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WHEELER: Rams Flop On National TV

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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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What in the world was that last night?

I saw what happened in Dallas and figured that was just a terrible road performance against a possible playoff team. Stuff happens.

I know what happened in Atlanta – I didn’t see it, I was in Italy – but I chalked that up to getting beat by an elite team on their home turf after they had lost their season opener.

In short, I expected the Rams to lose both of those games.

But last night?

Here we had a home game against a division rival that last year’s Rams handled pretty well – a game against a Niners team that was without Michael Crabtree, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith – and the Rams were completely non-competitive.

Seriously?

Before I get into what has me dazed and confused, allow me a moment to throw out two caveats…

1) It is my personal policy to let a full season play out before I bury a team’s performance. I’ve stated that policy both here and on the air repeatedly when it comes to the Cardinals and the Blues and it is only fair that I give the Rams the same benefit of the doubt.

2) I am guilty of believing this roster is better than last year’s. Yes, I still think that it is. I may be proven wrong…but nobody is wrong about a full season prediction after 1/4 of the season has passed. So excuse me if I’m not willing to throw myself under the bus just yet either.

Now, even though I won’t bury a team this early into a season I realize it’s impossible to ignore the things that are happening at the moment. We’ve discussed Blues and Cardinals in-season problems in recent years (Blues: poor goaltending, hesitance in the offensive zone; Cards: bad starting pitching for long stretches, inconsistent offensive production) when they were happening so it’s fair to do the same with the Rams.

Here is the Rams’  biggest problem…

Fear.

No, not fear of being injured or physical fear of the opponent. They’re not cowering from the fight, they’re just not counterpunching with bad intentions.

The fear I’m talking about is all about the fear of mistakes.

This applies to Sam Bradford, Jeff Fisher, Tim Walton, Brian Schottenheimer, the guys on the offensive line and most of guys on the defensive side of the ball as well.

This team doesn’t take any risks. They play things too safe.

I like Bradford and still – yes, still – think he has the ability to be a high-end NFL QB. But not if he keeps playing the same over-protective, cautious game we’ve seen so far. Maybe it’s not his fault but, regardless, it needs to change.

I understand trying to minimize turnovers as a general principle but when you get down 2-3 scores in the second half you have to throw that out the window. You have no choice but to take risks or else you might as well start taking a knee in the 3rd quarter to speed up the process of losing the game.

Hey, you won’t turn the ball over!

But it’s not just the offense. This defense is far too talented to be getting chopped up into tiny little bits by anyone. To me, they’ve appeared too risk averse so far.

The other team is running the ball down the Rams’ throats? Forget loading up with 8 or 9 men in the box, that’s too dangerous.

It’s 3rd and 7 but they fear exposing their corners so much that they’ll play 10 yards off the ball? You’re just conceding the first down on a simple pitch-and-catch play. What’s the point of that? Getting burned by the high percentage quick slant is more likely than getting burned by the low percentage deep ball. Make them take a shot on the low percentage play.

They’re down 2-3 touchdowns in the second half and the QB is STILL checking down to 3-4 yard passes? Look, you’ve lost the game if you can’t make any plays down the field so what do you stand to lose by taking a shot?

Hell, in the modern NFL you’re more likely than not to get a pass interference call than in any previous generation. Take a chance.

What drives me crazy, especially in football because of the nature of the game, is when a team doesn’t get into desperation mode quickly enough. If you’re down three scores in the second half it’s time to make something happen even if you have to force the action and risk making big mistakes.

If Bradford would have come out after the Niners went up 21-3 in the 3rd quarter last night and started taking chances, throwing the ball into difficult spots and at least trying to throw the ball down the field, I would feel better about him, his performance and the offensive coordinator today.

I loved that he took a shot down the field on 3rd and 1 late in the 2nd quarter and I don’t care if Donte Whitner made a nice play to pick it off. Sometimes you have to take shots like that to hang in a game, to loosen up a defense. But after that play it appeared that Sam (and Schotty) went into a protective shell.

When you’re down 18 against a Super Bowl caliber team you can’t play it safe. You have to take chances, you have to assume some risk.

It’s not all on Bradford, I realize that, but he has the ball in his hands. If the play call isn’t going to get you a big chunk then run something else. If it doesn’t look like the bigger play is there, try it anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose  when you’re down big and now, finally, the Rams have a couple of athletic down-the-field players who just might be able to come up with a play for you.

But they can’t make a play down the field if you don’t throw it down the field.

Brett Favre threw a ton of picks, especially early in his career. So did John Elway. Heck, so did Peyton Manning. I realize that Sam may not be destined for careers like theirs but it’s that fearlessness, that willingness to take risks sometimes, that helps separate great quarterbacks from everyone else.

I blame Bradford for that to a degree but mostly I blame coaches because they beat it into the heads of young QB’s…

DON’T MAKE ANY BIG MISTAKES!

TAKE CARE OF THE BALL, DON’T TURN IT OVER!

THROW THE BALL AWAY INSTEAD OF TAKING A CHANCE!

When caution outweighs aggression, especially in football, you’ve lost half the battle. Being a caretaker works when you’re on a loaded team but the Rams are not loaded. Even when I picked them to win 9 games I didn’t think they were loaded. A “loaded” team is one like San Fran, one with Pro Bowl caliber players littering the field.

I believe many young QB’s, including Bradford in his NFL career so far, are so burdened by avoiding turnovers that they forget how to make big plays in tight spots.

The receivers aren’t always running free. The offensive line isn’t always going to pick up every pass rusher. But the team still has to find a way to move the ball.

If I were Jeff Fisher my message to the entire team – coaches and players alike – would be one that empowers them to play with more aggression, to take some chances when the team is falling behind by 2-3 scores.

Maybe he has delivered that message and they just can’t do the job, I don’t know. What I do know is that what I saw last night – and last week in Dallas – doesn’t appear to be coming from an aggressive posture.

In a close, competitive game I’m okay with playing things a little more safe. But when you’re down big in the second half? I’m falling back on a baseball saying that happen to love:

Let it eat.

Essentially, uncage the beast and let it feast.

Not that anyone at Rams Park is listening but my advice when things are going like they are right now is to become more aggressive, not more cautious. Take more chances on both sides of the ball. Attack down the field on offense, blitz more on defense. Empower the players to try to change the game with big plays.

Maybe they’re just not capable of that but the only way you’re going to find out is if you let them go on the attack.

So if you’re the Rams right now, what do you have to lose by taking more chances and being more aggressive? 1-3 teams have a 14% chance of making the playoffs in the NFL so what is there to protect?

My advice: Let it eat.

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