The predictions were coming in all preseason -- despite the buzz around Sam Bradford, the 2010 season was going to be another long mudslog through the worst division in football. SI's pundits, former NFL scouts and sophisticated prediction machines agreed: it would take another year and another top-five draft pick, maybe another coaching change, before the excitement returned to St Louis.
Bradford, Spagnuolo, and a cast of surprising players said to hell with all of that, we think we can win NOW!
As we get set to relive the 2010 season, using NFL.com's invaluable Game Rewind, let's re-set the table for that season by identifying three key themes from training camp that would carry over to the big rebound year.
Preseason theme: Re-learning how to fight
The 2010 season was highlighted by a new spirit among this Rams team. We've seen plenty of bad teams over the past few years and heard plenty of soundbites from so-called team leaders saying they were getting "tired of losing," but it looked more like "tired of fighting" as the losses continued to pile up.
The buzz for fans started with Bradford's arrival in camp after a 36-hour "holdout," but the culture shift started in the trenches, led by a powerfully energized Chris Long, the ageless and technical mastery of James Hall, an increasingly fired-up Jason Smith, and the surprisingly tenacious Rodger Saffold. These four players were making pads pop and tempers flare throughout camp, delighting fans and coaches alike on the sidelines.
Billy Devaney and coach Spagnuolo started a theme of "competition" in camp -- offering no job security and every chance for the team's young players to step up and take hold of starting jobs. Saffold emerged from a prospective candidate for the right guard position to locking down the left tackle position by the preseason's first week. He outfought Alex Barron, just as Smith fought his way past concussion symptoms and a playing-time rotation with Adam Goldberg that swallowed most of his rookie campaign. Barron was dealt away, a classic "addition by subtraction" maneuver, and Goldberg was moved to the interior, where he platooned with another young up-and-comer, John Greco.
The result was that both lines gelled, providing just enough protection to keep Bradford upright, and enough terror to keep opposing quarterbacks on their heels. The Rams' offense, with the still-raw Saffold and Smith bookending the line and a rookie QB still learning his reads, improved their sacks allowed from 44 to 34, slightly bettering the NFL average. And the defensive line exploded from the bottom of the league into the top ten in the "fear" categories for opposing quarterbacks: hurries, hits and sacks.
Preseason Theme: Saying goodbye to unfulfilled potential
The final cutdown continued the process of remaking the team with Billy Devaney's players, casting off another chunk of holdovers from the misbegotten Jay Zygmunt era. The year previous saw the Rams cutting Joe Klopfenstein and trading away Tye Hill. Barron was an easy and early target this season, and the talented-but-contact-shy Bobby Carpenter acquired in Barron's departure didn't make it to the starting gate either. The cut was a little more painful though for well-liked players like Keenan Burton, who played like a demon throughout the camp's early weeks until his knee problems resurfaced. Even though he made the first list of 53, the late acquisition of Mark Clayton forced the Rams to make a tough choice.
These moves raised the stakes in the clubhouse. There would be no sympathy and no looking back this season, if the Rams were to break free of their troubling downward slide that had taken them all the way to a 1-15 finish.
Preseason Theme: quantum leaps in Sam Bradford's improvement
All the fight and incremental roster improvement might not amount to much if the big gamble on Bradford hadn't paid off. Only a handful of people -- trainers and NFL insiders all -- had seen the Rams' new quarterback on the field since October of the previous year, when his shoulder was ground into hamburger. And none of these few knew what would happen the first time Bradford took a hit.
In his first preseason game, the Vikings drove him to the ground a staggering eight times in less than two quarters of play. And eight times Bradford bounced back up, a hint of a smile on his face. Two weeks later, the starting job was his to keep.
Bradford, like every rookie quarterback thrown in the fire, was tested so many times before the season's first game. But what makes him so special, and what separated the building excitement of Rams fans from typical preseason hopeful delusions, was the way that Bradford faced these challenges and surmounted them.
Driving his rehab schedule and putting himself in position to be the #1 pick. Signing his rookie deal without sacrificing dollars or practice time. Winning fans over immediately in his practice and scrimmage debuts. Taking his first NFL hits. Starting (and winning) his first preseason start. Winning the job outright.
At every turn, Bradford made quantum leaps in performance that inspired his teammates, coaches and fans alike. Maybe, we all thought, maybe this year will be different.