Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 1/1/12
ST. LOUIS An offseason of unknowns began with a handshake. The final seconds ticked toward his 38th loss in 48 games as the St. Louis Rams' embattled coach, and Steve Spagnuolo paced his sideline searching for players to greet. He walked to his left and found long snapper Jake McQuaide and punter Donnie Jones. Then he jogged near midfield and wrapped his left arm around San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's shoulders. The two men met with their careers trending in opposite directions. With his team's 34-27 victory Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, Harbaugh had guided the 49ers to the NFC's second seed in his rookie year and placed the final touches on his organization's first winning season since 2002. Meanwhile, Spagnuolo's demeanor appeared light despite witnessing the Rams' seventh straight loss a streak of futility that has become common in what is now an eight-year drought since St. Louis last experienced a winning season. With time, Spagnuolo made a familiar run through a tunnel. Unlike previous weeks, there were no boos. Unlike previous weeks, there were no defiant statements from the former New York Giants defensive coordinator that his players would fight to scrub a losing image. Instead, Spagnuolo disappeared into his locker room behind little interest, some wondering if a postgame speech to close his third season in St. Louis would be his last. "Obviously, the results are not what we wanted," Spagnuolo said later. "Obviously, there were some things we couldn't control. Other things we could. We certainly think we should be better than 2-14." But the reality is this: The Rams looked like one of the NFL's worst teams for much of the season. Aside from a stunning victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 8, their execution was spotty, their confidence was riddled and their leadership was lacking. What began as a possible NFC West championship year ended with a thud with nothing to play (lose) for than a chance to "earn" the top pick in the NFL draft in April. (With the Indianapolis Colts' loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, even that prize eluded the Rams.) Now, owner Stan Kroenke must make choices that will determine the direction of his beleaguered franchise. Reports are swirling that Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney might not return next season. If true, Rams Park will take on a new personality. "I think the one thing we're going to take from (the season) is sometimes you have years like that," Rams safety Quintin Mikell said. "I've never had a year like this." The disappointment from Mikell and others stems from early hope. There was an expectation that Spagnuolo could guide the floundering franchise to its first postseason appearance since the 2004 campaign. After all, the Rams were one game short of winning their first NFC West title since 2003 last year. But a variety of factors ended the brief optimism. The Rams' 0-6 start with a schedule that included the Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys dashed momentum from an undefeated preseason. As the fall continued, injuries to key contributors such as quarterback Sam Bradford, wide receiver Danny Amendola and offensive tackle Rodger Saffold crippled the Rams' offense and turned it into one of the NFL's worst. By a Week 12 loss to the Arizona Cardinals their ninth overall and third in their last four games since upsetting the Saints losing had become routine. So a failed season that began with playoff aspirations reached a merciful end Sunday but not without sloppy sights that became common this fall. Midway through the second quarter, a short pass from Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens bounced off tight end Lance Kendricks' palms with no defenders close by. In the next play, an errant shotgun snap hit Clemens' left hand, causing a scramble for the ball that served as a reminder that play here at times vaguely resembles professional football. By the end of the second quarter, Spagnuolo and his team left the field trailing 20-7. In most NFL cities, the deficit would seem manageable. But in St. Louis, where the Rams had been held to 13 points or fewer 12 times before Sunday, a 49ers victory felt assured. The Rams made a late comeback, outscoring the 49ers 20-14 in the second half. But a fourth-and-17 pass from reserve quarterback Todd Brandstater dribbled off wide receiver Danario Alexander's chest deep in 49ers' territory with a little less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. At that point, the result was sealed. "It seemed like the game wouldn't go our way," said Alexander, who finished with three catches for 36 yards Sunday. "We would go out there and fight, and it wouldn't come out the way we wanted it. We have something to look forward to next year. If everybody gets healthy and comes back, we can be pretty strong." An overhaul at Rams Park could mean a third offensive coordinator for Bradford in as many years. He looked dazed at times in postgame addresses this season, the former Heisman Trophy winner seemingly at a loss to explain the Rams' dreadful play. No matter Devaney's and Spagnuolo's destinations, the Rams' future is tied to Bradford. St. Louis will forever be known as the franchise that squandered potential greatness if he is not given talent on the offensive line and within his receiving corps to succeed. This season, he wasn't a fact that became obvious as injuries on the young quarterback's side of the ball mounted. But who will make roster decisions come the spring? Afterward, a Rams employee removed blue-and-gold nameplates from slots above stalls in an empty locker room. A forgettable season had come to a close, and Spagnuolo, Devaney and others prepared to face an unknown. As the locker-room cleanup continued, a large poster on a wooden pillar hung near an entrance. It depicted the Lombardi Trophy floating above fists raised in a huddle. Right now, the Rams seem far, far away from a championship goal.
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