Texans vs. Rams
The real problem with Tavon Austin, Sam Bradford and the Rams: These struggles don't lie
Sam Bradford had floundered about for three years and this past offseason, the time came for the St. Louis Rams to show a commitment that warranted their continued insistence upon labeling Bradford as their franchise quarterback.
The Rams signed free-agent left tackle Jake Long, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, to a four-year, $34-million contract with $20 million guaranteed.
The Rams lured free-agent tight end Jared Cook with a generous five-year, $35-million deal ($19 million guaranteed) that dissuaded the Tennessee Titans from re-signing a key cog on offense.
Austin hasn't lived up to the advanced billing as a game-breaker. His 6.8 yards-per-reception average doesn't match the hype.
The Rams worked a draft-day trade with the Buffalo Bills, surrendering their second- and seventh-round selections while swapping third-round picks to jump eight spots on the board in order to select West Virginia receiver/return specialist Tavon Austin eighth overall. Austin is the first receiver taken by the Rams in the first round since former franchise star Torry Holt in 1999.
Behind a reinforced offensive line and armed with an array of new weapons, Bradford has tossed more touchdown passes (10) through five games than at any time in his career. Yet despite his increasing experience and the Rams' unflinching commitment to improving around Bradford, St. Louis' offense still ranks among the most feeble in the NFL. For every get-good-quick story like those in Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington D.C., there is a cautionary tale representing the travails of rebuilding and the patience required to see the process through to completion.
"Every situation's different for every team," Rams second-year coach Jeff Fisher said. "Any given year is different. But you just take the approach that, if you make dramatic changes in what you're doing, then you're laying the groundwork to let everybody know that what we started off doing was wrong.
"You just keep doing what you believe in. You believe in your system. You come to work. You look forward to coming to work. You practice. You meet. You just keep playing and you just stress improvement, and things end up turning around."
Many assumed the turnaround would began this year for the Rams (2-3), who will meet the Houston Texans (2-3) on Sunday at Reliant Stadium. Or, at least, the thinking was that the revival would be more dramatic than what St. Louis has revealed thus far via a season-opening comeback win against the Arizona Cardinals and last week's victory over the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars sandwiching three consecutive losses in which they were outclassed by the Atlanta Falcons, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, whom they gave fits twice in 2012.
Those performances against the 49ers, the NFC representative in Super Bowl XLVII, laid the groundwork for an offseason of proactive moves and the belief in a brighter tomorrow.
The Rams defeated the 49ers in overtime at the Edward Jones Dome and forged a tie in San Francisco at Candlestick Park en route to posting the best record in the NFC West (4-1-1) last season, a surprising finish given the might of the 49ers and Seahawks. Their lone intra-division loss came in the season finale at Seattle, a 20-13 setback that allowed the Seahawks to finish unbeaten at CenturyLink Field. Fisher had rejuvenated the franchise and, given his track record with the Houston Oilers/Titans, appeared poised to place the Rams on the fast track toward contention.
Success hasn't come quite so readily, with the Rams' struggles on offense undermining their offseason handiwork. According to Pro Football Focus, Rams receivers pace the NFL with 18 dropped passes, five by Austin. With longtime veteran running back Steven Jackson having moved on to Atlanta, the Rams' ground attack has been nonexistent, with rookie Zac Stacy earning the nod from Fisher for a second consecutive start against the Texans after rushing for a Rams season-high 78 yards on 14 carries as part of the 143-yard rushing effort against the Jaguars.
Cook has produced as advertised and that reconfigured offensive line grades out as the sixth-best in the NFL despite losing right tackle Rodger Saffold to injury. Joe Barksdale has filled the void left by Saffold and played exceptionally as the bookend to Long, earning a positive performance grade while improving each week. The Rams allowed only seven pressures against the Jaguars and produced an 8.5 run blocking grade. At first blush, it's difficult to make sense of league rankings that include six categories in with the Rams rank in the bottom five offensively.
The Rams are 30th in third-down conversion rate (29.9 percent) and rush yards per play (3.05), and rank 29th in yards per game (311.6), yards per play (4.6), rush yards per game (66.4) and pass yards per play (5.65). They believe Stacy to be ascendant and that his insertion into the starting lineup will provide a boost to the ground game. Questions abound with their aerial attack.
"You just keep playing and keep slinging it, and good things will happen."
"I don't think he had a slow start," Fisher said of Bradford. "Our football team had a slow start. Sam was attempting too many passes early in the season. We got back last week to a balanced attack and ran the football."
If Bradford isn't earning criticism, Austin is. Given his exceptional speed and elusiveness, expectations were that Austin would immediately impact the offense. His influence has been tepid, and the Rams' collection of anonymous receivers makes it all too easy to shine the spotlight on Austin, who the Rams proudly labored and maneuvered to get their hands on last April.
With 23 receptions for 156 yards and just two touchdowns, Austin hasn't lived up to the advanced billing as a game-breaker. His 6.8 yards-per-reception average doesn't match the hype.
"I wouldn't say he's struggling," Bradford said of Austin.
It's standard operating procedure to deflect blame at this early stage of the season, but that action that doesn't minimize the Rams' problems. A majority of observer-based power rankings place the Rams within the last tier of NFL teams. Their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rating at Football Outsiders is a bleak 30th, only ahead of the winless New York Giants and Jaguars.
Even their defense, anchored by a carefully collected group of promising talents like ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, tackle Michael Brockers and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, is just 26th in DVOA. The Rams were positioned to take a leap forward this season, but their present predicament is to prevent modest regression.
On the surface, the Rams appear resolute that improvement is inevitable. When asked how he recovered from tossing Pick-6s against both the Cardinals and Falcons, a thinly-veiled question related to the protracted languishing of Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, Bradford delivered a reply rooted in maturity and perspective and one representative of the Rams' rebuilding manta.
"Really, you just keep playing," Bradford said. "The ones that we had earlier in the year, they were rough, but once they happened, there's really nothing that you or anyone else can do about them.
"You just keep playing and keep slinging it, and good things will happen."