June 18, 2016
The Rams worked out under sunny skies this spring in Oxnard, a fitting weather backdrop for a franchise that returned to Southern California after more than two decades in the Midwest.
The sunny disposition of nearly all players, coaches and front-office personnel is expected to last at least through mid-September.
That’s when the Rams, who have not finished above .500 since 2003, will open the season against the San Francisco 49ers on “Monday Night Football.”
Not surprisingly, the Rams recently wrapped up three weeks of organized-team activities full of optimism.
Whether that demeanor is warranted remains to be seen.
Non-contact practices are not much of a barometer for predicting NFL success or struggles. They revealed positive signs but also left unanswered causes for concern.
Coach Jeff Fisher, entering the final season of a five-year contract that pays him $7 million annually, was lauded by players for his handling of the franchise’s move from St. Louis and the atmosphere on the field and in meetings.
Fisher publicly embraced the arrival of “Hard Knocks” cameras that will roll into overdrive during training camp.
But can he guide the Rams back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004?
The defense under coordinator Gregg Williams is clearly ahead of an offense that coordinator Rob Boras is installing with a staff that includes three new assistants.
Much will depend on quarterback play, and during organized team activities, top pick Jared Goff showed flashes of the skills that prompted the Rams to give up so much to trade to the top of the draft.
Goff did not consistently sizzle, but at times, he demonstrated good decision-making, a strong arm and good touch. He also made numerous mistakes and had multiple passes intercepted.
In short, about what one would anticipate from a rookie quarterback, regardless of buildup and expectations.
Meantime, Case Keenum performed efficiently. Public confidence boosts from Fisher and General Manager Les Snead aside, the Rams view the career backup as a bridge to the start of the Goff era, whether that begins in the opener or sometime during the season. To his credit, Keenum handled constant questions about Goff with humor and an edge of confidence.
And with Nick Foles absent while awaiting a possible training-camp trade, Sean Mannion took advantage of increased snaps.
Fisher limited the reps of star running back Todd Gurley, a prudent decision on several levels. The Rams cannot afford to lose last season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year because of injury, and Benny Cunningham and Malcolm Brown benefited from the work.
The receiving corps remains a question mark. Tavon Austin looked the part of a multidimensional threat, and rookie Pharoh Cooper showed signs of becoming an impact player in his first season. But veteran Kenny Britt did not participate in team drills, and Brian Quick still must show he was worthy of the prove-it deal he signed in March.
The offensive line got a chance to improve communication, and Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown continued their comeback from injuries. Left tackle Greg Robinson remains the key. If the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft improves, so might the NFL’s worst passing offense in 2015. If he struggles …
It’s too early to evaluate Alec Ogletree as the new middle linebacker, but he appeared to line up the defense with few glitches and commands the respect of teammates. Williams and starting linebackers Mark Barron and Akeem Ayers complimented Ogletree for the long hours he put in to become the leader of the unit.
E.J. Gaines was held out of team drills while continuing to recover from foot surgery, so Lamarcus Joyner and Coty Sensabaugh worked opposite Trumaine Johnson to fill the starting cornerback slot that opened because of Janoris Jenkins’ free-agent departure.
With Rodney McLeod leaving to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles and T.J. McDonald absent, Cody Davis, Christian Bryant and Maurice Alexander got most of the work at safety.
The Rams reconvene for training camp in late July at UC Irvine.
The forecast, no doubt, will call for more sunshine. The mood will be upbeat, players and coaches full of hope.
At this point, that’s what the Rams can sell.