Rams' strong finish sign of real progress

ST. LOUIS -- Since the moment the St. Louis Rams were officially eliminated from the playoff race on Dec. 8 in Arizona, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis made it abundantly clear to his teammates what will be expected of them in the season's final three games.

In that losing locker room, Laurinaitis wasted no time telling his many young teammates that playing out the string is unacceptable. Using his words, anything less than an upward pointing arrow at the end of the 2013 season would be unacceptable.

That's why, even after his team matched its 2012 win total of seven with a 23-13 win against Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon, Laurinaitis wouldn't even allow himself a moment to enjoy that feat.

"No, I want to get to eight," said Laurinaitis, now in his fifth season. "I've never been at .500 or above. I'm trying to take us there."

The Rams' victory against Tampa Bay represented the next step in a progression that maybe hasn't gone exactly as planned but is still evident as the Rams close out the season.

With seven wins on the year and one game to play, the Rams have an opportunity to reach that .500 mark, a number they haven't hit since 2006. It clinched a winning record at home (5-3) for the first time since 2010 and only the second in nine seasons. It gave the Rams a winning record (6-4) outside the NFC West division this season after a 3-7 showing last year.

It also signals a chance to quantify improvement over Year 1 of the Fisher regime.

Since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over the franchise last offseason, they have been quietly building toward what they hope will be a 2014 breakthrough season.

That means there will be no excuses heading into 2014, but if the Rams are to make that next step next year, they had to first start by showing that the 2013 edition of the Rams is better than the 2012 version.

As they head toward the finish line, there's ample evidence piling up in that direction.

"I haven't really looked at the whole scheme of it in terms of the season," Laurinaitis said. "We're a ton better than we were earlier in the season. I think we have a lot of young players that are coming strong. It's going to be a big offseason for us."

The Rams' reliance on young players was never more evident than it was against Tampa Bay. The response was strong contributions from guys who may have struggled with their opportunities early in the season or perhaps weren't even on the field.

A rookie class the Rams have depended on heavily provided the type of production that offers an even brighter future. In fact, most of the rookie class looked like full-grown men.

Linebacker Alec Ogletree had eight tackles, half a sack, a tackle for loss and two forced fumbles. Running back Zac Stacy grinded out 104 yards on 33 carries with a touchdown.

Receiver Stedman Bailey had three catches for 44 yards and rushed for a 27-yard touchdown on a double reverse. Safety T.J. McDonald had six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

That doesn't even include No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin, who missed the game with an ankle injury, or any of the valuable second-year players like cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson or defensive tackle Michael Brockers, among many others.

"We're a football team that unfortunately is not going to the playoffs, but you would not know it by the way that we continue to come in, continue to work and continue to show up on Sundays," quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "And a big part of that has been the contributions that we've gotten from some of these young players."

Clearly, the Rams believe they have the personnel in place to become a contender. In addition to the progress of those young players, they've also found the right formula to put their players in position to succeed.

Even before starting quarterback Sam Bradford was lost for the season to a knee injury, the Rams had started to find that identity. That they've won four games with Clemens under center means they've found it.

"Run the football, play good defense and then the other things happen," Fisher said. "They stem off those things. You play good defense, you rush the passer, get off the field on third down and run the football and then good things happen. ... That's how you have to win."

The overall concept of being a better team than they were the year before is a sort of intangible idea that can be hard to gauge. The Rams believe they're better than they were in 2012 and they look better at this stage than they did earlier this year and last year.

Of course, there's still another more tangible way to prove it.

"We have got a big one in Seattle," Laurinaitis said. "Young team, that's a tough place to play. I'm not sure it will mean a lot to them because they have already clinched, but it will mean a lot to us."

It would mean real, tangible progress heading into 2014.