Bernie Miklasz, The St.Louis Post and Dispatch, published 25 October 2010|
In the madness of NFL mediocrity, anything can happen and often does. Good teams lose to bad teams. Leads are lost. Trends are turned upside down. No one is safe. What passes for an upset? There's not much difference between the No. 1 team and No. 32.
The Rams find themselves lodged squarely in the muck. Their performances range from impressive to depressing. They can be bold; they can be timid. One week they're a breakout team; the next week they're nothing but a heartbreak.
But even when accounting for the fluctuations of form and consistency throughout the 32 NFL teams, there is no excuse for what happened Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Rams choked away a victory.
This hideous 18-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was worse than the 44-6 loss at Detroit on Oct. 10. That one was an ambush. This should have been an easy win.
The Rams were in total control, smacking the Buccaneers around to impressively build a 17-3 lead. The Buccaneers weren't willing to deal with Steven Jackson's rolling thunder in the first half when he averaged more than 6 yards a carry. Meek Tampa Bay defenders threw themselves at Jackson's feet, hoping to trip him, instead of engaging him shoulder-to-shoulder to make a tackle.
The error-prone Buccaneers were penalized 12 times overall and sputtered on offense for most of the first half. There were thousands of empty seats, making this one of the NFL's least imposing road venues. The Rams (3-4) failed to take advantage.
Gone was an almost certain road win, a chance to be 4-3, a chance to go into the bye week with a 5-3 record. Tampa Bay scored the game's final 15 points over the helpless visitors.
We saw another second-half fade. The Rams, who barely hung on during a three-point win over San Diego last week, didn't hold up this time. The Rams have been outscored 26-3 in the second half of the last two games and 69-39 in the second half for the season.
"We faced some adversity," wideout Danny Amenodola said. "To be a good football team you've got to get over adversity, and we didn't do that."
Tampa Bay plays some ugly football. But the young Bucs don't give up, and if you allow them to hang around they've shown to be tough late in games.
"It's a mentality," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "When the game is on the line, we have a lot of stand-up guys ready to make a play."
That was a big problem for the Rams on Sunday. "We needed to make plays and we didn't make any plays," defensive end Chris Long said. "And that's it."
Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford took the loss hard, putting a lot of the blame on himself. He knew that he'd missed open receivers.
"I've got to make more plays," Bradford said. "I struggled today. When we're down like that, I've got to be able to get us going as an offense. I've got to be able to step up and make a throw. And I wasn't able to do that today."
Bradford had plenty of company as the Rams collectively vanished in the second half. The defense was mulched by a Tampa Bay offense that hasn't been able to run much on anyone.
And have you ever seen a defense drop more interceptions than this one? The Rams had at least three sure interceptions slip through their hands Sunday.
A dropped INT by middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, early in the third quarter, caused a significant switch in momentum. Laurinaitis may have scored on the return for a 23-6 lead, but the drop gave Tampa Bay another chance. The Bucs pushed for a field goal that cut the Rams' lead to 17-9. The coaching staff disappeared, too.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur dialed up brilliant formations, looks and play calls in the first half as the Rams rolled up 189 yards, 13 first downs and 17 points.
It isn't that the Rams stopped throwing the ball; they actually attempted more passes — in terms of percentage of plays called — in the second half than in the first.
But the second-half approach was bland. The Buccaneers finally stood up to Jackson, limiting him to around 3.3 yards a carry in the second half. And when Tampa Bay went with more of a straight man-to-man pass defense in the second half, Shurmur had no answer. "They made some adjustments that we weren't able to attack in the second half," Bradford said.
The Rams inexplicably ignored Danario Alexander, who could have been effective against the man coverage that plugged the other Rams receivers. The tall, physical Alexander could have made a difference but wasn't given much of a role in the game plan. And after Alexander's flashy debut against San Diego, how could the Rams reduce him to a non-factor? It's nonsense.
Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo launched the Buccaneers on their comeback with poor game management late in the first half, calling two timeouts that helped Tampa Bay kick a field goal with 24 seconds left to make it 17-6. Tampa Bay's players went into the locker room on an upbeat note.
That's how comebacks begin. And after the game a defiant Spagnuolo said he'd do it again if given a chance. Moreover, Spagnuolo saw nothing wrong with the second-half play calls.
"I don't think it's that," he said. "I mean, you've got to make a few plays. Doesn't matter what you call, you've got to make a play."
Coming into the game, we wondered if the Rams were ready to win on the road. Now we know the answer. And until the Rams prove that they can win on the road, you can take all of this junk about making the playoffs and toss it in the Dumpster — right there next to the victory they gave away Sunday afternoon in Tampa.