Rams' closing goal: Basic improvement

EARTH CITY, Mo. – The St. Louis Rams had barely been officially eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday when linebacker James Laurinaitis approached rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree.

Laurinaitis shared an important message about the importance of the team’s three remaining games with the young rookie, a message that certainly has made the rounds in other corners of the locker room.

“I told Alec this: ‘I have been a part of some teams where you get mathematically eliminated from playoffs where guys check out and the important thing for us as such a young team is there’s no checking out,” Laurinaitis said.

At 5-8, the Rams are going to miss the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. In many of those years, that elimination has come well before December, not that it’s a badge of honor to make it that far without saying goodbye to the postseason.

But it’s also been easy to see certain teams of the Rams' recent past that haven’t stayed competitive as they play out the string. It’s a disturbing trend that even Laurinaitis acknowledged.

It’s also one that Laurinaitis has made clear he won’t allow to become a part of this team’s M.O.

“I think it’s very important,” Laurinaitis said. “Each year is different. And you have to keep people accountable and call them out because it’s [about] how do you keep your green arrow as a player going up? I think that’s the important thing.”

For a Rams team that is the youngest in the league for the second consecutive year, finding a way to make noticeable gains is now clearly the most important task over the season’s final three weeks.

Included in that are smaller things, some tangible, some not. For example, winning out would leave the Rams at 8-8, their first .500 record since 2006 and only the third time they’ve reached it since 2004. It would also represent a half game improvement over 2012 when the Rams finished 7-8-1.

But even if the record doesn’t reach a goal that would represent the very definition of mediocrity, the Rams must find a way to stay competitive this year while keeping an eye toward the future.

That doesn’t mean just throwing games away by throwing in a bunch of young players. Heck, the Rams already start plenty of young players. It could, however, mean more reps for promising young players who are already playing, guys like receivers Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick, for example. It also means doing some of the simple things like cutting down on silly penalties.

“We’re going to get better and our focus is going on the Saints,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get better. We’re going to take it one game at a time and we’re going to get better.”

In allowing some of those other players to work within the already youthful framework of the roster, the Rams can also begin developing plans for what figures to be an interesting offseason.

St. Louis has a number of older veterans carrying fairly significant salary-cap figures into 2014 and will have to make decisions on their fate before the new league year. It’s easier to make those decisions if replacements as good or better are already in house.

Not that three games is a huge sample size but it’s enough to at least gather some more intel instructive in the decision-making process.

A look at the schedule in the final three also reveals a challenging slate with games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Seattle, which could also provide a good litmus test for the team’s many youngsters.

And though it’s harder to judge the body of work of the 2013 Rams because they will have been without their starting quarterback for more than half the season, it’s imperative for them to be better at the end of 2013 than they were at the end of 2012.

As he closes in on completing his fifth NFL season, Laurinaitis knows the stakes for a team that must improve in a hurry in the NFL’s toughest division.

“Everybody in the building is evaluating how do we get better as a team?” Laurinaitis said. “That’s everybody. That’s me, that’s Sam [Bradford], that’s Chris [Long], even Tavon [Austin], that’s the way the NFL works. I promise you that I am going to make sure the guys on my side of the ball are getting better and there will be no quit in us. We have to do things better and smarter. It sounds simple, but we have to do things better.”