> Not allthat much. Outside the Rams' training camp, fences were draped with banners,taut in the breezeless August humidity, that all bore the same message: welcometo the proving grounds. But in truth there was very little proving going oninside. After a relatively quiet off-season, there were few positions up forgrabs and few preseason mysteries in need of solving. In this, the second yearof coach Scott Linehan's reign and the first official year of the post-MarshallFaulk era, the Rams essentially are what they are: a veteran team with anoffense vastly superior to the defense. "We know our roles; we'recomfortable with the system," says ninth-year veteran wide receiver TorryHolt. "It's really just a question of getting it done."
> Getting itdone means improving on last year's uneven 8-8 season and breaking free of themediocrity that has enveloped the franchise since that fateful, last-secondSuper Bowl loss to the Patriots in February 2002. (The Rams' record over thepast five seasons is 41-39.) In particular getting it done means upgrading theperformance on defense. In 2006 the Rams gave up nearly 24 points a game--28thin the league--and ranked 31st in the NFL against the run. While Linehanasserts that "more consistent play overall from everyone" is the goal,it was lost on no one that the defense seemed to draw most of his attentionduring the early days of camp.
Although therewas no off-season defensive shake-up as some had predicted, the Rams didattempt to spackle a few holes. They traded a fifth-round pick to Detroit fordefensive end James Hall, an eighth-year veteran. More important, they usedtheir first pick in the draft to select defensive end Adam Carriker, a 6'6", 308-pound obelisk from Nebraska. He'd barely been fitted for a Ramshelmet before he was asked to switch inside to defensive tackle. No problem.Carriker more than held his own in camp, drilling several of his new teammatesand bearing up in the relentless heat. The Rams have a rich history of draftbusts, but Carriker's play drew uncharacteristically effusive praise from thecoaches. "He's exactly what we thought we were getting," says Linehan."He's an old school football player, a big, strong lineman who's doneeverything we've asked without hesitation."
The team's mostsubstantive moves came on the other side of the ball. The Rams may havesurrendered their immodest claim to being the Greatest Show on Turf, but theoffense remains an entertaining mix of flashy, big-play receiving and powerrunning. St.¬†Louis averaged more than 360¬†yards of total offense pergame in 2006, sixth in the league. The output is unlikely to diminish with theacquisition of tight end Randy McMichael, a solid contributor last season forthe Dolphins, and the addition of lanky free-agent receiver Drew Bennett tocomplement sleek incumbents Holt and Isaac Bruce.
Perhaps the mostsignificant off-season development was rewarding quarterback Marc Bulger with asix-year contract extension worth $65¬†million, with $27¬†millionguaranteed. Now in his seventh season, Bulger, 30, has emerged as a top-shelfquarterback in the Joe Montana mold. Released by the Saints and the Falcons(and even the Rams) early in his career, he set personal bests last season incompletions (370), passing yards (4,301) and ratio of touchdown passes (24) tointerceptions (eight).
Bulger is quickto admit that his job has been made easier by the emergence of Steven Jackson,the versatile tailback who has rendered Faulk's absence a lot less painful.Stuck behind the perennial All-Pro for his first two seasons, Jackson agitatedfor more carries. "It's not easy wanting to touch the football and notbeing allowed to," he says. When opportunity knocked last season, Jacksondidn't so much answer as disengage the door from its hinges. His 2,334 totalyards--1,528 on the ground, 806 receiving--were the fifth highest for a singleseason in NFL history. A first-time Pro Bowl selection, he's suddenly theleading candidate to interrupt LaDainian Tomlinson's hegemony as the league'sbest running back. "I felt [my success] was a long time coming," hesays. "This season I intend to put up 2,500 total yards on the way toArizona." That, of course, is the site of Super Bowl XLII.
Ultimately,though, it will take more than Bulger's living up to his swollen contract andJackson's running roughshod over the NFC again for the Rams to return to theelite status they enjoyed as recently as five years ago. The absence of seismicroster moves says plenty about the value the franchise places on stability. Butunless the same core of defensive personnel can improve dramatically from lastseason, St.¬†Louis will be on the wrong side of that fine line betweenconstancy and complacency.
COACH SCOTTLINEHAN (8-8 in NFL), second season with Rams
DREW BENNETT (NewAquisition)
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 4"
RANDY MCMICHAEL(New Aquisition)
SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2
ADAM CARRIKER(R)(New Aquisition)
JAMES HALL (NewAquisition)
DONNIE JONES (NewAquisition)
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 17/4/6 DEFENSE 31/8/23
16 SAN FRANCISCO
23 at Tampa Bay
30 at Dallas
14 at Baltimore
21 at Seattle
11 at New Orleans
18 at San Francisco
9 at Cincinnati
16 GREEN BAY
20 PITTSBURGH (T)
30 at Arizona
NFL rank T27
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .473
Games against playoff teams 5
Instant access to the latest and best Rams stories,stats and blogs from across the Web, handpicked by SI's editors.
ENEMY LINES AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THERAMS
> Orlando Pace is getting hurt way too much tochallenge Walter Jones as the best left tackle in football, but at 31, I stillsee him as a top¬†three tackle. His feet are still quick enough to stop anyedge rusher. . . . Steven Jackson is so good because he has the best hands ofany back in football--including LaDainian Tomlinson--and he does a great job ofavoiding the big hit. He's the same kind of angular runner Eddie George was,but whereas George took too many hits and that shortened his career, Jackson'slike Tiki Barber, avoiding most of the kill shots that hurt backs. . . . I'mstill mystified why the Dolphins let Randy McMichael go. He's a top 10 NFLtight end, and he'll catch 80 balls as Marc Bulger's favorite intermediatetarget this year.
THE KING 500
> WIDE RECEIVER
Marshall Faulk retired, reckoning that there aren'ttoo many effective 34-year-old running backs in the NFL. Not true withreceivers. Consider Bruce, who turns 35 in November but still moves theproductivity needle. Last season he had 74 catches and surpassed 1,000receiving yards for the eighth time in 13 years. Says teammate Steven Jackson,"It's like Isaac just decided one day not to age."
SCOTT ROBAK/US PRESSWIRE
Bulger's bevy of targets will help him justify his big-buckscontract.