September successes reveal progress

ST. LOUIS – This walk was the kind that will be remembered if Jeff Fisher’s vision becomes real, if a St. Louis Rams renaissance erases the bitter memory of a lost decade and elite football becomes the norm here once more.

In a corridor at the Edward Jones Dome, about an hour after his team’s 19-13 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Fisher gathered by a small group of fans and friends. A whirlwind of postgame duties was long over, and the coach relished in his moment to unwind.

Between grins, he exchanged hugs. He posed for photographs. He talked about seeing everyone Thursday night, when St. Louis, now a surprising 2-2, hosts the Arizona Cardinals in the next stage of a season-long study.

“Now,” Fisher said earlier, moments after the Rams improved to 2-0 at home, “we can boast a little bit about making this a hard place to play.”

September has served as an examination of Fisher’s direction, and the season’s first month has included a variety of findings. There were signs of a young, competitive team that lacked defensive discipline in a last-minute loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 1. There were signs of an edgy, relentless group that turned back the Washington Redskins in Week 2. There were signs of an unfocused, overwhelmed bunch that played flat in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears in Week 3.

Then came Sunday, when fulfillment of Fisher’s vision seemed closer than thought possible this early when he was introduced to replace Steve Spagnuolo in January. Rookies Greg Zuerlein (made field goals of 24, 48, 58 and 60 yards) and Janoris Jenkins (when rushing Russell Wilson and when defending in the secondary) both made significant impacts beyond their years. Late in the second quarter, a bold fake field-goal attempt allowed rookie Johnny Hekker to find Danny Amendola for a 2-yard touchdown, giving the Rams a 10-7 lead. The defense, the glue of Fisher’s leadership, forced Wilson into three interceptions – including one by Bradley Fletcher at St. Louis’ 23-yard line that iced the new regime’s first NFC West victory.  

“Unpredictable,” Rams rookie wide receiver Chris Givens said of the team’s emerging identity. “There are a lot of different personalities. But on Sunday, we all come together with one personality – and that’s to do whatever it takes to win.”

On Sunday, St. Louis did what was necessary to win – even if the effort was more grimy than graceful. Yet it’s wise to remember this project remains a work in progress, and the time is right to exercise caution.

Among the questions: It remains to be seen how a team that began the season with 17 rookies and about 60 percent roster turnover will manage tests against the Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. It remains to be seen if the Rams will become consistent winners or if they’ll continue a stop-and-start pattern of success. It remains to be seen if they’ll make a leap to contend in the NFC West or if such fantasies for a franchise that last appeared in the playoffs in the 2004 season are at least another year away.

But the fact that such scenarios are considered possible this quickly after Fisher’s arrival – before the calendar has flipped to October – shows progress in this former NFL Death Valley. On Sunday, the Rams matched or surpassed their win total from three of the past four seasons. The advance is noteworthy and no accident.

Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan are long gone, both serving lesser roles in locales like New Orleans and Detroit. With each outcome like Sunday’s, a dark shadow in the Gateway City left by their failed leadership grows thinner, giving way to promise of the franchise’s new day.

Make no mistake: The Rams’ evolution is far from complete. There are holes, like a struggle to stop Seattle’s rushing game, which produced 179 yards. (Marshawn Lynch gashed them for 118 yards and one touchdown.)

But September’s results have revealed that a transition has begun, that it’s notable and that it’s a change of course from past failures.

“For the most part, we’re definitely still young as a whole,” said Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, who had three tackles and a sack Sunday. “We still have a lot more growing to do. I think we’re developing well as a young team. We still have a huge upside that people haven’t seen yet. I think the best is yet to come.”

But what will come next? The Rams have developed a defense-first persona that’s reflective of their coach. It’s no surprise that the unit was asked to preserve a triumph for the third time in this young season, and for the second occasion in such scenarios, the group answered the call.

Wilson drove Seattle to St. Louis’ 40 with less than two minutes left, and it looked as if Matthew Stafford’s Week 1 dramatics would be replicated. But the past month has included growth. Each test has revealed something new, and this defeat of a rising division foe showed these Rams are more bend than break.

Winning ugly? Check.

At times, looking unrefined – especially on offense – but doing enough to survive? Check.

Changing the culture of a franchise fresh off the worst five-year stretch in NFL history? Check.

“I’d much rather win them by 21 or 28, but that’s just not the case,” Fisher said. “That’s a really good football team – short week, travel, emotional game last Monday night. It’s hard to get up – not that they were flat. They’re very talented. … I thought our guys hung in there. We had some negative plays, yes, but you’re going to against a defense like that.”

A stigma that has accompanied so many Sundays here seemed more distant after Week 4. As Fisher moved past the small group of fans and friends, toward a tunnel that led out of the Edward Jones Dome, a renaissance appeared less of a stretch than before.

Yes, a vision doesn’t come into focus after two victories in one month.

But measured progress does.

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