Believe it or not, folks, the NFL season is much closer than you can possibly imagine. So close, in fact, that, if we're going to fit in every NFL team preview by the start of the season, we have to go this early. So there you have it.
Last year, we asked some of our favorite writers to opine why Their Favorite Team Was Better Than Yours. Ultimately, we found this constrictive, and it also might have killed James Frey. So this time, we've just asked them to just run free, talk about their team, their experience as a fan, their hopes, their dreams, their desires for oral sex. All our teams are now assigned; if you sent us an email and we didn't get back to you, we're sorry, and we accept your scorn. But today: The St. Louis Rams.
Your author is Tim Grierson, , a film and music critic whose work appears in L.A. Weekly, Blender, VH1.com, and The Simon. When he gets around to it, he also blogs at Everybody's Got One. His words are after the jump.
They're in a mediocre division and they play in the weaker conference. Their defense is abysmal — your grandma could rush for 100 yards on them — but they get plenty of turnovers and their offense scores enough to keep them in any game. They have possibly the best up-and-coming running back in the league. They missed the playoffs by a fraction last year and ended the season on a three-game winning streak.
So what inspirational credo have the St. Louis Rams adopted for 2007?
In general, teams' marketing campaigns to entice fans to spend hard-earned cash for season tickets are pretty lame. (If you made life decisions based solely on ads' sheer creative bravado and pulse-pounding, tear-jerking sentiment, you'd more likely join the Marines than fork over all that dough for crappy upper-deck seats.) But the Rams' attempt at a battle cry has that distinct scent of desperation and denial to it.
When underrated teams go far into the playoffs, they start to adopt that lovable-underdog persona, and you'll see their fans holding up homemade signs that invariably say "I Believe" on them. If you get a bunch of those in the stands at the end of a season, it feels inspiring; it feels earned, like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia proudly completing his trek across the desert, exhausted but triumphant, when nobody said he could do it. But at the beginning of the season, telling your fans "I Believe" is akin to saying, "Hey, it could happen! It's a long shot, but what the hell, right?"
It sounds like you're trying to convince yourself as much as you are anyone else.
The truth is the Rams could make the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's squad almost by default has to be better than it was last season. Only four teams allowed more points, and only the Colts gave up more rushing yards, and so a bunch of starters were sent packing. In terms of fresh faces, the biggest hope is former Lions defensive end James Hall, who's been merely OK since a pretty terrific '04 season. And the Rams are praying that Adam Carriker, their recently-signed first-round draft pick, will be able to make the transition from defensive end at Nebraska to defensive tackle. Leonard Little will continue to be overlooked by Pro Bowl voters, although if Hall can draw enough pressure away from him, he's going to have a monster season. They'll miss Fakhir Brown if the suspension isn't overturned. On the whole, if these guys can just learn to tackle as well as they strip the ball, they'll be getting somewhere.
Meanwhile, the offense will be even better than the '06 unit that outscored several teams that actually made the playoffs. Steven Jackson wants to prove last year wasn't a fluke, Torry Holt never ages, Isaac Bruce rebounded nicely from an injury-plagued '05 season, and Marc Bulger is coming off a career year. And now they've got a formidable tight end (Randy McMichael, grateful to have survived the sinking ship that is the Miami Dolphins) and a strong third wide receiver in Drew Bennett, and Dante Hall's aboard too because, hey, why not?
So, you've got an amazing offense and a cross-your-fingers defense. It'll work out, right? Folks, I gotta tell ya: I hate teams that work under this philosophy. No single college football season was more painful for me than 2005 was, as I watched my USC Trojans dodge bullet after bullet as Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and a well-timed goal-line shove propelled an overmatched, undersized, ill-equipped, flat-out featherweight defense to the brink of another championship season ... only to watch linemen flail helplessly as Vince Young made them look like little boys at the Rose Bowl. Given my choice, I'd always prefer the anemic offense/stellar defense scenario than the other way round. (And before you remind me that the Colts beat the Bears and not vice versa, the Colts defense finally was back to full strength just in time for the Super Bowl.) But that's not the situation the Rams are in.
With all that in mind, look at their schedule and tell me how they're gonna get more than eight wins. Being generous, I gave them victories over their first three opponents - at home against the Panthers and 49ers, on the road at Tampa Bay - and then a loss at Dallas and a win at home against Arizona. That puts them at 4-1, exactly the way they started last season when the Rams faithful were convinced they were gonna get back in the playoffs after the 6-10 debacle in '05. But then came five straight losses, including two last-minute heartbreakers to the Seahawks. They managed to beat three terrible teams at the end of the season - and one of them, the Redskins, had a big lead and then basically gave them the game - to leave them at a respectable 8-8. By the time people realized they still had a shot at the postseason, it really didn't matter anymore.
I see the same sort of thing happening this year. They'll lose to the Saints and the 49ers on the road in November, and they'll be at 5-5. Four of their last six are at home - against Seattle, Atlanta, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh - and they travel to Cincinnati and Arizona. I say they split those last six. If the Rams can start beating the Seahawks the way they used to back in the Martz era, they've got a shot at reaching the postseason, but how likely is that if they can't shut down Shaun Alexander? And if everything goes according to plan for the Niners, San Francisco could legitimately challenge Seattle for first place, leaving the Rams potentially third in the West. (As a side note, it's still totally unfair that St. Louis is paired up in a division with teams from Washington, California and Arizona.)
I've gone through the schedule a few different ways, and it always ends up at 8-8. They're gonna lose a couple they should win, but they'll also catch a break here and there elsewhere during the year. It's what happened last season, and it's what happened in '04 when they lucked into the playoffs at, yup, 8-8. I think the casual NFL couch potato will enjoy watching the Rams more than their actual supporters will because those not invested will dig the ping-pong, back-and-forth scoring. Meanwhile, their fans will be going prematurely gray and weeping uncontrollably.
Head coach Scott Linehan is credited for being more of a "regular guy" leader than Martz, who I never liked, but he doesn't have a lot of personality, and his team seems equally ... well, just sorta there. If they start off strong, they'll build some momentum for the tougher games later in the year. Haslett's defense might come around like he keeps predicting it will. There's reason for optimism. But if they lose to Carolina and San Francisco back to back at home and fall to 0-2, here's what I believe: They're gonna be in for a reeaaal long season.