Why the St. Louis Rams will rise in the NFC West

The St. Louis Rams have accomplished a curious and rare feat in today’s NFL. They’ve been consistently average.

Or thereabouts at least, give or take a crushing loss. Jeff Fisher has been the head coach in St. Louis for three seasons, and overall his record during that time is 20-27-1. He recently concluded his worst season with the Rams, finishing 2014 at 6-10.

But that was a year when the terrifying combination of Austin Davis and Shaun Hill were forced to start games at quarterback after Sam Bradford tore his ACL (again). It was a year when wide receiver Brian Quick finally began to emerge before suffering a severe shoulder injury. And it was a year when defensive end Chris Long played only six games.

Now there’s reason to do more than just have rosy Rams thoughts. You can actually believe in them, too.

The Rams haven’t played playoff football since 2004, and this isn’t the first March filled with hope that ends in December despair. But already 2015 feels different.

It feels like the Rams can ascend quickly in the NFC West. Remotely passable quarterback play was the final piece required to fuel legitimate optimism. The trade for Nick Foles brought aboard an arm capable of meeting that minimum standard.

Your criticisms of Foles are correct. It’s concerning and/or downright frightening that he went from throwing two interceptions over 317 regular-season pass attempts in 2013, to 10 on his 310 throws in 2014.

But with Foles the Rams are taking a calculated risk in their quarterback swap that sent Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles. And it’s the right risk.

Even when healthy Bradford was a compiler in St. Louis, displaying little ability to connect downfield with any consistency. He has a career yards per attempt average of 6.3, and in 2012 (his last fully healthy season) Bradford completed only 41.7 percent of his throws that traveled 20 yards or more downfield, according to Pro Football Focus.

If Foles can revert to being even half of what he was in 2013, the Rams have a roster capable of at worst becoming a playoff team, and quickly challenging in an NFC West that will see the San Francisco 49ers tumble.

Beyond him a wise decision was made to retain Kenny Britt. Not long ago Britt was an oft-injured and oft-arrested mess. Then in 2014 he set a new career single-season high in receptions with 48 and nearly did the same with his 748 receiving yards. That production isn’t knocking you off whatever surface you’re sitting on, but please remember Britt posted those numbers while receiving passes from two replacement-level quarterbacks.

Then there’s the continued growth of Tre Mason, a slippery running back who will enter his second season after forcing 28 missed tackles on only 179 carries, per PFF. He also logged six carries for 20-plus yards despite being inactive for the first six games.

But most of all, wins should pile up because any errors from Foles will be mitigated by a defensive line capable of turning opposing quarterbacks into crispy pancakes.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has now been added to a unit that finished with 40 sacks in 2014. He’ll be motivated by his one-year contract, and is only a year removed from a six-sack season as an interior rusher. In a rotational role he’ll also be fresh, adding more powerful bulk to a unit that’s already anchored by Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, who finished fifth among defensive tackles in 2014 with 44 pressures.

The Rams added competence where it was most needed this offseason, and they also reinforced the strength of their defense. They have youth and speed in key areas, and are primed to rise.

If they don’t Fisher will be looking for new employment.

Sean Tomlinson

About Sean Tomlinson

Hello there! This is starting out poorly because I already used an exclamation point. What would you like to know about me? I once worked at a mushroom farm, which is sort of different I guess (don't eat mushrooms). I'm pretty wild too, and at a New Year's Eve party years ago I double-dipped a chip. Oh, and I write about football here and in a few other places around the Internet, something I did previously as the NFL features writer and editor at The Score. Let's be friends.

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