Now that the dust has settled on the 2006 season, let's look back at what went right and wrong for the Rams.
THE GOOD--Closing the season on a three game winning streak gives me reason for optimism in 2007. The Rams were an explosive football team down the stretch, averaging 171 yards rushing and 415 total yards per game in those final three. Yes, Steven Jackson got better as the season went along. In fact, at the end of the season, I'd venture to say Steven was one of the two or three most complete backs in all of the NFL. His yards from scrimmage total was fifth best in history and less than 100 yards shy of Marshall Faulk's record. And, yes, Marc Bulger played the best football of his career in the second half of the season. But both developments can, in part, be attributed to the improved play of the offensive line. The Rams may have, through injuries, stumbled upon their o-line of the future. Richie Incognito and Marc Setterstrom are naturals at guard. Both are terrific run blockers. The key was the play of Brett Romberg at center. Scott Linehan now believes he could be the guy for the future. A big plus with Romberg is he is cerebral enough to handle all the line calls at the line of scrimmage. An important but overlooked ability. Alex Barron needs to add overall strength in the weight room. By doing that, he'll overcome his confidence issue and cut down on the false starts. I'll stand by what I've said---Barron will be a very good tackle for years to come. And Orlando Pace will be back next season. Missing eight games due to injury might actually be a blessing for Orlando in 2007.
THE BAD--The Rams defense failed to live up to expectations in the run game. It's the same story we've been reporting for three plus years. I do believe that Jim Haslett can make dramatic improvements with the addition of three or four bodies. He'll keep Will Witherspoon and middle linebacker to take advantage of his athleticism. Getting Pisa back---and healthy--will really help. Those two together can be a VERY disruptive combo. If the Rams can get more consistent play at nose tackle and get a better pass rush from the end opposite Leonard Little, the linebackers and secondary play will improve immensely. La'Roi Glover played well but needs more rest. Claude Wroten has to become a bigger factor next season. The secondary is in good shape especially with Ron Bartell coming on late in the season. The Rams need to add some depth back there but the top five are fine.
THE UGLY--We are again talking about getting more production from the return units. Man, am I tired of talking about this. Willie Ponder is a tough kid and very willing but the Rams cannot get guys blocked on kickoff returns. It's abysmal. Sean Mcdonald had some big moments returning punts but overall doesn't get North and South quick enough. The coverage units have for the most part improved under Bob Ligasheshky the past two years. But they still suffer the occasional breakdowns. That has to be cleaned up. Having Isaiah Kacyvenski here a full season and getting John Alston suited up each week should help.
OFF SEASON PROGNOSIS---I expect the Rams to be productive in free agency and the draft. Tony Softli is now running the personnel department and brings with him from Carolina a track record of success. In years past, the Rams have drafted poorly on defense. I'm more optimistic about this regime based on the selection of Tye Hill in the first round last April. Tye is a player and will become a very good cover corner in the future. I think the combo of Haslett/Linehan/Softli can improve the talent level of this team.
EARLY 2007 PROGNOSIS---The Rams should be back in the playoff hunt. A nine or ten win season is a reasonable expectation. But, I expect the NFC West to be dramtically improved in 2007. Seattle should be healthier than this year and the Seahawks don't figure to lose many key free agents. The 49ers showed major improvement this season. Q-B Alex Smith is maturing rapidly and Frank Gore is one of the best backs in the league. If they add a playmaking receiverto go with tight end Vernon Davis, they'll be explosive. And they play solid defense. The wildcard in this division will be the Cardinals. I never bought into what they were doing with Dennis Green in charge. But new coach Ken Whisnehunt comes from a hard nosed offense in Pittsburgh. The first thing he'll do is improve that awful offensive line. And when Edgerrin James becomes a difference maker, the Cardinals offense will be scary. Matt Leinart already has two big time receivers in Anqaun Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.