(Eds: With AP Photos.)|
By R.B. FALLSTROM
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Jeff Fisher's comeback was a rousing success. Coming off the worst five-year stretch in NFL history, the St. Louis Rams shattered their sad-sack image.
Players from the NFL's youngest roster cleaned out lockers Monday energized about a future of playoff contention after barely missing out on the franchise's first winning record since 2003 - and feeling that this seven-win season will not be a mirage.
``I was on a team that was 7-9, came back and didn't do well,'' middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. ``That's not this group. The postseason, that's on everyone's mind, and it's not just a far-fetched hope, it's an expectation.''
Quarterback Sam Bradford was the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year after the Rams went 7-9 in 2010, then hobbled through a humbling two-win season that ushered in a rebuilding effort under Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
In retrospect, Bradford believes the wins came too easily his rookie year, and that the Rams (7-8-1) got what they deserved this season while moving past the bad old days from 2007-11 when they totaled a measly 15 wins.
St. Louis was strong in one of the NFL's toughest divisions, going 4-1-1 in the NFC West. Two of the victories came over division champions and a third came against a wild-card playoff team. In the finale they went to the wire at Seattle, which had blown out its previous three opponents and was unbeaten at home.
``I don't know if earned is the right word, but it felt like this team just had a little toughness,'' Bradford said. ``We were able to go out and get some wins that some people thought we wouldn't be able to do.''
The 54-year-old Fisher led the way, refreshed after taking a year off following a 17-year run in Tennessee.
``I had a blast, and I can't wait to get started again,'' Fisher said. ``I really enjoy it. It was a great group.''
There'll be no burnout this January. Unlike last season, when about two-thirds of the roster was replaced, Fisher and Snead aren't facing a massive roster overhaul, either.
Fisher wasn't certain how active the Rams would be in free agency. Last season, they picked up several starters, including cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and center Scott Wells, all difference makers.
``It's awful early right now, you know,'' Fisher said. ``We're going to do whatever it takes. We've got some of our own we want back.''
Running back Steven Jackson, who became just the sixth player in NFL history with eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and also reached 10,000 yards rushing, is at the top of the list. Jackson can opt out of a contract that has one year to go at $7 million and Fisher reiterated that he wanted the 240-pound Jackson back.
Jackson wants to return, too, and believed the parties would meet soon. But he also said the Rams need to do ``due diligence in deciding where they want to go with the roster.''
``We're definitely going to sit down,'' said Jackson, wearing a red sweat shirt given to him by rookie running back Terrance Ganaway to commemorate the 10,000-yard milestone. ``I would hate to watch this organization go on and be successful, which I believe they will, without me.
``I want to be part of that, yes.''
The Rams head into the offseason with no glaring physical issues. Last year, Bradford's troublesome high left ankle sprain was a question mark, but the quarterback said he's had no problems for months.
Bradford had been sacked in 30 consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL, before the line kept him clean the last two games, and said the ankle felt ``good, really good.''
``During the spring I could still feel it, but as time went along it just kind of went away,'' Bradford said. ``It's something that was a really positive thing, the fact that it didn't bother me the whole year.''
The Rams stayed the course with Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, and reaped a bounty of premium draft picks when they dealt the No. 2 overall pick and the rights to Robert Griffin III to Washington in March. The Redskins made the playoffs while the Rams ended up with three rookie starters, including playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins, plus have Washington's first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
Bradford believes the Rams are clear winners in the deal.
``I think we did, for sure, just with all the picks that we have and what we're going to be able to build, what we've already started to build here,'' Bradford said. ``I think this team is on the fast track and I really look forward to the future, and to next year.''
Plus, next season should be his first time as a pro in which he doesn't have to switch offensive systems.
Sticking with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should help the Rams score more down the road. This season, they were among six teams scoring 300 or fewer points.
The defense was a plus, tying for the NFL lead with 52 sacks behind big seasons from ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, without a coordinator. Fisher said the future of Gregg Williams, suspended for his role in the NFL bounty scandal, would be ``something I'll address over the next couple weeks.''
Long and Quinn are the Rams' first duo with double-digit sack totals since 2000.
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