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Rams focused on drastic improvement

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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EARTH CITY, Mo.

Chris Long says the St. Louis Rams should lead the NFL in a very important category this season.

And he isn’t talking about losses like in 2009.

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“We should be the hungriest team in the league,” the Rams defensive end told FOXSports.com this week. “We were 1-15. We’re not going to dwell on that, but even if you say that, it still happened. We have that experience in our back pocket.

“You don’t get a medal for being 1-15, but it certainly should help motivate you.”

It had better.

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo spent the entire offseason trying to instill his mantra of “demand, compete and finish.” Offensive and defensive players kept score during seven-on-seven drills. Strength coach Rock Gullickson conducted a weightlifting competition. The winners were treated to a home-cooked meal by Spagnuolo’s wife Maria served by the head coach and his two coordinators (Pat Shurmur and Ken Flajole) in waiter uniforms.

The Rams added mixed martial arts training through the Randy Couture/Jay Glazer-owned MMAthletics. Spagnuolo even had a pingpong table installed at team headquarters.

“We were trying to create as much of a competitive atmosphere as we could,” Spagnuolo said. “We’ll carry that right into training camp. That’s what your good teams and very special players do. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird … Tiger Woods, he probably competes at everything, not just golf.

“That was kind of my message to (the players) – have that mindset in everything you do. It will make us all better.”

It couldn’t get much worse for St. Louis during Spagnuolo’s first season – and that’s saying something for a franchise that was 5-27 in the two years before his arrival. The 2009 Rams won their only game during Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, a squad that would finish its season at 2-14. St. Louis averaged an NFL-low 10.9 points a game and ranked 29th defensively.

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“Now, you go into year two, we’ve got to see some results here,” Spagnuolo admitted. “I’ve got to see it just to feel good about what we’re doing. Players need it. There needs to be a little bit of confidence.”

Such success won’t come easy with one of the NFL’s thinnest rosters. Rams general manager Billy Devaney said the team is still “laying the foundation” after inheriting a train wreck personnel-wise from the previous regime. A pending ownership change also kept the Rams from being major players in free agency, although Devaney didn’t seem inclined to make any high-priced signings anyway during the offseason. St. Louis even passed on the modest bidding for Terrell Owens this week despite not having a veteran presence at wide receiver.

“We kept telling ourselves we were in this for the long haul. We want to do it the right way,” Devaney said. “Where we are at as an organization, it’s not where the Saints, Dallas or Colts are at where you can think, ‘We can go out, get one or two guys and they’re going to be a difference-maker.’ We’re in the process of getting to that point. One or two players were not going to make a difference for us. Like everybody, the draft is going to be the basis of our team and then filling in with (veteran) guys who can help our young players on the field and off.”

An example of that comes at quarterback where journeyman A.J. Feeley was signed to handle the reins until rookie Sam Bradford is ready. The No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Bradford gives the Rams hope that a turnaround will eventually be forthcoming.

“He had those injuries (at the University of Oklahoma), but stayed positive and battled back,” Spagnuolo said. “I think inner strength in a quarterback is huge. You don’t want to always where your emotions on your sleeve as a quarterback. Now, I haven’t seen him in a game do really good or really bad, but the feedback on that personality trait was exactly that: He doesn’t get rattled by much.”

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Devaney said there will be a three-way quarterback competition in training camp between Feeley, Bradford and 2009 sixth-round pick Keith Null. Bradford will eventually get the nod because the Rams aren’t going to pay him upwards of $45 million guaranteed to ride the bench for long. The timetable depends on when Bradford signs his contract – the first rookie practice is Thursday – and how quickly he is comfortable running a West Coast-style system. The Rams also need to feel secure that young tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold can adequately protect their big-money investment.

Whoever is under center has the benefit of having 1,400-yard rusher Steven Jackson in the backfield. Devaney also believes the secondary and run defense bolstered by the signing of veteran defensive tackles Fred Robbins and Chris Hovan will be strengths.

“I’ll be real interested to see if we can cut down on the mistakes in training camp and have less mental errors, better gap assignments and less penalties,” Long said. “These are the things we’ve got to work on.”

Besides changing a culture of losing.

“I know players have to get tired of (hearing) ‘worst team in the NFL.’ If that doesn’t piss you off, there’s something wrong,” Devaney said. “I know it pisses a lot of people off around here. That’s fine. You’ve got to go out and do something about it.

“Until you’re not 1-15 and you’re not considered the worst, that’s what you have to deal with.”

Tagged: Rams, Chris Long, Sam Bradford

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