Fisher: Rams 'closing the gap' in NFC West

ST. LOUIS – St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he believes his team was better at the end of 2013 than it was at the end of 2012.

Fisher also said that his team is closer to overcoming its NFC West division foes.

“I think we’re closing the gap,” Fisher said. “We’re not there yet, but I think with a year of improvement we’ll be much closer. Anything can happen. All three teams play really good defense, and we’ve got to play better offense and score more points to compete with them. I think defensively we can compete with these teams.”

Before the season, it looked entirely possible the Rams could have a worse record than it did in 2012 but still be a better team. With a little time to reflect, I believe that is indeed the case for the 7-9 Rams.

But Fisher’s contention that the Rams “closed the gap” on Seattle, San Francisco and upstart Arizona is much more debatable.

Of the many obstacles facing the Rams when it comes to returning to playoff contention, none are more troubling than the fact that they must play six games every season against the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals.

Seattle and San Francisco have established themselves as perennial powerhouses with dominant defenses and talented young quarterbacks. Both teams are in the playoffs and finished in the top four of the ESPN.com Power Rankings for the season.

Until the Seahawks and 49ers have to pony up for lucrative contract extensions for quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, it’s unlikely either team will fall from its perch.

Of course, Seattle and San Francisco finished ahead of the Rams in 2012, so for them to do it again isn’t really alarming.

What’s more concerning for the Rams is that they actually fell back a spot in 2013, as their division record dropped from 4-1-1 a year ago to 1-5. In the process, the Cardinals claimed the role as the “other” tough out in the division, a job previously occupied by the Rams and one some expected them to fill again this season.

“It just goes to show every time we face [a division opponent] it’s not going to be an easy matchup,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “They have had the hot hand. San Fran and Seattle have been in the playoffs. It just goes to show you our division is no longer a pushover.”

Of that, there is no doubt. The NFC West staked a strong claim to being the league’s best division as its four teams combined for a 42-22 record on the season. More impressive, the division was a whopping 30-10 in games outside of the division.

The biggest difference in a division that as recently as 2010 had a 7-9 champion is the emergence of physical, dominant defenses. All four teams finished in the top 15 in yards per game allowed and Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle represented three of the top six.

In addition, none of the four teams finished worse than the Rams’ 13th in scoring defense. Only Arizona didn’t finish among the top eight teams in turnover margin.

That’s a lot to overcome for the Rams, but it’s a challenge they embrace. Not that they have a choice in the matter.

"It's the best division in football, I think, but it's a great opportunity for us,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “This organization is heading in the right direction and we will continue to compete in this division and hopefully end up in one of those one or two maybe three spots next year that are hopefully still playing in January."

While it’s hard to buy into the idea that the Rams closed the gap in the division given the results, it’s also not as clear cut as the record might indicate. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford only played in two of the six divisional meetings. He led a big comeback in the opener against Arizona but struggled mightily in an embarrassing loss to the Niners.

Both of those games came before the Rams began to form an offensive identity. When division opponents took away the run on the Rams’ second tour against them, the Rams were left with no answers on offense, a problem that Bradford likely would have remedied to some extent.

As Fisher points out, for the Rams to make up the rest of the ground between them and the rest of the division, they’ll have to find ways to score more points. That means this offseason carries even more weight than usual given the Rams’ lofty draft positioning.

“You draft basically, from the standpoint where we are, from need but also you have to take strong consideration competing in the division,” Fisher said.

Although opponents outscored the Rams by 74 total points in their six divisional games, the yardage totals indicate that the gap may be closer than the scores of the final three meetings. But the Rams were also minus-five in turnover margin and committed 57 penalties in those games.

“It doesn’t make it harder to improve because that’s on us,” defensvie end Chris Long said. “But it definitely makes it harder to win the division. That’s our goal and if we are going to win the division we are going to have to beat some of the best teams in the league. We are not quite there yet, but we’re confident we’ll be there very soon.”

Since Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived after the 2011 season, they’ve quietly targeted 2014 as a potential breakthrough season. For that to happen, they’ll have to find a way to reduce the gap, no matter how big it actually is, to nothing.