> 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."
> 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.
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
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.
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.