ST. LOUIS — Hospitalized for back surgery in early April, Steven Jackson telephoned the player the St. Louis Rams were poised to take with the first pick of the draft.

On the other end of the line, Sam Bradford told the Pro Bowl running back that his shoulder was ready for the NFL.

"I gave him a call to see if he was OK," Jackson said. "He reassured me that he felt like his shoulder was stronger than ever and he was ready to lead the team, ready to make an impression on us and help us get back to winning ways."

Words to lean on.

Look where the Rams are now. They're 4-4 headed into the bye week and legitimate playoff contenders in the lightweight NFC West, ranking as one of the league's biggest surprises considering they totaled six wins the previous three seasons during the franchise's descent into the abyss.

They've been solid on both sides of the ball. Enjoying themselves, too.

Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, son of a former professional wrestler known as Animal, busted out WWE moves in last week's victory over the Carolina Panthers. After his first interception of the year foiled a flea-flicker on the first play from scrimmage, he emulated Ric Flair. After a sack later in the game, he made a series of gestures followed by a he-man pose that aped Hulk Hogan.

"I kind of stepped my swagger up," Laurinaitis said. "You look at the Madden game and the swagger's so low, maybe they'll bump me up. Before it was a meatball flex, so you've got to liven it up a little bit."

The Rams wore 1999 throwback uniforms on Sunday to honor Isaac Bruce, a member of the Greatest Show on Turf whose No. 80 jersey was retired in a pre-game ceremony. Safety O.J. Atogwe paid tribute after nearly scoring on a clinching interception late in the game, breaking into a vintage bob 'n weave end zone celebration with cornerback Ron Bartell.

Nobody seemed to mind the penalty for illegal demonstration.

In the hours before Rams management decided not to make a waiver claim on Randy Moss on Wednesday, jokers assigned a vacant locker stall to the malcontent wide receiver by taping a sheet of paper with "MOSS" on top.

Well, most of them are having fun.

Bradford, among the midseason front-runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year, has yet to be spotted around town enjoying his oversized contract. Instead, he spends most waking hours at Rams Park getting extra tutoring.

Before the quarterback departed for his first trip home since training camp, coaches loaded his laptop with 49ers defensive video to give him a head start for next week's game at San Francisco.

In his last three games, Bradford has thrown five touchdown passes with no interceptions. Against the Panthers he had a 112 passer rating, keeping the chains moving with short accurate passing combined with Jackson's punishing carries.

"There's still a lot of things that I have to work on," Bradford said. "I have to become a much better player than I am today, but I think the fact that I've made progress from Week 1 is a positive sign.

"If I can continue that, I think good things will happen."

What does he need to work on?

"Oh, everything," the No. 1 pick said.

Coaches continually must remind themselves that Bradford is a rookie who missed most of his final college season at Oklahoma.

"He's shown that he's ahead of the scale of where a normal rookie would be, just because of the way he handles himself," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "What he does, how he performs, the interactions with players, all the things in the huddle."

Showboating is not part of the repertoire.

"He throws a touchdown pass," Laurinaitis said, "he acts like he's done it before."

The rest of the Rams have earned the right to cut up a bit, especially the handful who've been around for the dark days. Only five players are left from the 8-8 team in 2006, the franchise's last respectful record until now.

Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney expected improvement in Year 2 following a 1-15 season in which the Rams ranked at or near the bottom in most major categories. The question was how much.

"We knew we were going to be better, but that's not saying much based on last year," Devaney said in an interview with the AP. "We were anxious like everybody else just to see how much."

Enough to get fans back on their feet in the Edward Jones Dome, where the last three home games of 2009 not only failed to sell out, but were the three puniest attendance figures since the franchise moved from the West Coast in 1995. After an opening-day loss to the Cardinals extended their home losing streak to 15, they've won four in a row.

They're still wooing back a wary fan base, meeting NFL sellout requirements with crowds about 12,000 shy of capacity during the streak. But the environment is getting livelier every week.

"Until you start winning games and validating what you're talking about, it doesn't mean a hill of beans saying that you're better," Devaney said. "We knew early in the season we were going to have to start winning some games to back up us telling people 'We're getting there, we're getting there.'

"Winning games, there's nothing like it."

While Bradford and Jackson have designated interview slots each week, stingy play from a defense minus any huge names has been just as important and might earn some defensive players similar privileges. Tackle Fred Robbins and linebacker Na'il Diggs were brought in to add veteran leadership, but players and coaches believe system familiarity is largely responsible for the improvements.

Opponents are converting only 36 percent on third down against a unit that blitzes often from all angles, but can be effective with a vanilla four-man rush, too. Chris Long, the second pick overall in 2008, is enjoying his best season after being moved full-time to left end and has 4½ sacks, plus had a key fumble recovery on Sunday. James Hall is among the league leaders with 6½ sacks.

"You have a better, I guess, sense of coming together and really understanding each other," Laurinaitis said. "That's all it is."

Hurdles remain for a franchise unaccustomed to playing in meaningful November games. Until pulling away from Carolina last week they'd been busts in the second half, getting outscored 76-45. They're 0-3 on the road, two of the setbacks by a combined five points and a third that is the Rams' lone stinker, a 44-6 blowout at Detroit in Week 6.

It's a work in progress. And one that for a change can savor its break.

"It's not successful yet to me," Spagnuolo said. "This is a good beginning, first half of the season, etc., etc. We're in the thick of things. We've put ourselves in the thick of things."