Rams end season with hope in new leadership

ST. LOUIS – Sam Bradford moved toward the center of the locker room at Rams Park on a day of change, his franchise hours removed from beginning a correction.

Over the past four months, the second-year quarterback had struggled during a failed campaign. On Monday, he prepared to enter the offseason knowing his organization’s front office will look different.

St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke fired coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney on Monday morning, and Bradford looked into a group of microphones with regret. A year earlier, the Rams were one game away from winning their first NFC West championship since 2003. But a season that began with hopes of ending a six-year playoff drought spiraled into one of the NFL’s worst, and Bradford and other players were left to consider what went wrong.

“I enjoyed playing under Spags,” Bradford said, looking drained. “I learned a lot from him. I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to do enough to keep him here.”

The Rams were far from doing enough to keep Spagnuolo and Devaney during a 2-14 season that became more embarrassing as it wore on. As a result, St. Louis will search for its fourth coach since 2006 after Spagnuolo’s 10-38 record. The moves come as little surprise, but they reflect an urgency to change the personality of an organization that has not produced a winning season since 2003.

“They were good people who unfortunately got the wrong results,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer and executive vice president. “So today we seek a new direction.”

Like Scott Linehan’s tenure before it, the Spagnuolo era will be remembered for empty promise. In January 2009, Devaney hired Spagnuolo over other candidates such as then-Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and then-Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. After making his choice, Devaney praised Spagnuolo for his toughness.

But the traits Devaney saw in his hire never translated to a winning season or a playoff berth, and the dreadful tenure cost both men their jobs. The Rams finished 1-15 in Spagnuolo’s first year. Then, they went 7-9 in 2010 but had a chance to win the NFC West with Bradford as a rookie.

The Rams’ near-miss that season was part of the reason for hope this fall. But optimism ended early: They started 0-6; injuries to Bradford, wide receiver Danny Amendola and tackle Rodger Saffold were among key setbacks that riddled the Rams’ offense and made it among the league’s most inept; by midseason, the atmosphere in the Edward Jones Dome was lifeless.

And by a loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday – the Rams’ seventh straight defeat – Spagnuolo’s praise for his players seemed naïve.

“In this business, I’ve been around a lot of great people,” running back Steven Jackson said. “But unfortunately, that’s not what keeps people around.”

Moving forward, Kroenke must use caution. Next season, Bradford could play under his third offensive coordinator in as many years. The young quarterback’s regression this season was alarming but not a surprise given St. Louis’ many issues under first-year coordinator Josh McDaniels: Bradford’s passing totals dropped from 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions as a rookie to 2,164 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions this year.

The Rams “earned” the second-overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft in part because of Bradford’s struggle. But they must fill needs within their offensive line and receiving corps rather than consider selecting Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.

Poor offensive numbers from this season reveal a need for the next coach and general manager to give Bradford help right away. The Rams ranked 31st in total offense (283.6 yards per game), 30th in passing (179.4 yards per game) and were held to 13 points or fewer 12 times.

By late in the year, Bradford spoke of being “beyond frustrated” in the Rams’ limp to the offseason. Gone was the confident player who earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Gone was the eager player who spoke in training camp of growing under McDaniels. And gone was hope that this season would continue momentum from the 2010 finish that represented the franchise’s best result since going 8-8 in 2006.  

Instead, Bradford’s decline this fall marked the Rams’ own under Spagnuolo and Devaney. Despite his team’s shortcomings, Spagnuolo was unable to grasp why a losing mentality had become routine. The coach spoke of building a foundation even as losses grew predictable. But the Rams’ incompetence became obvious as the season continued.

No matter the next coach and general manager, though, Bradford’s performance will either harm or enhance the Rams’ long-term reputation. If new leadership squanders Bradford’s talent, it could be remembered as one of the NFL’s largest blunders in recent memory.

More is at stake with the upcoming hires than receiving value from Bradford’s six-year, $78 million contract. Rams ownership must show Bradford that St. Louis is a place where he can reach his potential.

Right now, the Gateway City looks like a place where he will be wasted.

“If we do get a new offensive coordinator, I’ll embrace it like I have the last two years and get to work and try to learn as much as possible,” Bradford said. “Ideally, I’d like to be going into year three of the same system. But that’s not possible. We’ll see what happens.”

Because the Rams made losing a habit, Bradford and others prepared to enter an offseason knowing change was underway. Around the quarterback in the locker room Monday, cardboard boxes and plastic trash bags were placed in front of stalls. In a room nearby, equipment managers folded gray T-shirts and hung blue game jerseys.

The offseason had begun. And with it, the promise of new leadership in St. Louis once more.