EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As the St. Louis Rams embark on the fourth year of the Jeff Fisher and Les Snead era, it's time to put up or shut up.
To this point, Fisher and Snead have been open about the massive rebuilding project they took on upon arrival in 2012. The pair and their respective staffs quickly restored the franchise from the dregs of the league to something closer to respectable. But the results haven't moved past that mediocre phase into contender status, and patience is beginning to wear thin.
If this isn't the year the Rams take that next step, it could be time for the team to make big changes. In other words, jobs might actually be on the line this time around.
Despite that looming possibility, Snead offers a different perspective on what figures to be an all-important season in St. Louis.
"[I] never think about that," Snead said. "It's a cliché but it's football. It's interesting because I get what you're saying -- it's Year 4 of your tenure but you're actually really jacked about it because you actually feel good about the foundation and where we're going; it's just it hasn't occurred yet. We've got to do that this year. We're ready to go compete because you've got a coaching staff you are ready to go to battle with and players that have grown up and are ready to go."
So instead of viewing this as a make-or-break season -- a phrase that many hoped would leave town when quarterback Sam Bradford did -- Snead is viewing this as the coming-out party for a group that has been four years in the making.
To that end, Snead spent Thursday exhibiting an optimism that hasn't been present in these parts for years. Whereas in recent seasons he's offered analogies about cubs growing into lions and spilled milk being a part of the process, Snead now isn't afraid to put a firmer label on the rising expectations he has for a roster that he believes is the best it's been since his arrival.
"I anticipate us contending for the West," Snead said. "I'm planning on it, expecting it and not scared."
According to Snead, his hopes for the team evolving from the 6-10 record of a year ago into a bona fide contender is rooted in more than just crossed fingers. As part of the team's offseason analytical studies, Snead and Co. found trends that could work in the team's favor.
For example, since 2012, Snead said the Rams trail only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks in win-percentage improvement while also acknowledging his team had a bigger hole to climb out of. The Rams also ran the numbers on how they've fared with a backup quarterback in place against other teams who have started backups in recent years.
In the 25 straight games the Rams played with backups Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis and Shaun Hill, the Rams won 40 percent of their games. The league average for other teams starting a backup, according to Snead, is closer to 26 percent. Having a presumably healthy Nick Foles at quarterback figures to be a boon in Snead's mind.
It's because of some of those numbers that Snead, Fisher and the Rams have stuck to the plan, never deviating from the build-through-the-draft strategy and even going so far as to essentially eschew big-ticket free agents over the past two seasons. Even when the outcry for a key veteran has reached fever pitch, the Rams have kept their focus on their ongoing youth movement in the face of that temptation.
"I think when you've got a plan and when you can actually do some measurements and say 'OK, we're progressing', it's easier to stick to it," Snead said. "If you did some of those same measurements I was talking about and you were like 'Wait a minute, we were 28th in improved winning percentage instead of third, maybe this thing needs to do something different.' But there's some internal measurements where we say let's stick to the plan.
"Obviously we're not there yet but we do think we can get there so let's just [stick to it]. That's the hard part; you've got to be disciplined."
But while Snead's optimism might run deeper than it has in any of his previous three years, he's also realistic enough to know that analytics and numbers guarantee nothing when it comes to the product on the field.
For once again, if the Rams are to break the longest streak of losing seasons in the league (eight) and/or the fourth longest streak of years without a playoff appearance (10), the Rams will have to prove it on the field.
"All that is math," Snead said. "Those are numbers in a math equation that may analyze some progress and predict some future [success], but at the end of the day when the sun sets, what's next? What now? That's what we've got to do now is grow and go on a winning streak and things like that. We're close. I can feel it."