Rams offensive line eager for redemption

ST. LOUIS – There are only so many ways to say the past has been forgotten. St. Louis Rams offensive linemen understand this better than most early in training camp. There are concise ways. There are cerebral ways. There are reflective ways. Yes, there are only so many ways to say a bad memory has been erased.

Take third-year guard Bryan Mattison, who started four games during last season’s 2-14 stinker. On Tuesday after practice, he stood near a field at Rams Park eager to press forward, not think back to the shortcomings of his franchise’s fifth consecutive losing campaign. There are many more like him.

“Last year was tough,” Mattison said. “But hopefully, you can learn from some of that stuff. We have moved on. We’re focused on this year.”

Moving on was essential. Mattison was part of a group that allowed a league-worst 55 sacks in 2011 – 32 more than the Buffalo Bills, who surrendered the fewest in the NFL. A large reason for the leaks was that guard Jacob Bell (MCL) and tackles Jason Smith (concussion) and Rodger Saffold (pectoral) closed the year on injured reserve.

Meantime, quarterback Sam Bradford scrambled behind the patchwork protection in their absence, often looking lost. More than once, he moved toward a tunnel after a defeat at the Edward Jones Dome to boos. More than once, he slouched near his locker dressed in full uniform, blood on his pants and his face flushed.

So a year that began with NFC West title hopes – the Rams last won one in 2003 – ended with a laundry list of issues, in part because the offensive line was resistant as a piece of tissue paper. Yes, injuries riddled the group. Yes, the ailments explain much of St. Louis’ struggle to show any spark under former coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Still, breaks and bruises fail to tell the complete story. The men at the line of scrimmage must take some responsibility.

Make no mistake: Poor protection played a part in the Rams being held to 13 points or fewer 12 times. Bradford, who finished with 2,164 yards passing with six touchdowns and as many interceptions a year after he was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, had a right to be fumed as the season progressed. He had little time to establish a rhythm, and his confidence waned because of it.

Others noticed. Mattison, for one, is eager to forget it all.

“Last year was last year,” he said, “and this year is this year.”

Same goes for sixth-year guard Harvey Dahl. Last season was his first with St. Louis after four with the Atlanta Falcons. But even with months to heal, the topic of 2011 hurts.

“It sucks to look back,” Dahl said. “But you’ve got to learn from it and never want to be in that situation again.”

Smith and Saffold never want to relive that scenario. Both watched the wreck of coach Steve Spagnuolo’s final season from a distance because of their injuries. Still, they know the season was difficult for anyone involved.

“The hardest thing for me was getting the understanding that whatever happened in my life had to happen,” Smith said.

Added Saffold: “There were so many things going on.”

Sure, there were distractions during a campaign that grew more cringe-worthy by the week. But now, this far removed from Spagnuolo’s firing, it’s obvious that there’s some truth to Smith’s idea about living for the day.

After all, there’s a cleansing that comes with this time of year in the NFL. There’s renewal. For one of the league’s weakest offensive lines a year ago, training camp can mean recovery.

Work is ongoing to try to make that happen. Saffold lined up at left tackle, Quinn Ojinnaka at left guard, Robert Turner at center, Dahl at right guard and Smith at right tackle as part of the top group during 11-on-11 drills Tuesday. Most slots are settled aside from the left-guard spot, and Scott Wells is expected to claim the No. 1 center position after he heals from undergoing a knee scope in the offseason.

Soon, all those players will slide into their roles before the season opener against the Detroit Lions. Scars from 2011 remain, but those wounds can serve a purpose.

“It’s one of those things you don’t really focus on,” Smith said of last season. “If you spend too much time focusing on yesterday, you’ll forget about today. If you think about tomorrow, you’ll forget about today as well. I’ve learned don’t take any thought to tomorrow, because today has enough going on.”

Added Saffold: “The guys who were here last year saw how we went downhill. We are dedicated and committed to making this a better football team. I think with everybody’s help, we have tried to inspire that throughout all the offensive linemen, and now we’re trying to take off. We get tons of positive feedback and tons of corrections. People are making the changes. When (offensive line) coach (Paul Boudreau) tells us to do one thing, you see people at the next practice actually do it. It’s huge, because to be good, you have to be coachable.”

You have to be able to forget too. That much, the Rams’ offensive line has accomplished.