Dark Days in Rams World

Los Angeles Rams rookie quarterback Jared Goff is sacked during a game against the New Orleans Saints. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire)

Well, our little joyride seems to have hit the ditch for real.

The Rams’ trip to New Orleans began with wild surmise. Rookie Jared Goff was fully installed as QB, and if all went well, we could quit thinking about all those draft choices the management chucked in order to nab him.

Even without those cashiered draft picks, it’s still starting to look like the scouts are going to have to get busy inventing the component parts that most NFL teams have, creating out of thin air some little stuff like—an offense?

There was also hope that running back Todd Gurley—once Goff put the Saints back on their heels with some well-spotted passes—would be busting some moves on the New Orleans secondary.

Also, of course, the hope was that Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would be able to return to the Superdome and, in a rigorous display of lockdown defense against his former team, prove that you don’t need to set bounties on opposing players to undo their schemes.

Williams was the key focus of the NFL investigation into the scandal, in 2012, when the league charged the coaches with setting up a system that rewarded Saints players with money for injuring opposing players. The historically tough penalties included a full-season suspension of head coach Sean Payton in 2012 and an indefinite suspension of Williams—later reduced to one season.

The league adjudged that after three seasons of vicious slobber-knockers by between 22 and 27 players, beginning in 2009, Payton must have had some awareness. Apparently, team owner Tom Benson—a wonderfully silly man whom I have several times witnessed cavorting second-line style, parasol aloft, across the rock-hard gridiron of the ’Dome—had tried to put a stop to the practice but was not obeyed.

(N’awlins, a city I love like no other in the nation, can be huge fun—and also an easy place to get hurt, and not just by cheap shots. A retired Saints receiver of my acquaintance filed a suit against the team for laying down their queasy-colored fake grass carpet over meteorite-hard sub-surface. Also, unforgivably, some mugger shot rocker Ray Davies in the leg when he lived there—a now-it’s-personal moment for this Kinks fan.

(As further N’awlins aside, I was for three years the proud—well, somewhat loyal if not proud—possessor of season tickets during the ’91 to ’93 patch that was actually a nice upbeat bubble in their often-frustrating history, the Drew Brees epoch being a notable exception. They won ugly a fair amount—emphasis on the ugly—and much of it I spent watching QB Bobby Hebert stagger and sling his way to a lifetime efficiency rating of 78.0, which was respectable enough to rank him 54th on the all-time list. His work was seldom pretty, but being a Cajun boy in the Superdome will earn you some slack.)

Look, let’s put Williams and his sadly trounced defense to the side for a moment and contemplate the hopefully more-stellar-than-Hebert-like career of  Mr. Goff. To his great credit he’s kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open, and he’s showed us both the strong arm that was advertised and a workable sangfroid on the field. The Rams to a man have complimented his poise and leadership in the huddle. It appears that somebody actually took him aside and told him, “Dude, will you quit sliding across the greensward with that cockamamie knee brace that jolts around like some bogus special effect in Transformers?”

It’s hard to argue with Goff’s three TD’s, or to blame him for Brees’ four; and going 20-of-32 for 214 yards would win many an NFL game (though he also threw an interception and lost a fumble on a sack). Post-game, Goff, who apparently got his media training from his fatiguingly positive-minded coach Jeff Fisher, delivered one of his typically explosive analyses of his own play: “I felt better out there.”

Leaving aside that Fisher gave bull-strong but disorderly offensive tackle Robinson a time-out, not even dressing him for the Saints game on his home turf, there are other personality crises. Do Rams fans really have to spend the days leading up to a row of three killingly-tough matchups thinking about what has already been dubbed DickersonGate? For the information of those far from the buzz of every sports talk show in creation, legendary Rams running back Eric Dickerson angrily attested to the media that he was denied a credential to attend the Rams-Dolphins game down on the field where the other esteemed alumni freely stroll. Although Fisher said all the right things—if some marginally credible protestations are the right things—about how much he values Dickerson, the ex-Ram declared with some heat that he will attend no Rams events while Fisher is still coach.

The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, who had methodically scourged Fisher for not inserting Goff in to the lineup sooner, journeyed to the Rams practice after the Saints loss and enterprisingly buttonholed Rams’ chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, who “[p]ointedly acknowledged the final five games could determine the direction of the organization.” (Read: whether Fisher gets his soon-to-expire contract renewed.) “This is a town that expects its teams to be champions, and to be in the playoffs and to win consistently,” he told Plaschke.

Fisher, for his part, told the columnist he doesn’t think his future is wholly dependent on those five games, and that he and owner Stan Kroenke “are in a really good place.” Should Fisher survive the expiry of his contract at the end of this season, goes the disgruntled scuttlebutt in Rams-friendly saloons, it means the management has thrown in the towel on a quick rebuild and will bide time a couple more years until they can move in to their massively pricey new stadium down the highway in Carson and go from there.

The upcoming three games are against the Patriots, Falcons, and Seahawks; all division leaders, all powerful on both sides of the ball. (Their aggregate 23-9 record looks scary up against the Rams’ 4-7, a pair of numbers that may force Fisher to re-litigate, as the CNN drones say, his pre-season predictions that he wasn’t going for that 9-7, er, crap of the past.) And yet the great bulk of the questions for Fisher this week have been from reporters going at him picador-style about the Dickerson kerfuffle. Not a good sign for the mood of the city. Last year, being hounded about his then-St. Louis Rams’ commitment after a tough fourth straight loss to Cincy, Fisher barked, “Anyone implies that it’s an effort issue, they can kiss my ass.” He’s shown less ire this year—so far.

Finally, early in the week after the Saints shellacking, he gave in to a “please clap” moment near the end of one session: “Anything about New England?”

And then what happened? In a conference call with the nation’s interested journalists, he muffed a question as to just who are the actual Pats running backs at present.

So here we sit. With three-quarters of the season gone, there really are no cheery topics in Rams world.

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Fred Schruers is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His football assignments have included then-Giants linebackers coach Bill Belichick, as well as a profile of Bill Parcells, and a feature on Phil Simms beating the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. A longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, Premiere, the Los Angeles Times, and a number of national publications, he is the author of Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography.