EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In assessing his team's performance in 2014, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher ran down a list of things he felt his team did well during the course of the season.
As Fisher discussed the performance of the defense, he pointed to that group's ability to keep opponents out of the end zone. And then he pointed to the thing that often seemed to cancel out much of the good that the defense was able to accomplish.
"Our defense, in points allowed, I think was fourth or fifth at 17.7 points per game," Fisher said. "If you exclude the returns."
Ah, yes, the returns. When all was said and done in the Rams' 6-10 campaign, they were on the wrong end of 10 opponent returns for touchdown either from special teams or while the Rams were on offense. Those 10 returns for touchdowns, usually coming in the form of interceptions brought back, were the most in the NFL this season.
Making matters worse, eight of those returns came in the second half of games when the result was usually still hanging in the balance. It doesn't take John Nash to figure out the math on how those returns often influenced the outcome of many of the Rams' close losses.
The Rams had an interception returned for a touchdown in a three-point loss to Dallas, gave up two return scores in what turned into a six-point loss to Philadelphia and coughed up a fumble that was returned for a score in a three-point loss to San Diego. There's no way to know how those games would have played out otherwise but that's at least three examples of games there for the taking were it not for such miscues.
"Our offense, on the other hand, we only scored 18 points per game," Fisher said. "When you’re allowing 10 returns for touchdowns, then you have a point differential of less than a point -- you’re going to lose some football games. That’s kind of what happened to us. In our five returns for touchdowns, we won four of those five games. It’s not new news, it’s just reality of the National Football League. It’s hard to overcome those kinds of things. There’s one team in the playoffs right now that is minus in takeaway/giveaway and that would be the [Indianapolis] Colts. Everybody else that’s minus is watching this weekend."
The timing of those mistakes also made a big difference in games that turned out more lopsided than they really were as a direct result of the costly giveaways.
In losses at Seattle and Arizona and at home against San Francisco, the Rams were down by seven or less in the fourth quarter in all three games only to have turnovers returned for touchdowns that immediately expanded the deficit to a point the Rams could not make up.
“It’s not only when they take place, it’s against who that they’re taking place in close games," Fisher said. "Those things, ball security’s got to be very, very important to us."
Until the Rams can have an offense good enough to overcome such mistakes, ball security must be not just a top priority but the top priority.