ST. LOUIS (AP) - Year 3 of the Steve Spagnuolo experience was supposed to be the payoff. More games like the first four and it might be the buyout.
Off last season's six-win improvement, the St. Louis Rams appeared poised to become a legitimate contender in the weak NFC West. Instead, they're winless and set to be heavy underdogs for several weeks when they emerge from the bye, largely because of an offense that has regressed under their new coordinator.
Josh McDaniels vaulted to wonderboy status off his success with the Patriots and just a few years ago was the youngest head coach in the NFL. When the Rams hired him, he was the man who'd lift Sam Bradford & Co. to a higher plane, and during the preseason, both parties said it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Nobody's smiling now. The mistakes have been numerous, the breakdowns wide-ranging: numerous dropped passes, iffy pass protection, false starts, lack of discipline, red zone woes. ...
Sure, the opening stretch has been daunting. The Eagles, Giants and Ravens are long-established playoff presences and the Redskins appear to be on the rise, so it's no surprise the Rams have a losing record.
Still, the Rams have been playing catchup for all but 6Â½ minutes and been beaten by an average of nearly 17 points.
"I feel like we are a better team," Steven Jackson said. "From the outside, it doesn't look like it."
Now, it's easier to remember that McDaniels lost 17 of his last 22 games in Denver before getting the boot last December, and that the Broncos scored six points in his swan song.
"I think everybody can do a better job of what we're doing, starting with me," McDaniels said. "Once we do it right, or when we do it right, we usually get the results we're looking for."
Four games in, the rebuilding job undertaken by Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney seems shaky. Spagnuolo is 8-28 and the Rams are early favorites for yet another pick at the top of the draft.
The Spags-designed defense has been flawed, too, getting torched by the Eagles and Ravens. St. Louis has surrendered 113 points, tied for second-most in the league, and is last against the run.
"I've got a wonderful wife, that's my only sanity," Spagnuolo said. "I'm hanging my hat on the fact that I see no quit in our football team."
Beat the Redskins last week, and things maybe don't look so dire. Spagnuolo noted Washington scored only 17 points.
"The worst part about it is we just keep shooting ourselves in the foot," safety Quintin Mikell said. "It's the same thing every week. Penalties and getting beat on third down, dropping balls. That's stuff you can't have happen."
The worst part about the Rams' predicament is they're averaging one touchdown per game and next to last in the league in scoring with only 46 points.
Bradford has been sacked 17 times, most in the NFL. Some of it falls on a highly paid offensive line but a lot of the punishment comes while he's waiting for plays to develop.
In last weeks' loss to the Redskins, the quarterback let his frustration show, walking in circles after getting crunched yet again, lifting his arms skyward. The Rams (0-4) limped into the bye, gaining 172 yards last week.
When Bradford went to a hard count to keep the defense off-balance, it was Rams linemen who jumped offside. Even though, McDaniels said, they use the hard count every day in practice.
"Sam's using it more and more every week and we want him to," McDaniels said.
Shorter pass routes and more rollout calls might keep Bradford upright more, but McDaniels said the bottom line is the pocket needs to be more stable, more secure.
McDaniels pleads patience. Not much else he can say.
"There have been seasons where it hasn't gone the way you wanted it to go in one stretch or another and this is really one of those things," McDaniels said. "The focus has to always be on playing our best in November and December, and if we can get to that point where we're doing that, you never know."
The schedule appears easier after the midway point. The trick will be staying alive until then because the next three games are at Green Bay (4-0), at Dallas (2-2) and against the Saints (3-1).
Sure, there are extenuating circumstances. Jackson missed most of two games with a right quadriceps injury and top possession receiver Danny Amendola was lost for the year in the opener with a dislocated left elbow that required surgery this week.
Cadillac Williams has been able to replace some of the lost yardage, if not Jackson's stout presence in pass protection. Mike Sims-Walker, a free agent addition at wide receiver, has been a disappointment thus far, and rookie tight end Lance Kendricks has had a mix of nice plays and botched catches.
But what team hasn't been hit by injuries?
"There's no doubt they hurt us," Bradford said. "We've just got to keep chugging, keep grinding. A couple drops ain't going to slow me down."
Minimizing the mental errors and the Rams have a better chance of competing despite deflating injuries on both sides of the ball. They've lost both starting cornerbacks, with Bradley Fletcher placed on injured reserve this week after a collision with Sims-Walker during a bye week practice.
Before players left for a four-day weekend, Spagnuolo told them to savor the time off.
"Get away, relax," Spagnuolo said. "And then I did say let's not think that we corrected everything in two days. There is still a lot more work to do here."