Since 2003, the St. Louis Rams have a record of 44-99-1 without a single winning-season or playoff berth to boast about. Six head coaches in total, including interim coaches, have failed to overcome the first hurdle on the way to a second Super Bowl victory since 1999. The Rams quickly went from the greatest show on turf to being one of the worst teams in the league, and now they look set to finally drag themselves out of that whole.
Jake Long, Jared Cook, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy, Tavon Austin. We have all heard about the new faces who are expected to elevate the Rams back to relevance, but like any team, the contributions of every player who sees the field will be pivotal.
The Rams have their obvious weaknesses on paper, they need someone to claim the left guard position as their own, Rodger Saffold needs to transition quickly to right tackle, a free agent safety or two could still arrive. However, Jeff Fisher has made a concentrated effort to develop a culture of winning where young players can flourish since he arrived last off-season.
It’s not easy to explain on paper, but if you watch the Rams of 2011 and compare them to the Rams of 2012, there is clearly something different that goes further than individual talent.
Every player on the field played with an aggression and passion that portrayed them as confident in their own abilities, those traits were previously non-existent as the team respected their opposition too much to the point of fearing them. A big reason for that was the addition of Cortland Finnegan from the Tennessee Titans. Finnegan had played under Fisher for six years. He had always been a fiery character, but as his career developed he turned from fighting Andre Johnson on the field to using that aggression to set a positive tone for the Titans.
Even in just his first season, Finnegan’s impact on the defense was obvious. The Rams weren’t devout of veterans who appeared to be committed to winning, Chris Long, Kendall Langford who arrived as a free agent and James Laurinaitis would all be considered leaders, but none carried the same aura and authority of Finnegan.
The Rams’ secondary made plays last year, but they also repeatedly gave up big plays. Too often we analyse that as a negative without considering the overall impact of the style. Finnegan infused this aggression through his young teammates and this will set the tone for youngsters Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Johnson and Jenkins were developing last year, Jenkins was thrown into the fire from the beginning as a starter, so even though they gave up big plays, it’s better to set a tone, direction of belief and aggression so they develop towards their potential and they can be everything they need to be on the field.
Every position in the league needs some level of ego, but defensive backs in particular do. Darrelle Revis has been somewhat of a diva when it comes to his contract over the last few years, because he has to thoroughly believe that he is the best in the business if he is to continue to play on that lonely island. Richard Sherman is never shy about showing off his ego, going as far as seeking out Tom Brady after a victory to gloat or clapping when a receiver beats him in coverage.
This trait can be destructive if it’s let loose, but in a controlled environment with a culture that is inclined towards winning and nothing else, it’s what creates champions.
Fisher is definitely attempting to create that environment. During just his second game of his Rams’ career, Jackson appeared to bench long-time face of the franchise Steven Jackson for a personal foul penalty. Jackson spiked the ball after being stopped short of the goal-line in the second quarter, he wouldn’t receive another touch in the game.
Had any Rams’ coach done that in the past, the whole offense likely would have faltered. However, Fisher isn’t in the business of putting one player ahead of the team. By doing that to Jackson, he created accountability for every single player and more importantly, showed that every player on the roster was equal when it came to winning football games. If you were hurting the team unnecessarily, you wouldn’t play.
A common trait of losing teams and cultures is pandering to individuals. Did the New England Patriots keep Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau or Wes Welker longer than they thought they could help them win just because of the names on the back of their jerseys? No. Did Mike Tannenbaum’s New York Jets marry themselves to players who were no longer helping them win with massive contracts because of some good years in the past? Yes.
Jackson left St. Louis on good terms, because both he and the Rams knew it was time to part ways. He was never appeared to be a player with a look-at-me type of ego, but his presence did somewhat make the rest of the offense rest on their laurels seemingly. Much like the Chicago Bulls’ roster elevated their game without Derrick Rose this season in the NBA, the Rams are expecting more players to step up as leaders on their offense this year to create a more balanced attack both on and off the field.
Maturity will determine whether that happens or not.
Sam Bradford is entering a make-or-break year. He finally has an offensive line that is worthy of protecting any starting quarterback in the league, even if it’s not laden with superstars. Jake Long arriving on the blindside will shift Rodger Saffold to the right-side. Saffold is entering a contract year and there were initially rumblings about him asking for a trade if moved to the right-side. Those rumblings never turned into facts, so now it will be a test of Saffold’s maturity to handle being usurped and focus on developing quickly into this new role on the offense.
While his offensive line has improved with one key addition that will have a ripple effect through the rest of the unit, the Rams have revamped their skill-position talent in order to give their young quarterback a chance at finally establishing himself as a top player at his position.
Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy will compete for Jackson’s snaps in the backfield, two second-year players with limited experience and a rookie. Jared Cook, a player who has been in the league for four years but has never been in a starting role, will take over the tight end duties from Lance Kendricks. Chris Givens must continue his development into his second year after a strong start as a rookie, but he is the veteran of the receiving corps as Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick figure to be his supporting cast.
The Rams are relying on their established culture to push these players towards maturity early in their careers. That doesn’t mean that they are forcing their development and rushing them into roles they are unprepared for, it means that they are looking to instil a winning mentality that will allow their development to move at the pace it is supposed to move at. Maturity is about eradicating distractions and focusing on your craft while being accountable for your actions on and off the field. Development is the result of that process.
Last year, Fisher wasn’t scared to push rookies into key roles on either side of the ball. Even if he felt he was forced to because of a lack of talent, he still managed to infuse those youngsters into the team with relative ease. That is something he will need to do again this year. Offensively the rookie receivers are being talked about by almost everyone, but on defense Alec Ogletree, a very raw former safety who was drafted to be a weak-side linebacker, is expected to start from Week 1, with TJ McDonald, a safety who had a quiet senior season in college, currently listed a the starting free safety.
Both players could be replaced by veterans, because the free agent market offers some options in both areas, but the likelihood is that Fisher will just roll the ball with his youngsters like he did last year.
Not only does that stress how those individuals will translate, but it also stresses the team’s leadership and patience from the supporting cast around those players. In a positive environment, those players won’t be lynched for their mistakes, but guided by the more experienced players to help them learn from them. In a negative environment, the media attention and negative reports are all that a player sees, something that can overwhelm a person and player.
So in a sense, the maturity for the rookies is only as important as the maturity for the young players on the roster who are still developing, but also taking over greater mantles of leadership in the locker-room.
If the Rams are to get the most out of the talent that they have acquired this off-season, a lack of continuity must be overcome, a standard of maturity must exist for every individual and that winning culture must continue to come from the coaching staff and veterans.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf