Less than a month ago the Rams were a floundering 0-4 football team considered to be one of the worst the NFL had to offer. Quarterback Marc Bulger had been benched. The team was getting blown out on a weekly basis and had seemingly little reason for hope. New England fans looking ahead to a matchup with the team probably wrote it off as a near cupcake, even with the Patriots inconsistent performances of the last month-plus.
But oh what a difference a month makes. Or, in this case, oh what a difference a coaching change makes. After the winless first month, and coming off a 3-13 2007 campaign, St. Louis fired Scott Linehan during its bye week and replaced him on an interim basis with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Since then the Rams are riding a two-game winning streak, having beaten perceived NFC powers Washington (19-17) and last week blowing out the Brad Johnson-led Cowboys 34-14.
So what exactly is different, considering the talent is essentially the same?
"I just think more than anything [it's] just the players wanting to get the job done," said Haslett, who spent six seasons as head coach in New Orleans from 2000-05. "They've been practicing well and they've been into it and we just tried to get them to understand that we're not as bad a team as everybody thought. You just have to try to do things right."
Linehan has worked to improve the overall culture throughout the Rams organization. One of his first acts as the head coach was to bring all the team's employees, including players, coaches and front office staff together for practice and a meal to build company unity.
On the field a big boost has come from the improved play of versatile running back Steven Jackson. The former first-round pick missed most of the preseason in a contract dispute and subsequently got off to a slow start in the regular season. But beginning with 110 yards and a score just before the coaching change, Jackson has come on. He kicked in with another 160 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend's surprise upset of Dallas.
But like his new coach, Jackson isn't quite sure what's turned things around in recent weeks. He also doesn't want to place all the early-season blame at the feet of Linehan.
"To be honest with you I don't know," Jackson said in terms of what's different. "It's a funny situation, you hate that someone had to lose their job. You hate that anyone has to take the blame for all 53 men and the coaching staff on top of that for losing. But after the bye I think a lot of guys took that week off, really took a step away from football and kind of renewed their love for it and said that we can either turn this thing around or have a rough 12-game stretch. Going through [a] 3-13 season - that's something a lot of guys around here didn't want to do again. We still have a long way to go to fully say that we turned the ship around but we started off well."
That ship faces another tough test this week with the trip to Foxborough. Conversely, New England faces a tough test with Jackson, assuming the Rams leading rusher (121 carries for 508 yards and four touchdowns) and receiver (25 receptions for 259 yards) is healthy enough to play Sunday afternoon. Jackson did not practice on Wednesday as he works to recover from a thigh injury suffered late in the win over the Cowboys.
Haslett labeled Jackson as "day-to-day" and it looks like one of the league's premier running backs could end up as a game-time decision on Sunday.
"The leg feels good," Jackson said in a Wednesday conference call with the New England media. "We're not quite sure, we're still going to see what's going to happen for Sunday but I was able to do some rehab work with our weight coach, do some light lifting and some light pool work. We're just going to go from there. We're going to take it day to day. I'm pretty good with having a feel for my body and knowing where I'm at. I feel good, especially compared to [last] Sunday."
If he can play, those on the New England defense know the challenge they'll face even coming off the group's best performance of the season. Bill Belichickcalled Jackson "one of the best and most complete backs that we will face all year."
"Complete," linebacker Adalius Thomas said, describing Jackson. "He catches the ball. Runs the ball hard. Fast. Physical. Powerful. Lot of gang tackling. There can't be a lot of one-on-one tackling with him. He's fast enough to outrun the DBs. Strong enough to run over them. So we're going to get a lot hats to the ball.
"You just have to be more aware of where he is. A check down for 5 yards can turn into 60 yards."
A month ago uncertainty at running back for a team that struggled offensively even with Jackson might have been reason for despair. But with two wins in their pocket and a budding level confidence the Rams head to Gillette Stadium with a new head coach and a newfound lease on life in the NFL.
"To go up there is a great challenge. You're talking about going up to a place that's a hostile environment, and the weather conditions, and playing a team that's got a ton of Super Bowls and a great coach, so we've got our work cut out for us," Haslett said. "Hopefully we just go out there and play as well as we can."