by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After spending last year as the living NFL embodiment of Murphy’s Law (everything that can go wrong, will go wrong), the St. Louis Rams once again begin from scratch this fall.

Which in itself has become a recurring theme at the Edward Jones Dome since Mike Martz’ “Fastest Show on Turf” fizzled in the middle of the last decade. Since then, the Rams have gone in two opposite directions, first hiring a decorated offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan) and then a well-regarded defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) to shepherd the team.

Both regimes, however, failed, and once again it’s back to the drawing board in St. Louis. This time, however, the Rams have hired an experienced NFL mentor with solid credentials, as owner Stan Kroenke convinced well-respected ex-Titans HC Jeff Fisher, rumored to be destined for a variety of locales, to pick St. Louis as the site to revive his career.

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Fisher or not, Las Vegas sports books still regard the Rams as one of the longest shots on the board entering the 2012 campaign. They’re rated a distant fourth in the NFC West, priced at 12/1 to win their division. And it’s no surprise that St. Louis is almost priced off the board to win the NFC (50/1) and Super Bowl (100/1).

The season-win total, however, is posted at a rather-ambitious six at the majority of Nevada wagering outlets, which is quite a jump from last year’s 2-14 train wreck.

After being a team du jour entering last season following an unexpected playoff push in 2010, the Rams collapsed a year ago, their season effectively sidetracked by mid-September following early injuries to RB Steven Jackson and WR Danny Amendola. Adding in nagging hurts suffered by second-year QB Sam Bradford (who was hampered by a recurring high ankle sprain from mid-September onward), plus the offseason lockout that delayed the strike force a chance to absorb new o.c. Josh McDaniels’ concepts, and the Rams’ offense effectively disappeared. Only a midseason upset over New Orleans and a subsequent 1-point win at Cleveland spared St. Louis from a winless season, which marked the end of the Spagnuolo coaching era at Edward Jones Dome.

Fisher’s arrival in the offseason was considered something of a coup, although his regime was dealt an early blow when d.c. Gregg Williams, lured from New Orleans, was suspended by the league for his central role in the Bounty-gate scandal with the Saints. Fisher will now be working with a consortium of defensive assistants to coordinate the stop unit in Williams’ absence.

However, the prenaturally optimistic Fisher, along with new GM Les Snead, attacked with vigor the daunting task of trying to upgrade the roster, becoming an active player in free agency and turning six picks into ten during last April’s NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Along the way, Fisher and Snead also added first-round picks from Washington in 2013 and ‘14 by allowing the Skins to move up and draft Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor.

In fact, the Rams will be entering the regular season with a whopping 16 rookies on their 53-man roster.

Meanwhile, new o.c. Brian Schottenheimer will be trying to implement a pro-style offense with West Coast concepts that theoretically should suit Bradford’s passing accuracy and Jackson’s running style. This will be Bradford’s third different offensive system in three years, although the Schottenheimer offense is similar to the one utilized by then-o.c. Pat Shurmur (prior to Shurmur’s hire as the Browns’ HC) in 2010.

Thus, it’s worth noting that Bradford (left) fared just fine working with Shurmur in his rookie year of 2010, and his downgrade last fall could be considered as part of a system-wide failure by the Rams’ strike force, caused in large part by injuries across the board. It would seem unlikely that sort of bad injury luck to key weapons would strike for a second consecutive year.

One curious development at the end of preseason was the release of veteran backup QB Kellen Clemens, leaving the Rams (for the moment, at least) with only Southern Miss rookie Austin Davis as cover for Bradford.

A key for the Schottenheimer offense will be for the OL to offer better protection than it did a year ago when it, too, was depleted by injury. Most important will be the bookend tackle spots, where Rodger Saffold (on the left) and Barry Richardson (on the right, replacing Jason Smith, traded to the Jets) must stay in the lineup. Veteran C Scott Wells (ex-Packer) was added in free agency and is expected to be an upgrade from the disappointing Jason Brown.

The rookie theme will be prevalent at the WR spots, where April draftees Brian Quick (App State) and Chris Givens (Wake Forest) will be on the field quite a bit; how much can they contribute right away? Givens (right, in preseason action vs. the Chiefs), in particular, has deep-ball ability that the offense could use to stretch enemy secondaries, something the “O” didn’t (or couldn’t) do a year ago. The return to action of Amendola, a secure possession-type receiver who went down early last season with a dislocated elbow, at least provides Bradford with his safety blanket, but Sam is advised to get comfy with some other targets (perhaps vet Steve Smith, in addition to the rookies) in a hurry.

For all of the talk about Bradford and his receivers, the wheelhouse of this offense remains RB Jackson, who returned to the fold not long after straining a quad in last season’s opener vs. the Eagles (indeed, right after breaking for a 47-yard TD run on his first carry of the 2011 campaign). Jackson (left) still ended up gaining 1145 yards last fall as basically the only offensive threat on the field and, at 29 years of age, has yet to display signs of wear and tear that might suggest a downturn, although the Rams are advised to take advantage of Jackson’s considerable skills while they can.

Meanwhile, Fisher sees promise in a defense that appears robust up front, although at the outset it’s maybe not as strong as the new coach envisioned after first-round draft choice LSU DT Michael Brockers suffered an ankle injury late in the preseason (right) that threatens to sideline him into October. Still, one of the key free-agent additions, DT Kendall Langford (via Miami), had along with Brockers provided an upgrade for the defensive front that already boasted of the menacing Chris Long (13 sacks in 2011) at the left DE spot. Second-year DE Robert Quinn is expected to make bigger contributions this fall to add further oomph on the line.

Nonetheless, Brockers’ injury has left the Rams dangerously thin at the DT spots heading into the season, and Fisher was expected to be scouring the waiver wires for reinforcements prior to the September 9 opener at Detroit.

The free-agent theme is also easy to identify at LB, where Fisher and Snead spent some dollars to provide support around MLB James Laurinaitis, the heart-and-soul of the stop unit. Veterans Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Mario Haggan, and Rocky McIntosh were added on the outside.

Another free agent, with whom Fisher was familiar from his Tennessee days, ex-Titan CB Cortland Finnegan (left), was perhaps the key offseason addition and provides a much-needed veteran presence in a new-look secondary that has another new starter, rookie Janoris Jenkins (who played for Terry Bowden at North Alabama after being dismissed at Florida, where he became just the second true frosh in program history to start at a CB spot in his first game). If the new CB combo clicks as Fisher hopes, the Rams should have an upgrade in their pass defense.

Still, the cloud of last year’s 2-14 mark, and just 15 wins over the last five seasons, hangs over Rams like the smoky aroma of one of St. Louis’ many BBQ establishments. On top of that 2-14 SU mark a year ago, the Rams were also just 3-13 vs. the number. At least there’s nowhere to go but up.

Summary...The Rams intrigue a lot more than most teams off 2-14 campaigns, because they hinted at a real breakthrough in 2010 before the injury problems wrecked the offense almost before last season began. And many of the same key performers from the near-miss in 2010, including QB Bradford and RB Jackson, remain in the fold.

But it’s the addition of Jeff Fisher, a proven commodity as an NFL head coach, and what appear to be numerous roster upgrades, that suggests St. Louis could make a quick turnaround this fall. Getting involved in the playoff mix might be a bit of a reach, but many respected insiders suggest significant improvement from last year’s two wins and an escape from the NFC West cellar is hardly out of the question. Keep an eye on these guys.


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