ST. LOUIS — Despite losing their season finale to the Seattle Seahawks, there was a feeling of optimism in the St. Louis Rams' locker room on Monday as players prepared to head out for the offseason.
The Rams posted a 7-8-1 record in coach Jeff Fisher's first season. They failed to qualify for the playoffs and they failed to post a winning record, but they showed signs of improvement across the board after going 2-14 the previous season.
"Hope is a good word," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "We have a lot of reasons to believe, real tangible reasons to believe. We'll just continue to put faith in what Coach 'Fish' and (general manager) Les (Snead) are doing. We've assembled the right group of guys here and now it's just a deal of us fine-tuning and continuing to get better."
Fisher held a team meeting around noon on Monday before dismissing players for the next 2 1/2 months.
"They're never easy," Fisher said of the final meeting. "This one, however, was a little different in that we really felt like when the guys left the auditorium, they left with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for what's ahead."
The Rams have been in this position before. They won seven games under Steve Spagnuolo in 2010, but regressed the next season.
"We had hope then, too," Long said. "But, I love what we are doing right now, I really do. I love the guys in this locker room, I like what we are building here. It's been such a whirlwind I can't remember two years ago to compare it to. I just know what we are doing right now is the right stuff."
Other than a 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium in London, England, the Rams were more competitive this season.
Three of their losses came by a touchdown or less, and they had the best in-division record among teams in the NFC West with a 5-1 mark.
"Just the physicality our team played with compared to years past is something we can be proud of," Long said. "The toughness of our team, the competitiveness of our team, that will just continue to improve."
The Rams finished 23rd in total offense after ranking 31st last year.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns. He had a career-high quarterback rating of 82.6.
"I thought Sam got better as the year went on," Fisher said. "He had a much better feel for opponents, much better feel for what we were doing."
Fisher said he was looking forward to seeing how much Bradford improves next year running the same offense.
"It'd be the first time in his career where he'll come back in the offseason program and be looking at the same playbook," Fisher said. "We're not going to change things here. We're only going to do things to help him get better. We turned a lot over to him yesterday in the no-huddle and on the line of scrimmage. You can see us moving down that path with him, and in order to do so, you have to maintain continuity."
The Rams finished 14th in total defense after ranking 22nd last year.
The Rams tied with the Denver Broncos for the NFL lead in sacks with 52.
"We've got a solid group up front, first and foremost, with depth," Fisher said of his defensive line. "Then we also gave them help from a scheme's standpoint on occasion. You see our numbers are spread out. When your third or fourth end or your backup end (Willaim Hayes) has seven sacks, that's saying something about the depth that you have."
There Rams also have plenty of areas that need improvement.
The Rams ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored with 299. They were 29th in third-down efficiency, converting only 32.1 percent of their third-down chances.
The Rams forced and recovered only four fumbles, the second lowest total in the NFL.
"Third downs are a huge, huge deal, a huge area of improvement," Fisher said. "For example, yesterday we were 5-for-12. We had six third downs where we were third-and-9 or worse. What that's implying is that you have to do a better job on first and second down, so it's all tied together.
"If you look at the different categories, yes we need to score more points and do a better job on third down. Then of course, the turnover issue is always going to be an issue on defense."
All toll, Fisher said his first season back in coaching after a one-year layoff was enjoyable.
"I had a blast," Fisher said. "I can't wait to get started again. I really enjoyed it. This was a great group of guys and they understand the difference between, or the importance of, one, having fun and two, preparing and playing hard. It was a great group."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.