(Stephen Brashear ~ Associated Press)
Players from the NFL's youngest roster cleaned out lockers Monday energized about a future of playoff contention after barely missing out on the franchise's first winning record since 2003 -- and feeling that this seven-win season will not be a mirage.
"I was on a team that was 7-9, came back and didn't do well," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "That's not this group. The postseason, that's on everyone's mind, and it's not just a far-fetched hope, it's an expectation."
Quarterback Sam Bradford was the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year after the Rams went 7-9 in 2010, then hobbled through a humbling two-win season that ushered in a rebuilding effort under Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
In retrospect, Bradford believes the wins came too easily his rookie year, and that the Rams (7-8-1) got what they deserved this season while moving past the bad old days from 2007 to 2011 when they totaled a measly 15 wins.
(AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Two of the Rams' victories came over division champions and a third came against a wild-card playoff team. In the finale they went to the wire at Seattle, which had blown out its previous three opponents and was unbeaten at home.
"I don't know if earned is the right word, but it felt like this team just had a little toughness," Bradford said. "We were able to go out and get some wins that some people thought we wouldn't be able to do."
The 54-year-old Fisher led the way, refreshed after taking a year off following a 17-year run in Tennessee.
"I had a blast, and I can't wait to get started again," Fisher said. "I really enjoy it. It was a great group."
Fisher wasn't certain how active the Rams would be in free agency. Last season, they picked up several starters, including cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and center Scott Wells, all difference makers.
"It's awful early right now, you know," Fisher said. "We're going to do whatever it takes. We've got some of our own we want back."
Running back Steven Jackson, who became just the sixth player in NFL history with eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and also reached 10,000 yards rushing, is at the top of the list. Jackson can opt out of a contract that has one year to go at $7 million, and Fisher reiterated that he wanted the 240-pound Jackson back.
Jackson wants to return, too, and believed the parties would meet soon. But he also said the Rams need to do "due diligence in deciding where they want to go with the roster."
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
"I want to be part of that, yes."
The Rams head into the offseason with no glaring physical issues. Last year, Bradford's troublesome high left ankle sprain was a question mark, but the quarterback said he's had no problems for months.
Bradford had been sacked in 30 consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL, before the line kept him clean the last two games, and said the ankle felt "good, really good."
"During the spring I could still feel it, but as time went along it just kind of went away," Bradford said. "It's something that was a really positive thing, the fact that it didn't bother me the whole year."
Bradford believes the Rams are clear winners in the deal.
"I think we did, for sure, just with all the picks that we have and what we're going to be able to build, what we've already started to build here," Bradford said. "I think this team is on the fast track, and I really look forward to the future."
Plus, next season should be his first time as a pro in which he doesn't have to switch offensive systems.
Sticking with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should help the Rams score more down the road. This season, they were among six teams scoring 300 or fewer points.
Long and Quinn are the Rams' first duo with double-digit sack totals since 2000.