Rams’ new normal must include higher hopes

ST. LOUIS — This is a reality of the new normal.

During the Steve Spagnuolo era, a trip-over-your-shoelaces effort like the one seen in the Minnesota Vikings’ rout Sunday may have been excused. It may have been brushed aside as another stink bomb within a foul chapter worth forgetting. But this St. Louis Rams season has been about trying to take an aerosol can to the past. It should include taller expectations.

Pick from many undesirables in a 36-22 loss at the Edward Jones Dome that left the hosts thinking, “What’s next?” The Rams, playing to keep hopes alive for their first playoff berth since the 2004 season, allowed 23 second-quarter points before digging a 30-7 halftime hole. A foe that entered 1-5 on the road rubbed mud on a navy-and-gold welcome mat, kicked down the front door and muzzled most of the 55,751 in attendance on what was supposed to be Fan Appreciation Day. Meanwhile, all-world Vikings running back Adrian Peterson ran for a season-high 212 yards, pushing a proud defense through a paper shredder.

Many bloody noses. Not enough gauze.

Simply, it was unacceptable. It was unacceptable, given the stakes (postseason visions now gone). It was unacceptable, given the opponent (dangerous but flawed away from Mall of America Field). It was unacceptable, given the way it was lost (over by halftime).

Time to regroup. Time to refocus, before closing the first season under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead with trips to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks.

So, where to go from here?

“Well, we’ve got two games left,” Fisher said Monday, when asked by FOXSportsMidwest.com. “With success this week, if that happens, we have a chance to finish with a winning record. We have a chance to, if we’re successful this week, be undefeated in the division, which is going to be a very, very difficult task, especially up there (in Seattle). So there are challenges. We talk improving. From day one, we’ve talked about improving.”  

Improving’s a start, because Sunday was a step back. Yes, the Rams come with a surgeon general’s warning; they’re the NFL’s youngest team with a roster that included 17 rookies in Week 1. Before, no other Rams team in St. Louis had more than the 13 first-year players from 2003.  

Still, it’s time to remove the training wheels from this Huffy. These Rams never looked too young when beating the Washington Redskins in Week 2 and the Seahawks in Week 4. These Rams never looked too young when tying the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 and topping the NFC West leader in Week 13.

These Rams are far from the steaming mess that went 2-14 last season. Or 3-13 in 2007. Or 1-15 in 2009. There’s improved coaching and stronger talent on both sides of the ball. There’s reason to believe.

That’s why more should be expected. That’s why Sunday’s slide should never become the norm. That’s why attention to detail should be treated like gold coins: valued, polished, kept close.

“We learned we have to play a little smarter. It’s always little things,” Rams wide receiver Brian Quick said Monday, managing a slight smile. “Those little things turn into big things, big problems, during the course of a close game when you start playing teams further down in the season. That’s what we learned, because we have what it takes to be one of the greatest teams.”

Quick could prove right in time, but great teams must wade before they dive. This is where the Rams stand: Tiptoeing toward the pool’s deep end with floaties around their arms. Finishing with a winning record for the first time since going 12-4 in 2003 would show maturity. So would closing with an unbeaten division mark; the Green Bay Packers, 5-0 in the NFC North, are the only other team in the conference with a similar chance. (The Rams are 4-0-1 in the NFC West.)

The next two games will reveal much about the Rams’ mental strength. With playoff hopes all but dashed, will they swing back with a second wind? Or will they be gassed?

Will they replay Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals? Or will they replicate Week 8 against the New England Patriots?

“Now I have to show these guys how to finish strong,” Rams running back Steven Jackson said Sunday, after passing 10,000 career rushing yards late in the third quarter. “These two games, we want to go out and win. They’re going to be tough, because they’re on the road. But you want to build something to go into the offseason.”

This season has been about building since Fisher’s hire. Why stop? It has included a little of everything: Pain and progress, grimaces and growth.

It’s a new day with new demands. Any whiff that brings to mind the past should never be tolerated.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.