Could the times finally be changing?
Yes, the St. Louis Rams haven't enjoyed a winning campaign since capturing the NFC West with a 12-4 record way back in 2003. Over the last six seasons, the franchise is a dismal 22-73-1.
But after tying for the worst record in the league in 2011, new head coach Jeff Fisher led the team to a 7-8-1 mark this past season and gave the teams in their own division a lot to think about. The Rams were a combined 4-1-1 vs. NFC West foes in 2012, including 1-0-1 vs. the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
This season it will be interesting to see how Fisher and company fares any better against the rest of the teams outside of their own division.
And the St. Louis Rams will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2004…
If: The new-look Rams' offense can put a little more pressure on opposing defenses. Gone are longtime running back Steven Jackson (Falcons) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (Patriots), the team's leading rusher and pass-catcher, respectively, in 2012. In their place are second-year runner Daryl Richardson, while young wideouts such as Austin Pettis, Brian Quick and Chris Givens and new tight end Jared Cook (Titans) will have big roles. In case you're wondering, the last time St. Louis averaged at least 20 points per game for a season was 2006.
And: Quarterback Sam Bradford can continue to progress. It's been an interesting three years for the former number-one overall pick in 2010. After a rookie season in which he threw for 18 scores and only 15 interceptions, injuries limited him to 10 starts and just as many touchdown passes as picks (6) in 2011. But Bradford started all 16 games a season ago, throwing for 21 scores and only 13 interceptions. And if new left tackle Jake Long can help the team improve its pass protection, it will be interesting to see what kind of numbers the St. Louis signal-caller puts up in 2013.
But: Fisher's team has to play respectable football outside of the division in 2013. The Rams' aforementioned 4-1-1 record vs. their divisional brethren this past season meant the club was just 3-7 vs. the rest of the NFL and five of those seven setbacks were by 10 or more points. Keep in mind that St. Louis tied for the league lead with 52 sacks in 2012 but the team managed only 21 takeaways. More big plays from an up-and-coming Rams' defense and there will be more wins, regardless of which team they are playing.
So what do you think? It's been a rough stretch for the franchise, to say the least. But all the teams in this division know how to play a little defense and that gives Fisher's team a fighting chance. But are the Rams a team truly on the rise? Or was last year's somewhat-promising season the recent norm rather than a pleasant exception and a sign of progress?
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country, can be heard on Yahoo! Sports Radio and many other networks and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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