylor have an upside that might be revealed if and when he replaces Flacco. On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of the lower bar a veteran would bring in that role.

The same could be said elsewhere. Do you really feel better about the San Diego Chargers' playoff chances with Kellen Clemens than you would if they had drafted, say, Zach Mettenberger? And if it doesn't work out for Jake Locker this season with the Tennessee Titans, why not play Mettenberger instead of hoping that Whitehurst can work magic he hasn't demonstrated in eight previous seasons?

Many coaches like the idea of having a "veteran in the room." If it's important enough to them, they should keep three or even four quarterbacks on their roster to accomplish that mission. But if you're committed to your starter, a veteran backup brings false confidence more than anything else. For the most part, Plan B in the NFL means missing the playoffs. You're better off hoping a young player will blossom in that role instead.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

Almost a week removed from the beginning of the free-agent period, the Rams have retained a couple of starters and seen their share of departures. The normal waves of free agency usually take longer than this year but it seems teams aren't waiting around to make their moves in 2014.

Here's where we stand after five days:

Retained

Saffold
OL Rodger Saffold

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a five-year, $31.7 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed.

What it means: It was a wild week for Saffold but after one of the most bizarre free-agent scenarios in recent memory, the Rams kept their top offseason priority. Saffold will be the team's right guard moving forward and allows them more flexibility moving forward because of his versatility. St. Louis got lucky on this one but it doesn't matter how it happened so long as Saffold can stay healthy and produce.

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.

What it means: Dunbar will get a chance to rebound from a lost 2013 season and reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Rams. While Dunbar's role decreased because of the addition of Alec Ogletree last year, the Rams need more production from him when they do have three linebackers on the field. If Dunbar can return to his 2012 form, he fills another starting job and lessens the need for the Rams to add another outside linebacker in the draft.

Departures

Williams
OL Chris Williams

The deal: Signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed with the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: The Rams lost the one lineman who started all 16 games last year and provided some versatility with his ability to play multiple positions. But Williams was also the team's least effective starting lineman and a clear candidate to be upgraded heading into 2014. The Rams had interest in keeping him but had no intention of offering a similar type of deal. It also speaks to the ability of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to maximize reclamation projects.

OG Shelley Smith

The deal: Signed a two-year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The loss of Smith is another subtraction from the Rams' depth on the offensive line but it's also not cause for much alarm. Smith lost a preseason battle for the starting left guard job to Williams and though he showed some ability as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was often overmatched by the bigger, more physical front sevens in the NFC West. Again, Boudreau should be able to coach up someone else to provide similar production and depth to fill Smith's backup role on the interior. That depth could come from current options like Barrett Jones or Brandon Washington or a veteran free agent such as Davin Joseph or Daryn Colledge, both of whom have visited St. Louis.

TE Mike McNeill

The deal: Signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Terms unknown.

What it means: Losing McNeill doesn't alter much in terms of the Rams' primary options at tight end but it does remove a versatile piece from the depth chart. McNeill was the team's fourth tight end and played sparingly in the offense. He was a trustworthy backup and a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher's but is a piece the Rams can replace rather easily, perhaps with late-season pickup Justice Cunningham.

Finnegan
CB Cortland Finnegan

The deal: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Rams released Finnegan at the start of free agency, creating valuable cap space and a hole in the secondary. The key here is how much the Rams can gain from this contract based on the offset language they had built in to Finnegan's contract. Depending on how Finnegan's deal with the Dolphins is structured, the Rams could gain an additional $3 million in cap space. Assuming he makes the team or possibly immediately based on a bonus, it's reasonable to think the Rams have a good chance at getting all of that $3 million in space back. The team also has an opening for another cornerback.

QB Kellen Clemens

The deal: Signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

What it means: We already knew the Rams were planning to grab a young quarterback in May's draft but this should only serve to reinforce that idea. What remains to be seen is whether the Rams want to carry a third, veteran quarterback to handle the No. 2 job until the unnamed rookie is ready. That's a role Clemens would have been ideal for but he did enough in 2013 to draw interest and land a well-deserved deal with San Diego. The Rams now have just two quarterbacks, starter Sam Bradford and Austin Davis, on the roster.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams lost Kellen Clemens to a two-year contract from the San Diego Chargers on Thursday. On the surface, it's a simple departure from a backup quarterback headed somewhere for a better deal.

Initial reports pegged the deal as worth $3 million over the two seasons, a modest contract that if fulfilled would come out to about $1 million more than the veteran minimum. Perhaps Clemens wanted to go to San Diego regardless -- who, other than Eli Manning, wouldn't? -- but that's an offer the Rams could have matched or slightly bettered to keep him. And they should have.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKellen Clemens would have been the ideal mentor for helping bring along a rookie quarterback.
Let's make it clear right away: Clemens is not a Pro Bowl quarterback. He's not even a starter. But Clemens proved in 2013 that he can have some success filling in if used the right way and was one of the most respected players in the locker room. His value to the team went well beyond replacing an injured Sam Bradford.

Perhaps more than anything, if the Rams are as set on drafting a young quarterback at some point in May as they have indicated time and again, Clemens would have made the ideal mentor.

Clemens is entering his ninth season in the league and by this time, we know he's best served as a backup. Considering Bradford is coming off an ACL injury, there's little doubt the Rams could stand to upgrade the depth chart at quarterback. The team has already been pretty open about adding a quarterback at some point in this year's draft and in an ideal world, that rookie would be able to serve as the No. 2 quarterback sooner rather than later.

But what if Bradford has a setback in recovery from ACL surgery? What if he suffers another injury early in the year? It's unlikely the Rams will be able to find a rookie quarterback in the middle rounds ready to step in and play right away.

Clemens knows coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense better than anyone and proved he can at least keep the Rams in games in 2013 when they went 4-5 with him under center. It made sense for Clemens to come back to serve as the primary backup for Bradford and tutor for the unnamed rookie until he's ready to become the No. 2.

Perhaps $3 million over two years is a little steep for a player who would be a No. 3 quarterback but I believe Clemens would have been worth it and, worst case scenario, the Rams could have moved on from him if and when the rookie was ready to contribute.

Instead, the Rams now find themselves in a situation similar to last year. Bradford is the starter and Austin Davis is the lone backup on the roster. Early in the 2013 offseason, the Rams had the same duo in place and seemed poised to give Davis the chance to become the backup. That never materialized as the Rams re-signed Clemens and opened up a competition which Clemens eventually won.

Bradford's injury left Clemens as the starter and the team brought Davis back to serve as a backup. The team clearly wasn't comfortable with Davis as the No. 2 last offseason and it's hard to see why this year would be any different.

Sure, the Rams could go sign a different veteran if they want to have a third quarterback around to help a potential rookie. Perhaps even one who will make less than Clemens in 2014. Bradford should be able to provide some veteran guidance by this point, too, but also has the more pressing need of recovering from knee surgery.

Losing Clemens isn't going to make or break the Rams' season, it might not even register a blip on the radar as 2014 moves along. But in the bigger picture, keeping Clemens around would have been a logical move for this season and beyond.

Free-agency primer: Rams

March, 7, 2014
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Key free agents: OL Rodger Saffold, QB Kellen Clemens, OL Chris Williams, OG Shelley Smith

Where they stand: The offensive line is the one area with the most questions heading into 2014. The larger-than-expected salary-cap increase will likely allow the Rams to retain one of their costlier veterans (probably center Scott Wells) to lessen the need a little, but the Rams still have a decision to make on guard Harvey Dahl and his $4 million cap number. Likewise, Saffold, Smith and Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. The Rams badly want to keep Saffold and will push hard to do so with the idea that he can be a starter at one of the guard spots long term. Bringing back Williams or Smith would give them a potential starter inside or better yet, experienced depth. The secondary is the other area in need of reinforcements. St. Louis could probably use a starter and a backup at safety and another top-three-caliber corner with the pending release of Cortland Finnegan. Bringing Clemens back as a No. 3 who can tutor whomever the Rams draft in May might also make sense.

What to expect: The Rams have spent lavishly in free agency in each of their first two years under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. The results of those signings have been mixed at best, and the better signings have been the more midlevel moves, like signing and re-signing defensive end William Hayes and the addition of defensive tackle Kendall Langford. The Rams insist they're coming close to breaking through, and if they truly believe that, they'll have some young talent to re-sign in the next few years. Spending big in free agency isn't usually a path to success, and the Rams probably won't be very active this year, at least compared to the previous two. Many will connect the Rams to Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, but that seems a bit overblown given what Verner is likely to cost. If Saffold departs, perhaps the Rams spend to find a piece on the offensive line or elsewhere, but if they have it their way, expect retaining Saffold to be the "big" free-agent move.
When it comes to Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, the only thing that has changed is the date.

We are days away from the start of NFL free agency, when we will find out for sure whether (and where) Vick gets his chance to be a starting quarterback. Whatever happens, it has been clear since Jan. 6 that Vick’s time in Philadelphia is almost certainly over.

As those other Eagles sang, he's "already gone."

Nick Foles is the starter. Matt Barkley is going to be here. The team could very well draft a quarterback again this year. If coach Chip Kelly feels he needs a veteran backup, there will be several attractive options in free agency that aren’t named Vick: Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Kellen Clemens among them.

None of those names may excite your imagination, but they’re not supposed to. They’re potential backup quarterbacks. Signing any one of them would provide competition for Barkley without what we’ll call the Vick Factor -- a guy some percentage of the fans will be clamoring for the moment Foles has a bad game, or even a bad half.

Going into last season, I thought Kelly should have moved on from Vick. He judged him only on what he did in training camp and the preseason, ignoring the pre-Kelly history of injuries and turnovers. Lo and behold, Vick pulled his hamstring running out of bounds on Oct. 6.

When the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point, and had gone two games in a row without a single offensive touchdown, Kelly explained the problem in five words: “instability at the quarterback position.”

Anyone can get hurt. Foles missed a game with a concussion. But after a firsthand experience with Vick, the walking definition of “instability at the quarterback position,” it’s hard to see Kelly bringing him back for his age-34 season, especially when he has invested serious coaching time in Barkley.

But that was obvious on Jan. 6, when Vick gave what amounted to a farewell speech to the media and posed for photos with his soon-to-be former teammates. The only reason to report that Vick isn’t coming back is that the calendar says March, and his departure is imminent.

Where will he go? It was fascinating to see Adrian Peterson tweet his interest in bringing Vick to Minnesota. That seemed like a possible fit all along, although the hiring of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator didn’t exactly line up with that. Peterson is 29 and has bounced back from a torn ACL. He wants to win now. It wouldn’t be surprising if new head coach Mike Zimmer, who waited a long time for this opportunity, feels the same.

There are a number of teams that could use Vick as a quick-fix starter and a bridge to a young quarterback.

The Eagles aren’t one of them. They’ve already crossed that bridge.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: Apparently it can't be said enough but Sam Bradford is the starting quarterback and nothing that happens this offseason barring a major setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery is going to change that. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have voiced confidence in Bradford at every turn. Although smoke screens are common at this time of year, there has yet to be anything resembling a reason not to believe them.

Pending free agents: Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Brady Quinn

What's needed: The Rams could use one, maybe two backups for Bradford. They were left short handed when Bradford initially suffered the injury and after it was official that Bradford's season was over, the team brought in two more signal callers in Davis and Quinn to backup Clemens.

Clemens surprised with his performance in the final nine games and might have done enough to earn a return to St. Louis. If nothing else, Clemens is a highly-respected part of the locker room and a valuable mentor for the team's young receivers as well as any potential quarterback addition the team might make in the draft.

In fact, if the Rams choose to keep three quarterbacks in 2014, Clemens would make a lot of sense as the early-season backup while he grooms another youngster to eventually take over as the No. 2 and potentially push Bradford long-term.

It seems unlikely Davis or Quinn will return as the Rams have made no secret of their interest in adding a young quarterback in the draft. That player could come as soon as the second round but likely will come from the middle (3rd-5th) rounds.

Possible fits: It's almost certain that the Rams will add a quarterback in the draft, meaning an outside free agent isn't likely to be in the offing. Clemens is the most logical candidate to return as a veteran presence but there is a name that could be out there who has some ties to the team. The New York Jets are expected to part ways with Mark Sanchez and Sanchez knows Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system well.

Verdict: Clemens is a better fit than Sanchez for the veteran role, however. You can never rule out anything when it comes to the NFL but the guess here is that the Rams will draft a quarterback in the middle rounds and bring Clemens back to tutor him.
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams need to select a quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft.

The ACL injury that cost Sam Bradford more than half the 2013 season highlighted the importance of finding a young quarterback with upside who can step in, play and give the team some long-term value.

In the meantime, veteran Kellen Clemens took the reins. To the surprise of many, present company included, Clemens exceeded his previous career performance and led the Rams to four victories in his nine starts, matching his career total as a starter from his previous dozen starts.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKellen Clemens played well enough this past season for the Rams to consider bringing him back in 2014.
While Clemens didn't put up any eye-popping numbers, he did enough to earn another shot with the Rams in 2014.

Whether that happens for the pending free agent remains to be seen, but for his (funny) part Clemens would like to return.

"I don't know," Clemens said. "I would certainly love to be here. I love this organization and the direction that we're heading in, but it's a little different than my senior prom. I have to have a date for this one. It's a true story, actually."

Wait, so how did that all work out?

"I actually had a blast," Clemens said, laughing. "I had a blast. It's a lot cheaper going solo, for those of you considering it."

The opposite is true when it comes to the prom that is NFL free agency. Without a dance partner, it would actually cost Clemens a nice chunk of change. Whether or not another girl will ask Clemens to the prom is hard to say but there's ample reason for the Rams to ask him to come back.

Statistically, Clemens' numbers were rather pedestrian compared to other starters around the league as he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,673 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions for a passer rating of 78.8 and a QBR of 38.2.

Those numbers mostly fall short of what you'd want from a starting quarterback but that's not the point. Clemens is a backup and proved to be a bit better in his role than many expected. Without Bradford (and even before his injury), the Rams became a run-heavy team hoping to create chances for big passing plays off the run.

When the Rams were able to get the run game going first, such as games against New Orleans, Chicago and Tampa Bay, Clemens was able to take advantage with big passing plays while still limiting the number of attempts. When the run game wasn't working, such as games against Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco, Clemens was unable to generate much offense.

That's not a difficult formula to understand as Clemens clearly has his limitations. Of course, finding a backup quarterback in the NFL without his share of limitations is a difficult exercise in itself.

To be clear, I'm not advocating Clemens return as the guaranteed backup to Bradford in 2014. The Rams must add a young quarterback to the mix via the draft and begin to develop him with hope of making him the backup in the short term with possible long-term starter potential.

The Rams carried three quarterbacks on the roster for most of 2012 and did so again for a spell this past season after Bradford's injury. Doing it again next season with Clemens as one of the three makes sense because he would provide a veteran option should Bradford and an anonymous rookie signal-caller be unable to start the season. More importantly, he could provide valuable guidance to said rookie.

After all, tutoring young players would be nothing new to Clemens.

"If I look back, I think the one thing that I will hang my hat on is that a lot of times you see a backup come in and guys don't continue to grow," Clemens said. "And I'm talking about the young guys that I mentioned before. I think that Tavon [Austin], Stedman [Bailey], Zac [Stacy], I think Jared [Cook], who was fairly new to this offense, I think they continued to grow even with me in there and so hopefully next year we see signs of that improvement and they'll be even better for Sam. I think that's really probably what I'll hang my hat on this year."

It's also another good reason for the Rams to bring him back for another go in 2014.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 29, 2013
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A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 27-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

What it means: The Rams finish the season at 7-9, a half-game worse than they were a year ago, but after another manhandling at the hands of a division opponent, it's fair to wonder how far they have to go to keep pace in the NFC West. After piecing together a division-best 4-1-1 record against the NFC West last year, the Rams finished 2013 at 1-5 in the division on their way to a fourth-place finish. Although St. Louis made strides outside the division, going 6-4, that's not going to mean much if the Rams can't find ways to hang with the teams ahead of them.

More alarming, St. Louis was almost completely feckless offensively in its five losses to Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco this season. Four of those games came without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, but with so many stout defenses in the West, the Rams have to find a way to score more points.

Stock watch: Down: the Rams' running game. There was almost no chance the Rams would be able to match the 200 rushing yards they had in the first meeting between the teams, but to say they came up short of that mark would be a massive understatement. The loss of left tackle Jake Long and the other moving parts along the offensive line allowed Seattle to stack the box and completely shut down Rams back Zac Stacy & Co.

Stacy didn't even get the 42 yards needed to reach 1,000 for the season. When the Rams run the ball, quarterback Kellen Clemens can have success throwing. When they don't, you get a performance like Sunday's. The Rams finished with a measly 13 yards on 18 carries, an average of 0.7 per attempt.

Flag fest: It's not an unusual sight to see the Rams racking up penalties, but Sunday's game might have taken it to a new level. Make no mistake, Seattle had its share of penalties and the officials didn't have much control, if any. But the Rams again failed to maintain composure and piled up silly penalties, many of the 15-yard variety. When all was said and done, the Rams had 12 penalties for 87 yards. That total doesn't even account for another handful that weren't accepted.

What's next: The Rams head into what should be an interesting offseason. They're positioned well in terms of the NFL draft, with the No. 2 overall pick from Washington plus another first-round pick, but will have some serious decisions to make in regard to the salary cap. In the increasingly tough NFC West, they can't afford any missteps.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 27-16 victory against the New Orleans Saints:

Quinn again: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn had already established himself as the team’s best defensive player in 2013, and with each passing week he’s making a better case that he’s the league’s best.

Quinn
Quinn forced Saints coach Sean Payton to toss out the game plan early and continued to punish any blocker put in front of him throughout the Rams' victory. Quinn had five tackles, two sacks, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

For the season, Quinn leads the NFC in sacks with 15 and the NFL in forced fumbles with eight. This is the definition of a breakout season for one of the game’s emerging stars.

Stacy steps up: It’s no secret that the Rams’ success in 2013 has been directly tied to their ability to run the ball successfully. Rookie Zac Stacy has been the key to that success, and after a couple of down weeks, he rebounded nicely against the Saints.

Stacy rushed for a combined 97 yards in losses to San Francisco and Arizona the past two weeks. He had 106 in the first half against the Saints and finished with 133 yards on 28 carries with a 40-yard touchdown run.

Since becoming the starter in Week 5, Stacy has averaged 88.6 yards in the team’s five wins.

On target: Toughness and leadership are qualities Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens has regularly displayed since becoming the starter in Week 7. Accuracy is not.

So when Clemens started Sunday’s game by completing 10 of his first 13 passes, it seemed like just a matter of time before the ball started hitting the turf consistently. It never happened.

Clemens completed 14 of 20 for the game, a 70 percent completion rate which is the highest of his career to date. The Rams grabbed an early lead behind Stacy’s running, leaving Clemens with little to do, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a 95.7 QBR.

Turnover time: It’s been said and written time and again that no single statistic is more indicative of a team’s performance than the turnover differential. That certainly holds true for the Rams.

St. Louis created three takeaways (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and coughed up none on offense to finish plus-three against the Saints. That they won given that turnover output should come as no surprise. The Rams are plus-three or better in five of their six wins this season and have not lost when they’ve been on the positive side of the takeaway battle.

Roller-coaster Rams are still growing up

December, 15, 2013
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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.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
7:29
PM ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 30-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

What it means: For the second week in a row, the Rams suffered a decisive loss to an NFC West opponent on the road. What's more, the loss moves the Rams to 5-8 on the season and puts them on an almost certain trajectory to a last-place finish in the division.

While the Rams have been playing without starting quarterback Sam Bradford since Week 7, they appear to have fallen behind yet another team in the NFC West. Before the season, many believed the Rams to be a sleeper to challenge Seattle and San Francisco for divisional supremacy. Instead, it's Arizona that has embraced that role, leaving the Rams searching for scraps.

The season-opening win over the Cardinals seems like a lifetime ago and remains the team's only divisional win against four losses only a season after going 4-1-1 in the same division. Perhaps most worrisome for the Rams is the real possibility that whatever improvements they believe they have made still aren't enough to keep them from the NFC West basement.

Stock watch -- up: Receiver Stedman Bailey -- Although his numbers don't leap off the page, Bailey has earned more playing time with his sharp route-running and consistent hands. He finished with three catches for 46 yards, but it's more instructive to note that he's the team's most reliable and trustworthy pass-catcher. It's been a rough year for Rams receivers, but Bailey is at least emerging as something of a bright spot in the final weeks.

Stock watch -- down: The Rams' secondary -- This isn't anything new, but be it scheme, personnel or a combination of the two, the Rams' defensive backfield continues to struggle. With cornerbacks playing plenty of soft coverage and drawing flags when they were more aggressive, Arizona's Carson Palmer made everyone forget he's battling an elbow injury. Palmer threw for 269 yards while completing 27 of 32 passes with a touchdown.

Clemens' rough day: It was established early that the Rams would have trouble running the ball, leaving the offense in the hands of quarterback Kellen Clemens. After some early success with bootlegs and rollouts, the Rams didn't have much more through the air. Once the Rams fell behind, Arizona deployed its seemingly endless variety of pressure packages and began battering Clemens.

When all was said and done, the Cardinals sacked Clemens four times and hit him seven, according to unofficial statistics. He was under fire plenty of other times and will certainly be sore on Monday.

What's next: A two-game western road swing comes to an end with the Rams returning home for the holidays for back-to-back games at the Edward Jones Dome. That's the good news. The bad news is the Rams welcome another tough opponent in the New Orleans Saints. Improving Tampa Bay follows just before Christmas to wrap up the NFC South portion of the schedule.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
7:21
PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

What it means: Now that the Rams sit at 5-7 on the season, any flicker of playoff hope they had has essentially vanished in the competitive NFC. They're a full three games behind San Francisco for the No. 6 spot in the conference and still trail a handful of other teams just to get into the mix. Any reasonable person wouldn't have expected the Rams to win their final six games to get into the playoff hunt, but at least now those dreams can be put to bed.

In the bigger picture, the Rams again found out just how far they have to go to become a contender in the powerful NFC West Division. After two impressive wins against Chicago and Indianapolis, the Niners knocked out the Rams with relative ease for the second time this season.

Stock watch -- up: Punter Johnny Hekker -- There's not much to choose from after another mostly ugly outing for the Rams, but Hekker was excellent again in this one and deserves praise for the work he's done all season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt, and the 49ers mustered only two returns for 5 yards.

Stock watch -- down: Rams pass-catchers -- As is the case in a loss like this one, there's plenty to choose from here. But it's worth pointing out some of the costly drops and missteps from the Rams' receivers and tight ends. Receiver Chris Givens had a few, and tight end Jared Cook also missed some catchable passes. Quarterback Kellen Clemens wasn't very accurate, but that's nothing new. In recent weeks, his pass-catchers have at least been hanging on to the ones that are catchable.

Penalty-palooza: After accumulating just four penalties against Chicago, the Rams made up for lost time against the 49ers. They committed 11 penalties for 105 yards and were particularly guilty in the first half. In the opening 30 minutes, the Rams had seven infractions for 60 yards. Most of those were against the defense, effectively keeping the San Francisco offense moving and allowing the 49ers to build a 10-point halftime lead.

What's next: The Rams return to St. Louis for a few days before heading west for the second consecutive week with a trip to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. While St. Louis has little chance to leapfrog the 49ers, the game against the Cardinals at least provides an opportunity for it to start crawling out of the NFC West basement.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 12

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
8:00
AM ET
ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 42-21 win against the Chicago Bears:

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesZac Stacy rushed for 87 yards and a score as the Rams rushed for a total of 258 yards.
Staying alive: The win moved the Rams to 5-6 on the season and though they are still on the outskirts of the playoff race, they managed to stay in the picture by knocking off a team that's in front of them in the mix.

With five games to play, the margin for error is small -- the Rams probably can't afford to lose another game to have a real shot at the playoffs -- but they now have consecutive impressive wins against playoff contenders in Indianapolis and Chicago. Heading into Monday night's game between San Francisco and Washington, the Rams sit two games behind 7-4 Arizona for what would be the final wild-card spot.

St. Louis' next two games come against the Niners and Cardinals, two teams ahead of them not only in the NFC West but in the NFC wild-card picture as well.

Battle of the Longs: Much was made of the meeting of Rams defensive end Chris Long and his brother Kyle, the Bears' starting right guard, last week. In a rare battle between brothers where they might actually cross paths on the field, there wasn't much to report with one notable exception.

Following an incomplete pass by Bears quarterback Josh McCown in the first half, Kyle Long got tangled up with defensive end William Hayes. The pair continued to battle after the play and Long actually appeared to throw a couple of kicks in Hayes' direction. Chris Long quickly ran in from the sideline to pry his brother out of the mix and away from his close friend Hayes.

It was a difficult situation for Chris Long, but he said he has long been accustomed to pulling his brother out of scrums.

Run game rolling: Immediate following the Rams' blowout loss to San Francisco in Week 4, coach Jeff Fisher made it clear the time had come for a philosophical shift for the offense. The idea was to develop some semblance of a reliable rushing attack with rookie Zac Stacy leading the charge.

After a promising start, the Rams' run game has gone to another level in the past four weeks. Capped by Sunday's 258 rushing yards, the Rams have run for 758 yards with six touchdowns on an average of 5.61 yards per carry. That average is the best in the league during that time frame. Without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, the run game's emergence has eased the burden on backup Kellen Clemens considerably.

Secondary struggles: The Rams' secondary hasn't exactly been able to lock down opposing passing games this season, but it was even tougher sledding Sunday against the Bears. The team placed cornerback Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve with an eye injury on Saturday and Trumaine Johnson, his replacement, suffered a head injury during the game. That left the Rams short at cornerback, and McCown threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns to keep Chicago in the game.

Pending Johnson's status moving forward, the Rams have only rookie Brandon McGee, converted safety Rodney McLeod and unproven Quinton Pointer behind starter Janoris Jenkins on the outside.

Resilient Rams refuse to go down easy

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
9:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS – After scoring 21 points in the first quarter for the first time since the middle of the 2008 season, the St. Louis Rams looked poised to run away from an opponent for the second game in a row. The Rams dominated the Chicago Bears for the better part of the opening 30 minutes, but just before going into the locker room at the half, a chain of unfortunate events began.

Left guard Chris Williams left the game with a head injury. Running back Zac Stacy soon exited with a similar injury. And at the start of the third quarter, cornerback Trumaine Johnson followed suit. Three of the team’s key starters were out.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesThe Rams pulled away with two late touchdowns, including one on a fumble return by Robert Quinn.
Then, with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Rams took their biggest hit by delivering one. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers was flagged for roughing Bears quarterback Josh McCown on a sack that appeared to be so fundamentally sound you could almost hear the applause from Tim Duncan in San Antonio.

Instead of a drive-killing stop, the Bears got new life and scored to get to within six points, at 27-21.

“They just kept playing,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

For those who have seen the Rams of recent vintage, at least pre-Fisher, "just keep playing" would have equated to something like packing up their briefcases and calling it a day.

What this edition of the Rams did was respond with resilience and gumption, a trend that continues to pop up in tiny spurts.

“Seven points, that’s the only thing we were thinking about,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “That’s what we were saying on the sidelines. I can’t lie. Emotions got into it. I was extremely angry, and then the only way to overcome that is to work.”

The Rams' offense immediately put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown, with Stacy’s backup, Benny Cunningham, doing most of the damage. One minute later, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn forced a fumble, recovered it and raced 31 yards for a touchdown and the final margin.

With the game teetering in the balance, the Rams didn’t flinch. They offered an angry stare and pushed the Bears over the edge.

“This team, we are a bunch of fighters,” Saffold said. “We’re a bunch of dogs caged, so when you cut us loose, you see what we can do.”

Sunday’s win gave the Rams a two-game win streak, but how they achieved it might speak to something bigger. The Rams are 5-6 and still sitting on the outskirts of any realistic playoff discussion. But consecutive convincing wins against teams that are firmly in said postseason picture indicate the Rams just might be a team nobody wants to see down the stretch.

Prosperity has been fleeting for the Rams for most of the past decade. What little they’ve had has soon been frittered away and has often spiraled into further despair.

Over the course of the first 11 weeks this season, the Rams have clearly matured to the point where they can not only embrace prosperity but create it in the face of adversity.

“I think that we are starting to believe, which is what you need,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “As a whole, we are starting to believe. Coming off a big win at Indianapolis, I was proud of the guys, there’s no letdown. We didn’t come out flat coming off a bye week, a lot of times that happens.”

Even when in-game letdowns seemed plausible, the Rams found a way to get out of it. Witness the goal-line stop by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the first drive of the third quarter. Or the defense managing to keep the Bears out of the end zone on three plays from the Rams’ 1-yard line before they finally scored following Brockers’ penalty.

A game the Rams had in control nearly slipped away on multiple occasions, yet they discovered ways to hang on.

“We have got a bunch of tough dudes in this locker room,” end Chris Long said. “We knew that. Everybody else is starting to figure that out.”

That may not be the sign of a team ready to make a run at the postseason. But it might be one that signals it’s going to take a mighty blow to knock them out.

Three things: Rams-Bears

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
3:30
PM ET
ST. LOUIS – A look at three things worth watching in Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

Attack with Zac

Despite the protestations of Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the Bears defensive numbers aren’t quite as skewed as he made it sound this week, at least not when it comes to the success teams have had running the ball against them.

The Bears sit 31st in the league in run defense, allowing 133.9 yards per game on the ground. Likewise, teams are averaging 4.48 yards per carry, which is 27th in the NFL.

Chicago has been crushed by injuries to key players such as cornerback Charles Tillman, linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive tackle Henry Melton and will be without defensive tackles Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea this week against the Rams.

All of that should mean a big opportunity for the Rams’ vastly improved run game to have another strong outing powered by rookie back Zac Stacy.

Since taking over in Week 5, Stacy has 533 rushing yards, fifth most among all NFL backs. Each week, his workload seems to get bigger and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

“I’m used to getting over 20 carries and I had 20 carries in college for the most part, so it’s really no different,” Stacy said. “It doesn’t feel like a lot, but Monday morning when you wake up that’s when you feel it. It’s been great just being able to help this offense and this team be successful, and I just want to keep that mentality.”

Benny Cunningham showed promise as a change of pace for Stacy against Indianapolis and could also play an important role in this one.

Protecting It

It’s a bit of a cop-out to put turnover-related issues in this space because the turnover battle is always a huge component in determining NFL games. But it takes on a bit more meaning when you play the Bears.

Chicago’s defensive struggles have been well documented, but the one area that group continues to excel is in getting takeaways and converting those takeaways into instant points.

The Rams have done an OK job of taking care of the ball since Kellen Clemens took over at quarterback, but they’ve had some costly giveaways in the red zone in their past two games.

The Bears, meanwhile, have 22 takeaways, tied for fourth most in the league and have scored five defensive touchdowns.

“The one thing that hasn’t gone away from that Chicago defense is the turnovers that they’re able to generate,” Clemens said. “I think they’re third in the league or something right now with 22 takeaways. That’s still going to give their offense opportunities and it’s something that we can’t give them.”

On the flip side, Chicago has been flawless in protecting the ball since its veteran backup, Josh McCown, took over at quarterback. The Rams have forced a respectable 19 turnovers, tied for 10th in the league and will need to find a way to coax McCown into some mistakes, especially if the Bears do what they usually do in this category.

Screen protection

Bears running back Matt Forte is widely regarded as one of the best running backs in the league in no small part because of his ability to make plays as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

Forte is sixth in the league in rushing yards with 774 but it’s his versatility that makes him especially dangerous. He’s seventh in the league among running backs in receiving yards with 374. And the Bears rarely miss when targeting Forte, who catches the ball 81.7 percent of the time he’s targeted.

“He’s a really good pass-receiver out of the backfield,” Fisher said. “When you’ve got the targets that they have downfield, they’re stretching the field and you pay attention to them, it’s that check down, that three-four yard checkdown that ends up going 30-40 yards. That’s what concerns you. He’s an outstanding screen back as well. He knows how to set the screen up and hit the alley and use his blockers.”

With McCown at quarterback and his ability to avoid mistakes, it’s likely he’ll continue to take checkdowns when the chances present themselves.

The Rams have struggled against screens in multiple games this season and will need to be aware not only of screens but of Forte leaking out of the backfield for additional catches to have a shot to slow down Chicago’s offense.

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