Bartell sees 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Nothing could have convinced Ron Bartell to remain with the St. Louis Rams if the team hadn't remade its front office following the 2008 season.

That's a strong statement, but one the ascending young cornerback makes freely.

Though he would not turn 27 until February, Bartell had seen enough in his first four NFL seasons to rule out St. Louis as his long-term home, barring meaningful changes.

"To be honest, if the management had stayed the same, it would have been zero [chance]," Bartell said during a phone interview late last week.

Coaches take the fall when organizations flounder, and often rightfully so. Bartell played for four of them in his first four NFL seasons. Mike Martz, Joe Vitt, Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett certainly bore some responsibility for the team's 19-35 record since 2005, but a dysfunctional front office was the common denominator.

Bartell said he had never even met Jay Zygmunt, who preceded new general manager Billy Devaney as the primary decision-maker at Rams Park. The lines of communication simply weren't established from the top. A culture of mistrust pervaded the organization.

"There was no way I was coming back with management the way it was," Bartell said.

Devaney faces his own challenges in rebuilding the Rams. Releasing Orlando Pace to clear $6 million in salary-cap space didn't make the Rams better in the short term. A similar decision looms involving receiver Torry Holt.

How a team handles difficult situations matters. The team's nearly 400-word release on Pace featured appreciations from Devaney and owner Chip Rosenbloom while mentioning Pace's wife, Carla, by name. The way Isaac Bruce went out last offseason -- marked by a 64-word dispatch mentioning the iconic Bruce in the same sentence as journeyman Gus Frerotte, who was also being let go -- didn't sit well.

"You just don't do great players like that," Bartell said. "Everybody has that day. We all know we're going to be on the other side where we're released or they are going to move on, but there is a way you go about doing it. You are supposed to do it with class, especially when you are dealing with a class individual such as Ike."

The way the Rams phased out Holt from the offense last season also raised suspicions in the locker room. Like Bruce, Holt had carried the offense for years. He had played through injuries and represented the franchise with distinction.

Yet, when the Rams opened the 2008 regular season at Philadelphia, their first offensive play featured three tight ends and Dane Looker as the only receiver. It was the first time in 64 regular-season games that Holt played for the Rams without starting.

Insignificant? Perhaps. But Holt's diminished role in the offense bothered some players as the Rams floundered through a 2-14 season. Holt averaged only four receptions and 50 yards per game, down from 5.8 and 74 over each of the previous two seasons. He had two one-catch games, zero 100-yard games and fewer opportunities.

Holt was 32 years old. Perhaps he was simply declining. But the way Bruce bounced back in San Francisco last season -- he scored seven touchdowns for the first time since 2002 and posted his longest reception since 2000 -- suggests otherwise, particularly with Holt's previously problematic knee feeling better in 2008.

"I don't know if that had anything to do with coaches or management, but there were rumors around here why that was done," Bartell said. "I don't think a lot of guys agreed with it. We are out there trying to win football games and you have one of our best players, trying to phase him out of the offense. I think guys looked at that."

Teams are going to make unpopular decisions. They are going to phase out older players. How they do it -- and whether players can trust management's motives -- affects how players respond to coaching.

Whether new coach Steve Spagnuolo is the right man for the job, Devaney and management appear to have his back. That puts the staff in better position.

"A lot of guys I've talked to personally see a light at the end of the tunnel," Bartell said. "Before, you never knew what was going to happen with the management on down, things just weren't running smoothly.

"Now it seems like everybody is on the same page and you have a direction. Whether or not that direction will lead to success, that remains to be seen, but at least you have everybody going the same exact way and know exactly what to expect."