Bulger's bevy of targets will help him justify his big-bucks contract.
Greg Trott/Getty Images
at New Orleans
at San Francisco
at Tampa Bay
The King 500
411Isaac Bruce, Wide receiver
Marshall Faulk retired, reckoning that there aren't too many effective 34-year-old running backs in the NFL. Not true with receivers. Consider Bruce, who turns 35 in November but still moves the productivity needle. Last season he had 74 catches and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the eighth time in 13 years. Says teammate Steven Jackson, "It's like Isaac just decided one day not to age."
This .500 club is counting on its ultraproductive back and newly anointed franchise QB to carry it out of the doldrums
Not all that much. Outside the Rams' training camp, fences were draped with
banners, taut in the breezeless August humidity, that all bore the same message:
welcome to the proving grounds. But in truth there was very little proving
going on inside. After a relatively quiet off-season, there were few positions
up for grabs and few preseason mysteries in need of solving. In this, the second
year of coach Scott Linehan's reign and the first official year of the
post-Marshall Faulk era, the Rams essentially are what they are: a veteran team
with an offense vastly superior to the defense. "We know our roles; we're
comfortable with the system," says ninth-year veteran wide receiver Torry Holt.
"It's really just a question of getting it done."
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
Getting it done means improving on last year's uneven 8-8 season and
breaking free of the mediocrity that has enveloped the franchise since that
fateful, last-second Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in February 2002. (The
Rams' record over the past five seasons is 41-39.) In particular getting it done
means upgrading the performance on defense. In 2006 the Rams gave up nearly 24
points a game -- 28th in the league -- and ranked 31st in the NFL against the run.
While Linehan asserts that "more consistent play overall from everyone" is the
goal, it was lost on no one that the defense seemed to draw most of his
attention during the early days of camp.
Although there was no off-season defensive shake-up as some had predicted,
the Rams did attempt to spackle a few holes. They traded a fifth-round pick to
Detroit for defensive end James Hall, an eighth-year veteran. More important,
they used their first pick in the draft to select defensive end Adam Carriker, a
6' 6", 308-pound obelisk from Nebraska. He'd barely been fitted for a Rams
helmet before he was asked to switch inside to defensive tackle. No problem.
Carriker more than held his own in camp, drilling several of his new teammates
and bearing up in the relentless heat. The Rams have a rich history of draft
busts, but Carriker's play drew uncharacteristically effusive praise from the
coaches. "He's exactly what we thought we were getting," says Linehan. "He's an
old school football player, a big, strong lineman who's done everything we've
asked without hesitation."
The team's most substantive moves came on the other side of the ball. The
Rams may have surrendered their immodest claim to being the Greatest Show on
Turf, but the offense remains an entertaining mix of flashy, big-play receiving
and power running. St. Louis averaged more than 360 yards of total
offense per game in 2006, sixth in the league. The output is unlikely to
diminish with the acquisition of tight end Randy McMichael, a solid contributor
last season for the Dolphins, and the addition of lanky free-agent receiver Drew
Bennett to complement sleek incumbents Holt and Isaac Bruce.
Perhaps the most significant off-season development was rewarding quarterback
Marc Bulger with a six-year contract extension worth $65 million, with
$27 million guaranteed. Now in his seventh season, Bulger, 30, has emerged
as a top-shelf quarterback in the Joe Montana mold. Released by the Saints and
the Falcons (and even the Rams) early in his career, he set personal bests last
season in completions (370), passing yards (4,301) and ratio of touchdown passes
(24) to interceptions (eight).
Bulger is quick to admit that his job has been made easier by the emergence
of Steven Jackson, the versatile tailback who has rendered Faulk's absence a lot
less painful. Stuck behind the perennial All-Pro for his first two seasons,
Jackson agitated for more carries. "It's not easy wanting to touch the football
and not being allowed to," he says. When opportunity knocked last season,
Jackson didn't so much answer as disengage the door from its hinges. His 2,334
total yards -- 1,528 on the ground, 806 receiving -- were the fifth highest for a
single season in NFL history. A first-time Pro Bowl selection, he's suddenly the
leading candidate to interrupt LaDainian Tomlinson's hegemony as the league's
best running back. "I felt [my success] was a long time coming," he says. "This
season I intend to put up 2,500 total yards on the way to Arizona." That, of
course, is the site of Super Bowl XLII.
Ultimately, though, it will take more than Bulger's living up to his swollen
contract and Jackson's running roughshod over the NFC again for the Rams to
return to the elite status they enjoyed as recently as five years ago. The
absence of seismic roster moves says plenty about the value the franchise places
on stability. But unless the same core of defensive personnel can improve
dramatically from last season, St. Louis will be on the wrong side of that
fine line between constancy and complacency.