ST. LOUIS — There was a different feeling in the room Monday afternoon when the Rams met for the final time before breaking for the offseason. It was an unusual feeling, one felt just once at Rams Park since 2006.
“We really felt like when the guys left the auditorium, they left with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for what’s ahead,” said first-year coach Jeff Fisher, who wasted little time turning the Rams into a respectable and competitive team.
After going just 2-14 in 2011, the Rams made significant progress under Fisher and a new coaching staff in 2012. They reworked the roster, made solid draft selections and saw improvements from a number of returning players.
Fisher did in a year what the Rams had been able to do just once since 2006 — keep their fans from changing the channel at halftime. The Rams had the youngest team in the league and the played the third-toughest schedule yet weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16.
So when the group met to wrap up the 2012 season and look forward to the offseason, the Rams couldn’t help but leave with positive thoughts and feelings from
“I congratulated them,” Fisher said. “I was especially proud of this team, the staff and how committed they were to working. Their enthusiasm day-to-day, week-to-week, Sunday-to-Sunday was unmatched. It was very, very impressive to see them focus in and do whatever they possibly could to try to win ball games.
“Not the kind of year we expected to have, but nonetheless, a lot of positives from this to be taken as we move forward.”
The Rams won just three or fewer games in four of the last five seasons before Fisher took over prior to this season. But they entered their final game on Sunday in Seattle with a chance to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2004.
They lost a heartbreaker 20-13 to finish 7-8-1 but did nothing to quiet the optimism and excitement that has already begun for the Rams moving forward. And based on what the Rams did this year, there’s no reason why folks shouldn’t be expecting big things in the near future.
The Rams finished with the best divisional record in the NFC West by going 4-1-1. They beat Super Bowl contenders Seattle and San Francisco at home and tied the 49ers in an odd game on the road. They swept the home-and-home with lowly Arizona.
A 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots in London served as the only laugher on the Rams schedule. Compared to a year ago, that was an improvement in itself. The Rams were competitive in nearly every game and lost just two games by more than 14 points.
The Rams should have won a 27-23 loss in their season opener in Detroit and could have won a 17-14 loss in Miami, the 24-24 tie in San Francisco and Sunday’s season finale. Give them those four wins and the Rams would have been 11-5 and playing this weekend in the first round of the playoffs.
Sure it’s easy to say what could have been with the Rams and their 2012 schedule. But they played nine games against teams who qualified for the playoffs and held their own in nearly all of them.
So where exactly did things go wrong?
“It was early losses and inconsistency through the early part of the season,” Fisher said. “That stretch where we just couldn’t get a turnover. Those kinds of things. A win here or there. The thing that, and I mentioned this, had we practiced Wednesday, each one of the players on the 53 (man roster) would practice. So we got healthy at the wrong time.”
Quarterback Sam Bradford showed great improvements during his third season in the NFL. Working with his third offensive coordinator in three years, Bradford took significant strides late in the season to being the franchise quarterback the Rams expect and still believe he can be.
The Rams also got another 1,000-yard rushing season from Steven Jackson and saw big improvements from wide receivers Brandon Gibson and Austin Pettis. The defense, which had been one of the worst in the league, kept the Rams in several games they didn’t deserve to be in.
No doubt the Rams have plenty to improve on. Most notably, they have to find a way to score more points on offense and have better success on third downs. The offensive line struggled and could use a reshaping heading into 2013.
But with the momentum the Rams built to finish the season and two first-round picks in the upcoming draft, they should have a realistic shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
After taking a year off from coaching, Fisher proved to be exactly what the Rams needed to get the franchise turned around. It was a perfect match, at the perfect time.
“I had a blast,” Fisher said. “I can’t wait to get started again. I really enjoyed it. This is a very unique team in talking to this staff. This was a great group of guys and they understand the difference between, or the importance of, one, having fun and two preparing and playing hard. It was a great group.”
Rams fans can’t wait to get next year started either.