The St. Louis Rams reached the playoffs last season because they played in a joke of a division in a farce of a conference, but no one in the league was fooled into thinking this was actually a good team. The club has made some marginal improvements this offseason, and tailback Steven Jackson could be ready for stardom in his second season. But could the NFC West possibly be so bad again, and could the NFC playoff chase be so laughably forgiving once more?

The Rams, if they're smart, will build next season's offense around Jackson, who averaged five yards per carry last year as a rookie and gradually took over the bulk of the tailback duties from Marshall Faulk. Faulk has opted against retiring even though his best days as a player clearly are behind him, but the Rams actually might need him to be productive in a part-time role because the only thing Jackson didn't prove as a rookie was that he's durable enough to withstand the week-in, week-out pounding of the pro game without requiring someone to split time with him at the position.

The other thing the Rams have going for them on offense is their duo of talented young wide receivers -- Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis -- behind starters Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Holt and Bruce each topped 1,200 receiving yards last season, and McDonald and Curtis took advantage and made big plays when opposing defenses paid too much attention to the two star wideouts.

Quarterback Marc Bulger managed to cut down on his interceptions last season (throwing 14 of them, eight fewer than in 2003), and the Rams upgraded the unit that will protect him when they used their first-round draft choice on Florida State offensive tackle Alex Barron. He's slated to replace Kyle Turley, who feuded publicly with Coach Mike Martz last year and continues to experience problems related to a back injury that have his football future in doubt and have led him to talk about moving to defensive end, at right tackle. Turley likely will be released today.

The Rams finally managed to lock up perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace to a long-term contract in March. The club, in a familiar refrain, made Pace its franchise player in February. The Houston Texans tried to pry him away, reaching a tentative contract agreement with him but failing to settle on compensation with the Rams. The flirtation with the Texans may have spurred Pace's contract talks with the Rams, and he stayed in St. Louis by signing a seven-year, $52.8 million deal that included a $15 million signing bonus.

All of that gives Martz a potentially formidable offense, and the Rams spent their money in free agency to try to upgrade a run defense that surrendered 327 rushing yards in a 30-point, season-ending loss at Atlanta in an NFC semifinal. The Rams signed one free-agent linebacker, Dexter Coakley, to a five-year, $14.5 million contract on the day the market opened, then signed another, Chris Claiborne, to a three-year, $10.5 million deal the following day. They are decent players who will make the Rams better, but neither is the sort of addition who will make the unit fearsome overnight. The Rams ranked 29th in the league in rushing defense during the 2004 regular season.

Linebacker Tommy Polley, defensive end Bryce Fisher and safety Rich Coady exited in free agency. The Rams made an interesting selection on draft day when they chose Howard University cornerback Ronald Bartell Jr. in the middle of the second round. He's big and fast, and some scouts think he could make a quicker impact in the NFL as a safety because his technique at cornerback is a little raw. If the Rams are intent on playing him at cornerback, they might have to live with some rookie mistakes as they work him into the playing-time mix behind starters Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher.

As the regular season wound down last year, many people around the league thought that Martz's mad-scientist routine was wearing thin in St. Louis and his job could be in jeopardy if the club missed the playoffs. It didn't, thanks in part to a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the next-to-last game of the regular season in which Eagles Coach Andy Reid rested his front-line players. That, plus a victory over the New York Jets to close the regular season, enabled the Rams to finish 8-8 and reach the playoffs, and they won at Seattle in a first-round game before the lopsided defeat to the Falcons. Martz stayed around, but the pressure will be on him during the upcoming season to reach the playoffs on merit rather than merely because the NFC is so pitiable.

Around the League

It will be interesting to see if any NFL team is eager to give another chance to wide receiver Koren Robinson after the former first-round draft pick was released by the Seahawks on Thursday.

Robinson is 25 and clearly talented. He was the ninth player selected in the 2001 draft, and he had 78 catches for 1,240 yards for Seattle in 2002 as a second-year pro. He followed up with 65 receptions for 896 yards in 2003.

But he had only 31 catches last season. He served a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and he was benched for two games by Coach Mike Holmgren for breaking team rules in separate incidents. Holmgren allowed Robinson to play in the playoff loss to the Rams after Robinson agreed to undergo treatment in the offseason, and the wide receiver reportedly spent time in an alcohol rehabilitation program. But only days after telling reporters that he knew he was down to his final chance with the Seahawks, Robinson was arrested in the Seattle area last month and charged with reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.

The Seahawks cleared more than $2.5 million in salary-cap space by releasing Robinson and veteran cornerback Bobby Taylor on Thursday. They perhaps will use some of that cap room to sign free-agent linebacker Peter Boulware, who was scheduled to arrive in Seattle late Thursday for a visit. Boulware completed a visit to Cleveland earlier in the day without signing with the Browns. Signing with the Seahawks would unite Boulware with his younger brother Michael, a safety for Seattle . . . .

The San Francisco 49ers released offensive tackle Scott Gragg. The 49ers also signed guard Eric Heitmann to a four-year contract extension potentially worth as much as $6.5 million. Heitmann could be moved to center for the upcoming season to replace the injured Jeremy Newberry . . . .

Safety Mike Doss rejoined the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday and participated in the club's voluntary workout. Doss issued a public apology after being arrested in Akron, Ohio, last weekend for allegedly firing a handgun into the air outside a crowded nightclub. A grand jury in Akron is to determine early next week whether he will be indicted on gun-related charges, and he could face additional penalties from the Colts or the league . . . .

A second medical opinion given to Browns tight end Kellen Winslow has confirmed the original diagnosis -- that he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that will require season-ending surgery within the next few weeks . . . .

The Jets extended the contract of defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson for a year, through the 2007 season.

Spielman Leaves Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins announced today that General Manager Rick Spielman had decided to leave the organization.

It appears that Spielman was given the chance to resign before the Dolphins fired him. The move had been expected since Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga lured Nick Saban from LSU in December to be the club's coach. Huizenga gave Saban total control over the franchise's football operations. Saban postponed a decision on Spielman's future with the organization until after the draft, but recently has been talking to candidates to serve as his top front-office administrator.