Is this the end of the great Rams passing teams?
This offseason, the St. Louis Rams bade adieu to their all-time leader in receptions (942), receiving yards (14,109) and receiving touchdowns (84, just one short of the franchise record for total touchdowns, held by Marshall Faulk).
His name? Isaac Bruce, now a member of the division-rival 49ers. Not that Bruce, 35, represents a devastating loss. But in a way, it's fitting that the end of the great passing days in St. Louis coincides with the departure of an integral part of The Greatest Show on Turf, the team's monstrous offense of the 1999 to 2001 seasons.
Drew Bennett steps into Bruce's former No. 2 receiver role, but that's more a "spinning-their-wheels" swap than an actual improvement. His biggest strength is a size advantage -- he's 6-foot-5 -- but his raw talent is somewhat lacking. You might remember Bennett best for his astonishing 28 catches, 517 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in a three-week span from Week 13 through Week 15 in 2004. But in 45 games since, he has averaged only 3.1 receptions and 42.8 receiving yards per contest. During that span, he has averaged one 100-yard receiving effort per 15 games, and a touchdown per 4.09 contests. That's some pretty lackluster production for a guy theoretically in his prime.
Another conundrum: Moving Bennett up a spot on the depth chart vacates his No. 3 role from a year ago, now slated to go to one of two rookies, Donnie Avery or Keenan Burton. I'm not saying neither can fill the 33 receptions, 375 receiving yards and three scores Bennett produced in 2007, but we all know the learning curve of a rookie receiver in the NFL, and that learning curve usually refers to top receivers. Meanwhile, here we're talking about one whom some scouts felt was overdrafted by at least a round (Avery) and another who had durability concerns in college (Burton).
Tight end Randy McMichael will contribute in the passing game, perhaps necessarily so accounting for the lack of depth at wide receiver. To his credit, new offensive coordinator Al Saunders (who was an assistant head coach with the Rams in 1999 and 2000) got a lot of production out of Chris Cooley in Washington last season, on a team with similar depth at receiver. That might classify McMichael as a sleeper, but on the other hand, he's coming off a year in which he caught 39 passes for 429 yards, hardly eye-popping numbers. St. Louis isn't exactly a breeding ground for big-time fantasy tight ends, either; the last one to manage either 50 receptions or 500 receiving yards was Pete Holohan in 1989! Even Ernie Conwell and Roland Williams were mostly fantasy afterthoughts back in the Greatest Show days.
To be fair to McMichael, though, much of his value will be tied to how often he's called upon to block, something that happened more than a little in 2007, when the Rams' offensive line was devastated by injuries. If this year's O-line is at all cohesive, McMichael will be set free to catch passes and could be an underrated contributor.
That's a big "if," though.
Thirteen different players filled the Rams' five offensive-line spots in 2007, and the team used 18 different combinations throughout the season. Injuries cost the team's projected starting lineup 44 of a possible 80 games; Richie Incognito (knee), Orlando Pace (shoulder) and Mark Setterstrom (knee) all finished the year on injured reserve.
One has to believe the Rams will stay healthier than that, if only because it's unlikely a team could be so unlucky in two consecutive seasons. Still, left tackle Pace, though he's a former Pro Bowler, is 32 and has missed 23 games combined the past two years. Right tackle Alex Barron has been a healthy fella, but he's committed an NFL-high 50 penalties the past three years combined. Center remains an unsettled battle of Setterstrom, who's coming off knee surgery that limited him to three games in 2007, and Brett Romberg, who sat seven times last year with problems with both ankles.
Ultimately, there's better depth here, with free agent Jacob Bell stabilizing the left guard spot, and rookies John Greco and Roy Schuening fattening the depth chart. They'll help, but it's a big step from last year's debacle to even a level of mediocrity.
That leads to our greatest concern: Bulger, hardly a model of health himself, has appeared in 16 games just once in the past six seasons and has averaged 12 contests per year during that span. How do you think he felt when he was always flat on his back in 2007? Bulger, now 31 and coming off a dreadful, injury-marred campaign, doesn't need offensive-line performance that fits a "mediocre" description. Nay, for him to excel, he might need this team to have as much good fortune this year as it had bad luck last year. Not to mention that his potential backup, Trent Green, has finished each of the past two seasons on injured reserve with concussions. That's a lot of health risk at quarterback.
That puts the focus of the Rams' offense on three-dimensional running back Steven Jackson, who's now 25 years old and coming off a remarkably good season for a guy running behind a shredded O-line, which, by the way, caused him various bumps and bruises, too. Saunders already has raved about Jackson's potential, and he'd know. In Saunders' years as offensive coordinator, his Air Coryell offense has spawned some exceptional fantasy seasons such as those of Priest Holmes from 2001 to 2003, Larry Johnson in 2004 and 2005, and another very good one from Clinton Portis in 2007.
Another tasty tidbit: Saunders' offense works the running back nicely into the passing game, as evidenced by Faulk's two best seasons as a pass-catcher in 1999 and 2000 (173 total catches!). Holmes, in his prime, generally was a 70-reception type, and in case you didn't notice, Portis set a personal best with 47 catches a year ago. Jackson, by all rights, might not be much less the pass-catcher Faulk was in his prime. He is two years removed from a 90-reception season, a plateau Faulk never reached. Plus, he's a contract-year player -- barring a preseason contract extension -- meaning that other than the O-line concerns, his greatest worry is that he could hold out close to or into the regular season. (For the record, I'm not worried; the preseason is too long as it is.)
That doesn't mean the Rams can't be respectable in the passing game, but let's face it, they ranked 19th in that department last season. Couldn't it be argued that their status as a great passing offense ended in 2007? I understand that perception sometimes takes longer to catch up with reality. There are contributors here: Holt as a top-20, perhaps top-10, receiver; McMichael as an interesting, low-priced No. 2 tight end; and Bulger perhaps as a matchups/ride-the-hot-streaks candidate.
But it's Jackson who will determine to what level this passing offense -- in terms of the real game and the team totals -- rebounds. Not coincidentally, the Rams ranked fourth in 2006, Jackson's 90-catch season. If he can do that again, in terms of total team passing yards, this should be a top-10 unit. Of course, fantasy isn't about team rankings, it's about what a player provides us, and Jackson, simply put, is a running back to us. So when he's doing much of the work, it makes us think less of the quarterback and wide receivers.
That's why we've gotta hand it to Bruce, who marked the end of an era. With him gone, perhaps perception -- that the Rams are a "great" passing offense -- finally will catch up with reality that they're really only an "above-average" passing offense.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.