As the Rams turn their attention to an important offseason with an eye toward further bolstering the league’s youngest roster, they do so with the knowledge that their current group nearly quadrupled the team’s win total from 2011 to 2012.
But not only did the Rams improve from 2-14 to 7-8-1 this season, they did so against one of the league’s most difficult schedules.
“We know that they’re the youngest team in the National Football League,” Fisher said. “We had the third-toughest schedule. We had the best record in the division amongst our division opponents. We let some slip away. We also won some that people didn’t think we probably had a chance to win.”
When the Rams made a similar leap in record in 2010, the optimism it engendered was understandably similar to what some might feel heading into this offseason but further examination of this leap forward would indicate it’s far more sustainable.
That year, the Rams played the league’s second easiest schedule in terms of opponents’ record as their 16 opponents combined for a record of 115-141, a winning percentage of just .449.
Exacerbating that record was a NFC West Division that was way down, as the four teams combined for a record of 25-39, a winning percentage of just .390.
This year, the Rams played a schedule that was tied with Jacksonville for the third toughest in the league as their opponents finished with a record of 137-117-1, a winning percentage of .539.
“I think the way we won games this year,” Bradford said. “My rookie year, I feel like all the games we won, we got out to a lead and just kind of nursed it home. We never really had to come back. It seemed like those wins maybe came a little easier whereas this year, we had to really work for several of our wins and we were able to win on the road which is something we were only able to do once my rookie year so I just think this team going 7-8-1, it just feels like, I don’t know if earned is the right word but it felt like this team had a little toughness to them and we were able to go out and get some wins that some people thought we wouldn’t be able to do.”
The tougher schedule was buoyed by playing in the toughest division in the NFL in terms of winning percentage as the four teams in the West combined for a record of 34-28-2, a league-best percentage of .548.
Every game within the division became a veritable slugfest with four of the league’s top defenses squaring off and playing hard-nosed, power football each week.
“I think it’s the best division in football,” linebacker
It’s a divisional M.O. that Fisher saw coming from the moment he accepted the Rams job in January and something Fisher and general manager Les Snead took into account when building the roster in the offseason.
The Rams became bigger and stronger with an eye toward playing stout defense and preparing for heavyweight fights every week in the division.
“We feel good where we are but we need to get better,” Long said. “It is a tough, physical division but I think we fit that mold pretty well. I think Coach Fish and the rest brought in the type of people we need to win in this division and we’ll bring more of them in and keep getting better.”
Heading toward 2013, the schedule doesn’t appear to do the Rams any favors. On paper, the Rams will face a schedule tied for the second toughest in the league based on the performance of next year’s opponents in 2012.
Interestingly, the 13 teams the Rams will play in 2013 actually finished the 2012 season with the same combined record (137-117-1) as the 13 teams the Rams played in 2012.
Next season, the Rams will get their usual slate of NFC West games plus matchups with the third place team in the NFC East and NFC North as well as the entire NFC South and AFC South.
Below is the list of Rams’ opponents for 2013.
Home: Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Tennessee, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Tampa Bay.
Away: Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Carolina.
Of course, just because a schedule appears particularly difficult before the season doesn’t mean that it will carry through to the next season as some teams are destined to improve while others will fall below their expectations.
For example, Denver entered the 2012 season with what appeared to be the second toughest schedule in the league based on the previous year’s combined record. When all was said and done, a down year for the AFC West left the Broncos playing a slate tied for the 28th toughest schedule in the league. A group of teams finishing the 2011 season with a combined 139-117 record put together a 117-139 record in the 2012 campaign.
Of course, as is always the case, the Rams believe it isn’t so much about what the schedule looks like or what other teams are doing so much as controlling their own improvement and making the proper strides in the offseason.
Ultimately, that will determine if the Rams can take the next step in 2013.
“I do have hope,” Long said. “Just the physicality that our team played with compared to years past. It’s something we can be proud of, the toughness of our team, the competitiveness of our team. That will just continue to improve.”