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ACKERMAN: London Review

Tom Ackerman
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LONDON (KMOX) – First, let’s get to the football. Or lack thereof.

The New England Patriots arrived in England on Friday morning. They checked into their hotel, unpacked…and destroyed the Rams two days later at Wembley Stadium. The final was 45-7, and to be honest, it could have been worse. It was that bad.

The Rams were embarrassing on Sunday. There’s really no other way to put it. (Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said it himself in his postgame remarks.) Whether Jeff Fisher’s team was unprepared, exposed, or both, it was a classic smackdown by Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Chick seized the opportunity to step on the Rams and didn’t relent.

Some Patriots fans had grown concerned with the team’s inability to close out games. How’s that for a final score?

Meanwhile, Rams fans won’t take this loss well. The Patriots are despised in St. Louis for “Spygate,” the illegal videotaping of a pregame walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. You know, the game when the Rams receivers were mugged and the Patriots won on a last-second drive by Tom Brady. The Patriots didn’t need much help on Sunday. And it doesn’t help that a portion of the fan base was initially upset that the Rams gave up a home game to play across the pond.

The Rams maintain that they went to London for the opportunity to grow their brand globally. I’m not sure the 45-7 loss will do much of that this week. But the trip overseas did two things: 1) it strengthened relations with the NFL, which is expanding its brand (and making a little money along the way); and 2) it provided Jeff Fisher’s inexperienced bunch a chance to play through a week-long Super Bowl-like event.

Did the Rams players handle it well on the field? No. Not by a long shot. They have a lot to learn. And this wasn’t the first rodeo for the Patriots, who did what great teams do. The Pats took care of business and apologized for nothing.

But I’m sure the Rams had no choice but to bond during this interesting — but ultimately humbling — week. Since the game was a beatdown, there’s really only one thing to do. The Rams have to learn, the hard way, from failure. How else will Fisher’s team improve? The Rams have a bye week before they visit San Francisco on November 11, and only they will determine how they handle the extra preparation time. I found it refreshing that this team appeared frustrated after the game. They didn’t do the old shrug-the-shoulders, some-days-are-like-this routine. That gets old…fast.

Bradford, in particular, appeared angry after the loss. Calling it “embarrassing” more than once, he acknowledged that he’d expected to throw for a lot of yards against the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense. The Rams struck early with a deep touchdown pass to Chris Givens, but they never scored again. Once they found themselves down 21-7, they were in unfamiliar territory – having to play quick-strike football against one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. You want Bradford, with a patchwork offensive line and inconsistent receivers, getting into a shootout with Tom Brady after spotting the Patriots a 14-point lead? Good luck with that.

I’m not sure where or when it happened, but Fisher’s feisty defense has lost its bite. Sunday, the defensive front put very little pressure on Brady. The linebackers were gashed by the Patriots’ running game – and by tight end Rob Gronkowski, who finished with eight catches for 146 yards, two touchdowns and two end zone celebrations. The Rams defensive backfield looked confused, getting torched and Gronked all game.

It’s an angry Rams defense heading into the bye week. Defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis gritted their teeth and took accountability after the game. Defensive back Bradley Fletcher bit his tongue and was careful not to criticize officials for three pass interference calls against him.

The Rams also had no sacks for the first time all season.

Fisher pointed out defense’s biggest problem. In the last three games, the Rams have no takeaways. As in zero. Or as they say here in England: “Nil.”

That’s just not going to cut it, not on a team that’s incapable of getting downfield in a hurry. The Rams are more of a field-position team, a clock-management offense, and they’re not going to be able to keep up with high-powered opponents if they can’t sneak an interception or force a fumble. At minimum, they must pressure the quarterback and make him uncomfortable. Because the Rams couldn’t sack Brady, he was rarely in a third-and-long situation. It was too easy for Brady.

Even the kicking game went awry on Sunday. Rookie sensation Greg Zuerlein’s 53-yard attempt never happened, as a botched snap resulted in lost yardage. (Personally, I’m going for it on fourth down there. No one beats the Patriots with field goals. You need 7’s, not 3’s.)

So, the Rams are 3-5 with the 49ers looming in less than two weeks. Just three weeks ago, we were singing the praises of Fisher. How his team responds to Sunday’s blowout will say a lot about this season. Better health, particularly on the offensive line, would certainly help matters. But the defense must improve if the Rams are going to make any more noise.

I’ve always been a believer that in sports, you have to have your heart broken to understand what it takes to be a champion. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots imposed their will on the Rams. It’s what they do. Did the Rams take them too lightly? With some extra time away from home, did Rams players get too comfortable in England before stepping into the arena with a championship-caliber opponent? I have no idea, but whatever it was, you can bet Fisher will work to make sure they don’t make the same mistake again.

I don’t believe it was a mistake to go to London. The experience was once-in-a-lifetime for many in the organization. Owner Stan Kroenke and the front office treated the players and their families with absolute class, sparing no expense. Even a blowout loss won’t change that. The hope is that this new adversity – and subsequent outside criticism — might bring the franchise closer. If the Rams weren’t aware of their deficiencies, they are now. All of them showed up at once Sunday at Wembley.

Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff has assembled an impressive young leadership core. Demoff and general manager Les Snead are both in their 30’s, as are several members of the front office. Years from now, if this group stays together, it will be because of harmony within the organization instead of some of the disconnect we’ve seen in previous regimes.

I’ve said this for a long time, but I believe the Rams will be in St. Louis for many years to come. I’m also not naïve enough to think that anything in this business is a sure thing. But the way the Dome negotiations have gone, and the way the lease is written, I don’t see any other option than for the team to build a new stadium somewhere in the St. Louis area. Kroenke has said it himself: he’s in this business to create revenue. I don’t see him maxing out his dollars at the current facility.

Speaking of facilities, Emirates Stadium, the home of Kroenke’s Arsenal Gunners, is a magnificent venue. For those of you that follow the English Premier League, I now understand your love for the beautiful game. Count me in.

(Please don’t ask me to root for Manchester United. That’s like rooting for the Patriots. They get every call.)

Saturday, I watched Arsenal defeat QPR (Queen Park Rangers) 1-0. The crowd of 60,103 was a bit on edge, but eventually went home happy. I liked rooting for Arsenal. The Gunners’ fans are somewhat irritated by the lack of progress within the organization but still power through it, attending the games in big numbers. Arsenal is a proud franchise, having won several championships and achieving the rare feat in 2004 of going through an entire Premier League season undefeated.

There are a couple of unique things to note from my Arsenal experience. First of all, you can bet on the game inside the stadium. I filled out a slip and had action on a few prop bets. (I won when Mikel Arteta scored the game’s only goal. He’s my new favorite player.)

Secondly, there was an appreciation for the fans on both sides. After the game, the players acknowledged the crowd by applauding them for their support. I like that.

Arsenal fans, however, are constantly waiting for public comments from Kroenke about the future direction of their franchise. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just remember: as one of the most shrewd businessmen in sports, Kroenke isn’t going to let the world in on his plans. That’s Leverage 101. Don’t give it all away and try to put yourself in the best negotiating position possible. We’ll see if it works…and if the Rams indeed become a fixture in the St. Louis sports scene for years to come.

Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX. He can be heard weekday mornings at :15 and :45 past the hour on “Total Information A.M.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120.

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