ST. LOUIS (AP) — If the Rams had any games left on the schedule, rookie Tavon Austin said he would have definitely been back from a high-ankle sprain that sidelined him three games.
And that would have at least made for some more excitement for St. Louis.
“I hope in the future we have a lot of big plays coming up for me,” Austin said while cleaning out his locker.
The Rams (7-9) were eliminated from postseason contention, but many felt their time to contend was coming. Defensive end Chris Long says the youngest team in the NFL needs to grow up and prove it on game day.
“Hey, listen, every year the community, the media, everybody is always trying to make predictions for how close we are,” Long said. “We feel like we’re right there, but obviously we’ve said that before, so I’m not going to get caught up in preaching.”
The Rams were more competitive in the second season under coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, and soldiered through some tough injuries, including the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford. The bottom line: stuck on seven wins.
Given the franchise’s recent sorry history, 7-9 isn’t a terrible pill to swallow. Prior to the new regime, the Rams totaled 15 wins in five seasons.
Fisher said this team is “significantly better than the team we took in last year.”
“We’re closing the gap,” Fisher said. “We’re not there yet.”
The gap actually appears to have increased in the NFC West. They were 1-5 against Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona and had double-figure penalty totals on the road against all those teams, perhaps reflecting frustration.
Last season, the Rams were 4-1-1 in the division.
“I think defensively, we can compete with these teams,” Fisher said.
Certainly getting manhandled by the Seahawks in the 27-9 finale could leave a sour taste for a while. The Rams were held to 158 yards and lost their cool with 12 penalties for 87 yards, plus nine other calls that were offset or not accepted.
St. Louis was the second-most penalized team in the NFL.
“We’ll address that, we’ll correct that, we’ll get it fixed,” Fisher said. “Games we had too many penalties were not successful.”
Fisher anticipated no coaching changes, and less roster churn than a year earlier. Backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, who started the final nine games, wants to be back but noted “it’s a little different than my senior prom” and “I have to have a date for this one.”
The Rams may not get much younger next year given they have two first-round draft picks, including the second overall selection as the final payment in the Robert Griffin III deal with Washington. Areas of concern are offensive tackle and secondary, although Fisher shed no light on that.
They may need help at both tackles, especially at the start of 2014. Jake Long might need more time to recover from an ACL injury delayed for another month or so to allow an MCL tear to heal first, and Rodger Saffold, who was shuttled around before ending the year at left tackle, could leave in free agency.
“It’s not ideal but it’s all part of the game,” Long said. “You’ve got to deal with it and I’ll come back stronger for it.”
The Rams may need a cornerback depending on whether Cortland Finnegan can return from an eye injury, and they’re not heavily invested in safety.
The pass rush led by Robert Quinn, who set a franchise record with 19 sacks and was voted MVP by teammates, at times minimized those deficiencies.
“It’s a great honor for them to do that, it means a lot,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to be a little more consistent.”
Finnegan remains a question mark, visiting with doctors for a progress report on a cracked orbital bone after the team meeting.
“I’ll be back,” Finnegan said, “and let you know.”
The Rams guessed right letting running back Steven Jackson leave in free agency and turning that job over to kids. Zac Stacy fell 27 yards shy of giving the franchise a ninth consecutive 1,000-yard rusher when the Seahawks held him to 15 yards on 15 carries, but was a find in the fifth round.
“I was given an opportunity and I pretty much took advantage of it,” Stacy said. “One thing I’ve taken from guys like Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, one they told me, just be a true pro about yourself.”
Fellow rookie Benny Cunningham, who was undrafted, had a 100-yard game and averaged 5.6 yards in limited work.