The early returns on coach Jeff Fisher's welcome back to the NFL were overwhelmingly positive. As it turns out, rebuilding the St. Louis Rams appears to be more of a long-term project.
The Rams (3-5) entered their bye week seeking solutions for a midseason slide into mediocrity. They can't score, they can't stop anybody, they can't take the ball away.
They sure can't run with the big boys, either.
During an extra-long flight home from London following a 45-7 spanking by the New England Patriots on Sunday, there was plenty of time for reflection. Long after the jet lag wore off, the answers remained elusive.
"We had three outstanding days of practice. None of us saw that coming," Fisher said. "We have to look hard at what we're doing football-wise, including the staff, me included, and the players as we talk to them.
"We're nowhere where we wanted to be halfway through the season, and we have a lot of work to do."
The first six games were competitive and encouraging, a major step forward in itself, plus the Rams won three of the first five to go above .500 for the first time since 2006. In the bargain, they topped their win total from last season when they tied for the NFL's worst record (2-14).
The Rams got the best of quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, capitalized on special teams excellence to top the Seahawks with rookie Greg Zuerlein booting field goals of 60 and 58 yards, and rookie punter Johnny Hekker throwing the go-ahead TD pass, and leaned on stout defense to stifle the Cardinals 17-3.
The Rams' three-game losing streak began on a day they outgained Miami 462-192 but lost by three. The last two have been a step up in class, and they have been left in the dust by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, then Tom Brady and the Patriots.
After a year away from the NFL, Fisher inherited a franchise that totaled 15 victories the previous five years. He has never leaned on that as an excuse, telling players from Day 1 that they should expect to win right away.
Halfway in, he doesn't think the turnaround task has been tougher than he had imagined.
"No, we had high expectations and we didn't meet them," Fisher said. "We got to a point where we were 3-2 and looked back and said, 'Gosh, if we would have made a play it would have been different.'
"We've lost three straight now, against two very, very good teams. We've got to bounce back and find a way to win the next game."
The bye comes halfway through the season, and Fisher uses the analogy that it's halftime. There is still plenty of time left.
"Yeah, you break the season down, the first half is over," the coach said. "We've got to make some adjustments and get caught up."
Before surrendering 75 points and combined 16-for-28 third down efficiency to Green Bay and New England, the Rams had a top 10 defense. And why not, given the fact they are loaded with first-rounders and high second-rounders like Chris Long, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis and rookies Michael Brockers and Janoris Jenkins?
The first six games, quarterbacks completed 63 percent of their passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns with eight interceptions. Rodgers and Brady combined for 72 percent completions, seven touchdowns and no picks.
Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 154 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest current streak in the NFL, according to STATS LLC. The next-longest streak is 102 passes for the Colts.
The Rams had eight interceptions the first four games, and none the last four. They have forced zero turnovers the last three games, and in practice this week emphasized awareness as well as technique.
"People just need to be really cognizant of it, think about it in that corner of your brain when you're making the tackle," Long said.
Players say the most frustrating aspect of the turnover slump is that nothing has changed in the game plan or execution from when the Rams were ball-hawking with the best.
It's easier to see why the Rams still have one of the NFL's worst offenses, averaging 17 points and ranking 28th in total yards with 11 offensive touchdowns. Because of injuries, they have used 21 starters, most in the NFL, according to STATS LLC.
The Rams have been hit hardest on the line, with nine players getting starts, and are still waiting for center Scott Wells, one of the team's top free agent pickups, to recover from a broken foot and make his debut. Wells is eligible to return next week after being designated as the team's marquee injured reserve player, but Fisher said he still isn't ready.
All of the shuffling has led to a cascade of errors.
"False starts, maybe running the wrong route or blocking the wrong guy or something like that. It's the little things that held us back, or that we held ourselves back," tight end Lance Kendricks said. "We put ourselves in a lot of third-and-longs, and if we can cut down on the mistakes, be in more third-and-3s, and third-and-4s, that'll help a lot."
Better health would be a plus, too.
Quarterback Sam Bradford gets his favorite target back next week, with wide receiver Danny Amendola recovered from a collarbone injury. Left tackle Rodger Saffold could be back, too, from a left knee injury that has sidelined him for six games.
The Rams have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, with an average age of 26, and besides those rookie special team aces have gotten impressive play from fellow kids at running back and wide receiver. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder, has emerged as the change-of-pace back behind Steven Jackson that the franchise has long sought. Chris Givens, a fourth-rounder, is the first rookie in NFL history with a reception of 50 or more yards in five consecutive games.
Fisher said defensive tackle Michael Brockers, the team's first-rounder, is "coming on" after missing the first three games because of a high ankle sprain. The Rams are still waiting for the emergence of second-rounders, wide receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead, both of whom have been seldom-used.
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