Making sense of Rams' running back situation

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Less than a week ago, St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer seemed to finally shed some light on what the Rams' "plan" for deploying their running backs really is.

Schottenheimer said the team would divvy up carries between running backs Zac Stacy, Benjamin Cunningham, Tre Mason and Trey Watts, with carries for receiver Tavon Austin sprinkled in. From there, the Rams would go with the hot hand late in the game.

It didn't make much sense at the time considering it's hard for any back to remain the "hot hand" if he doesn't get to keep carrying the ball. But it didn't matter a few days later when the Rams played the Seattle Seahawks.

In the span of a couple of hours, the Rams introduced Stacy as the starting running back, then Cunningham actually started the game before Mason ended up getting 18 carries, by far the most amongst the backs and the second most by a Ram this season. All of that while Stacy played one snap and got no carries.

Apparently, it didn't take long to decide that Mason had the hot hand.

“We’re going to play all three backs," coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday. "I have great respect for all three of them, and Trey Watts for that matter. They are very unselfish, they root each other on. Tre got a hot hand and it was just kind of a different thing. We felt that we may have a chance to crease their defense at times with him."

To Mason's credit, that feeling proved to be mostly true as he ran for 85 yards on his 18 carries and scored his first NFL touchdown. Combined with the small sample size he received in his first game the week before against San Francisco, Mason has clearly been the Rams' most explosive option in his limited opportunities.

In those two games, Mason has 23 carries for 125 yards, an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Were it not for his late fumble that the Rams apparently recovered (at least in the eyes of the officials), Mason's work in his first two appearances would make him the overwhelming favorite to continue as the predominate ball-carrier going forward.

But even with that miscue on his resume, the evidence certainly points in the direction of a changing of the guard at the position. Stacy has dealt with calf and ankle injuries in recent weeks, and when he's played hasn't looked like the productive back he was a year ago. He's averaging 3.93 yards per carry on 61 attempts and his longest rush went for 16 yards. Cunningham hasn't fared much better, averaging 3.78 yards per attempt on 36 carries, but he's at least scored a touchdown in three consecutive games.

Watts and Austin have flashed some potential, but neither is equipped to handle the role on a more permanent basis.

Which brings us to Mason. It was game 5 a year ago when Stacy took the reins at running back. Perhaps game 6 will become that same turning point this season for another change as the third-round draft choice stakes his claim to further responsibility.

"I was always told to take full advantage of the opportunities you get because there may not be many," Mason said. "That’s just kind of a message that I grew up on. There may not be many opportunities but when you get those few, make the most of them because it can change into a lot."

How much it has changed things remains to be seen. When asked about the division of carries again Monday, Fisher offered a similar refrain.

“It’ll be a week-to-week thing," Fisher said. "Zac could get 25 carries this week. We had some things in early this week. It was working so we decided to stay with ‘Mase.' It’s nothing that Zac has done or hasn’t done. He’s been a little banged up the last couple of weeks, but obviously he’s an outstanding runner as well. We clearly have significant depth there at the position.”

While the Rams might have multiple options, if the Rams insist on sticking with the hot hand at running back it's hard to believe that it will be anyone but Mason who gets his temperature taken first.