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NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - INSIDE SLANT
Snead believes Rams growing together
For the five years from 2007 through 2011, the St. Louis Rams won a total of 15 games. Fifteen. There was one seven-win season in that five-year span, so the other four seasons produced a total of eight victories. Eight.
It was amid that distressing picture that head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead entered in 2012 with a plan to work toward sustained success.
There were some quality players around to build around. But not a lot. Quarterback Sam Bradford. Defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Running back Steven Jackson, although he left as a free agent after the 2012 season.
Fisher and Snead made a concerted effort to get younger, although they did some wily veterans in free agency like cornerback Cortland Finnegan and center Scott Wells.
But for the most part, the goal was to build through the draft, a task helped by the picks acquired from the Washington Redskins for the second selection in the 2012 draft.
The final payment from that deal will be made in May when the Rams will have the Redskins' first-round choice, the second overall pick in the draft.
It's what has Snead even more excited as he contemplates adding to the foundation that has been building with one of the youngest rosters in the league.
The Rams were 7-8-1 in 2012 and 7-9 this past season, competing in what has become the toughest division in pro football.
While there will be another rookie class and probably a free agent or two, Snead is a general believer in teams getting better by having players improve.
Describing what it's like at the Rams Park facility, Snead said, "You could feel the youth. As that group gets experience, it will get better. You have to have a foundation. You have to be together and grow together.
"Yes, we were inconsistent. But to be inconsistent with a roster that was the youngest in the league, you can see we're headed in the right direction. And we have the chance to be the youngest again (in 2014)."
The 2013 season was one marked by a 1-3 start where the offense was striving for an identity. That began emerging after a desultory 35-11 home loss to San Francisco in Week 4, a Thursday night game.
With some extra days to regroup, the Rams faced Jacksonville at home 10 days later with rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy at running back.
Stacy turned out to be a godsend, and became the epitome of what Fisher loves in an offense. His grinding style gained yards, gave the offensive line a purpose, and it was able to help withstand the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford for the season in a Week 7 loss to Carolina.
The offensive plan also served to work the clock, and helped the defense rise from 29th in the league in rushing defense after a Week 9 loss to Tennessee to ninth by the end of the season.
That the Rams were able to be 4-5 with a backup quarterback and with four of the losses coming against division opponents is what provides hope.
While it is often said that entering rookies make their biggest jump in their second season, Snead says, "Year 1 to year 3 is when you become men."
He also believes that third year is the key one for teams that make massive changes after a coaching and philosophical change.
During the season, he said, "If you look at all the teams that build something that lasts -- even the 49ers under Bill Walsh -- it's usually somewhere in Year Three that they catch on and get in their window."
The Rams expect the window will open in 2014, although it becomes even tougher in the NFC West.
Snead concluded, "It's nice being in a division where it's relevant. It's not like we're in the Sun Belt Conference."
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - NOTES, QUOTES
--Rams coach Jeff Fisher Fisher said he consulted with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before hiring Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator.
"I had a conversation with the commissioner who not only endorsed Gregg, but felt that (hiring) Gregg would be a good move," Fisher said at a press conference to formally introduce Williams.
Reports last month indicated that Williams would be returning to St. Louis after he was set to take over the defense in 2012 until he was suspended for a year by the NFL for his part on the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
Williams takes over two weeks after Fisher made the decision to fire Tim Walton.
Fisher said when he reached out to Williams, he knew full well that some fences would need mending. During the two years apart, Fisher and Williams rarely spoke. Fisher also had fired Williams' son, Blake, as linebackers coach after the 2012 season.
"We spent several days together, discussing the past, putting the past behind us, discussing the present and the future and direction of where we wanted to go with our defense," Fisher said. "Gregg and I came to terms with a lot of things."
Williams was asked how he and Fisher patched things up between them.
"Those are things that are between Jeff and I," he said.
Williams returned to the league last year and worked on the Tennessee Titans' staff as a senior assistant/defense before head coach Mike Munchak was fired in January.
Williams and Fisher previously worked together for six years with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans. Williams was Fisher's defensive coordinator for four of those seasons.
The Rams' defense finished 13th in the NFL in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed during the 2013 season, but opponents' 68.1 completion percentage was tied for the worst in the league.
"Gregg was my first choice and Tim was my second," Fisher said. "And I had a chance to go get my first choice. That was it. It had nothing to do with Tim. When you sit in my seat at the end of the hall, often times there are some very difficult decisions that need to be made, and that was one of the more difficult decisions that I've made."
Williams is comfortable being reunited with Fisher.
"The fact that there's a great familiarity with us, but realize this -- it's been 14 years since we've been together," Williams said. "It's been 14 seasons we've competed against each other. It's fun to be back with people who think and believe the same way you are, so now you get a chance to spend more time with the players because you're spending less time having to sell or defend yourself with your staff before you ever get with the players."
Williams said he maintained hope that he could one day take the job he briefly had in 2012.
"I've always thought that this was a possibility," Williams said. "I've always thought that this was a great place to be."
Williams also called talk that he stole a playbook as "a joke."
Former NFL defensive end Renaldo Wynn said Williams told him that the Titans had Jacksonville's playbook and used it to prepare to beat the Jaguars in the 1999 AFC Championship Game. Wynn later backtracked on that claim.
"That was really a joke story," Williams said. "That was a joke, to me."
Williams said he compares notes on playbooks from around the league with other coaches, and that he has a large collection of old playbooks.
"I do collect playbooks," Williams said. "I love to see what other people call a term that you use. We understand football and don't need anybody else's playbooks."
--Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher steadfastly stand behind quarterback Sam Bradford as who the offense will be built around and have confidence he will be ready for the start of training camp. Bradford suffered a torn ACL against Carolina on Oct. 20
Said Snead, "We have every reason to believe from the doctor's reports that he will be ready for training camp. But we won't put a false time line on it."
Asked whether there's the possibility he could be ready to do some work in OTAs, which begin in May, Snead said, "That would be unwise. We don't want to push it. There might be the chance of doing a little, but it's more important to give him that one or two more months."
While the narrative continues that the Rams should consider selecting a quarterback with the second pick in the draft, whether it's to replace Bradford or have a younger option available if Bradford's health falters, Snead said, "As we've said, Sam's our starting QB. And maybe that's too way out of the box to take a QB that high."
It is expected, however, that they will consider adding a quarterback in the second through fourth rounds, especially if they are able to trade down from the second pick in the draft and acquire extra choices.
--Some of the most important decisions the Rams will make in the offseason are on the offensive line. Rodger Saffold, who started at three different positions and showed that guard might be his best position, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency.
Starting left guard Chris Williams and backup guard Shelley Smith are also unrestricted. Left tackle Jake Long will be rehabbing from ACL surgery, while center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl have significant salaries.
Asked about the plan for the line, Snead said, "That's what the offseason is for. We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."
Talking about Long and Saffold, Snead added, "One will be a rehab situation; one is an unrestricted free agent. Of any group I was most proud of, it was that group this year. I have a heart for offensive linemen because that's your basketball team. It's not just one great player. It's five guys working together."
The question with Saffold might be value, considering his injury history and if the Rams can offer him enough to stay if their plan is to play him at guard.
Snead noted that the league has changed from the days where only left tackles got paid.
He said, "I think today in the NFL, it's not like it (once was). Now you see right tackles getting paid if they're really good, you see guards getting paid if they're really good. A lot of teams probably, it's not utopia so your best two players might be your right tackle and right guard so those teams usually pay them. I think it's a little broader now."
--Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, suspended for the first four games of the season, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
Asked if he wants to stay with the Rams, Dunbar replied succinctly, "Absolutely."
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Rams left tackle Jake Long underwent reconstructive surgery recently on his knee. Long was injured in the Rams' Week 16 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers on Dec. 22.
Long's right knee buckled while pass-blocking and tests later revealed that he had a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) as well as a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL). Surgery was delayed until the MCL healed.
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March:
--QB Kellen Clemens.
--LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
--S Matt Giordano.
--QB Brady Quinn.
--T/G Rodger Saffold.
--G Shelley Smith.
--S Darian Stewart.
--G Chris Williams.
--LB Will Witherspoon.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Sam Bradford (injured reserve). Backups -- Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis. Injured reserve: Brady Quinn.
Bradford was making solid progress when the running game finally got going in Week 5, but then suffered a torn ACL two weeks later and was lost for the season. His passer rating was over 111 in the three games after the Rams lost three of their first four games. Clemens kept the ship upright taking over for Bradford, but struggled in games against tough defenses when the ground game also had issues. Bradford had 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in the seven games he played, while Clemens had eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions in nine games. Davis was cut at the end of training camp and brought back after Bradford was injured. Quinn was also signed following Bradford's injury, but practiced one week before injuring his back and ending up on injured reserve. The Rams believe Bradford will be ready for the start of training camp.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Zac Stacy. Backups -- Benny Cunningham, Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, Chase Reynolds.
Stacy had just one rushing attempt in the first four games of the season before being given the opportunity to start in Week 5 against Jacksonville. He cemented his hold on the job with a tough running style that isn't fancy but is effective. He fell just short of 1,000 yards with 973 and had 250 carries, an average of just under 21 per game in those he started. Cunningham ascended to the No. 2 job, and showed quickness whenever he replaced Stacy, averaging 5.6 yards per attempt while gaining 261 yards. Pead rarely played on offense, but did contribute on special teams in the second half of the season. Richardson opened the season as the starter, but injured his foot in that game and was rarely active for the rest of the season. Reynolds was on the roster only for special teams.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jared Cook. Backups -- Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Mike McNeill.
Cook didn't produce the huge numbers that perhaps some expected after he joined the team in free agency, but he did finish the season as the team's leading receiver with 51 receptions for 671 yards and five touchdowns. He did improve as a blocker as the season progressed. Kendricks did a good job as a blocker and had four touchdown catches, tied for second on the team. Harkey also contributed as a blocker, and made some plays in the passing game. McNeill was mostly used on special teams.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Backups -- Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick, Justin Veltung.
Givens seemed to take a step back from his rookie 2012 season, but some of the evaluation of receivers is skewed by Bradford's injury and the fact that pass attempts went down with Clemens under center, especially in games where the running game was working well. Givens did average 16.7 yards per catch, but had only 34 and never found the end zone all season. Pettis played more in the beginning of the season than in the second half although he did get more snaps in the final few weeks. The Rams had difficulty early getting the ball in Austin's hands in space, and his 10.5-yard average was hiked by an 81-yard touchdown play. He missed the final three games of the season because of an ankle injury. Quick had a strong average per catch (16.8), but had just 18 receptions. The Rams believe his third season could be the one where he begins to make a bigger impact. Bailey was a standout on special teams in the first half of the season, and then started seeing the field more on offense late in the season. There was enough improvement to believe he can be a much larger factor in 2014. Veltung was added to the roster to return punts when Austin was injured.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jake Long, LG Chris Williams, C Scott Wells, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Joe Barksdale. Backups -- T/G Rodger Saffold, G Shelley Smith, C Tim Barnes, C Barrett Jones, T Mike Person, G Brandon Washington. Injured reserve: T Graham Pocic.
This unit saw changing parts throughout the season. Long was stout most of the season, but then suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 against Tampa Bay. Williams was the only lineman to start all 16 games, and he was solid all season. Wells started the first 12 games and was the anchor of the unit as the running game excelled. However, a foot injury knocked him out for the final four games. Dahl started only nine games and was also shelved by a knee injury. Barksdale also started 12 games and showed coaches enough that he might be the future at the position. Saffold was the jack-of-all-trades. He started the first two games of the season at right tackle before a knee injury put him on the sideline for four weeks. When he returned, he shared time with Barskdale until Dahl was injured. Saffold then started five games at right guard and showed the coaching staff that might be his best postion because of his athleticism and ability to pull. When Long went out, Saffold started the season finale at left tackle. For the season, he played 12 games, and started nine at three different positions. Smith was a serviceable backup, and started one game at right guard. Barnes started the final four games after Wells was injured. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, was active for the final four games after Wells' injury. He improved his strength during the season and will need to do more of that in the offseason.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DRE Robert Quinn, DRT Michael Brockers, DLT Kendall Langford, DLE Chris Long. Backups -- E William Hayes, E Eugene Sims, E Sammy Brown, T Jermelle Cudjo, T Matt Conrath.
A candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Quinn was simply a game-changer. He affected game plans and was often unblockable. In addition to his 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles, he also improved greatly against the run. Long was his usual relentless self, and an excellent bookend to Quinn with 8.5 sacks. Brockers and Langford were stout inside and helped the Rams improve to ninth against the run and they allowed only 3.7 yards per rush. They also had 5.5 and 5.0 sacks, respectively. Hayes is an excellent rotation end and also added 5.0 sacks. Sims is able to play outside and inside and can be disruptive. Cudjo and Conrath were OK as depth tackles, but the Rams might want to upgrade there in the offseason.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Alec Ogletree, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Backups -- OLB Ray Ray Armstrong, OLB Will Witherspoon, OLB Daren Bates. Injured reserve: Phillip Steward.
Ogletree, as a rookie, wrestled the tackle title away from Laurinaitis with 155, including 122 solo. He got better and better each week and had six passes defensed. Laurinaitis was still consistent and had 144 tackles, eight passes defensed and 3.5 sacks. Dunbar missed the first four games of the season because of a league suspension, but his return helped the run defense improve in the second half of the season. The remainder of the linebackers were mainly used on special teams. Armstrong developed into one of the team's best special teams players as long as he avoided penalties. Witherspoon was signed at the start of training camp when news of the Dunbar suspension hit, and he rarely played once Dunbar returned.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Trumaine Johnson, RCB Janoris Jenkins, FS Rodney McLeod, SS T.J. McDonald. Backups -- CB Brandon McGee, CB Quinton Pointer, S Darian Stewart, S Matt Giordano, S Cody Davis. Injured reserve: CB Cortland Finnegan, S Matt Daniels.
The numbers didn't look particularly good for the pass defense, but the Rams played some top quarterbacks and the group was extraordinarily young, especially after Finnegan was lost for the season. There were those that believed Jenkins regressed from his rookie season, but he was put in situations that challenged him because of his ability. There were plays made against him, but he also held out well much of the time. Johnson showed growth from his rookie season, is good in coverage and most of the time in run support. McDonald started as a rookie and after missing seven games because of a broken bone in his leg, came back to start the final five games. McLeod started all 16 games and while he's not a difference-maker, he doesn't make many mistakes. McGee looks like a player that will improve with more playing time. He's very smart and should benefit from an offseason. Stewart will be an unrestricted free agent, as is Giordano. Finnegan will likely have to take a pay cut to return. Daniels has shown promise each of his two seasons with the team, but has been on injured reserve both years.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Greg Zuerlein, P Johnny Hekker, LS Jake McQuaide, KOR/PR Tavon Austin, KOR Benny Cunningham, PR Justin Veltung.
Zuerlein missed only two field-goal attempts all season and was third in the league in touchbacks with 67.5 percent. Hekker was named first-team All-Pro after setting an NFL record with a net average of 44.2 yards. Only 30 of his 78 punts were returned, and for a total of 79 yards, the fewest in the NFL. He had just four touchbacks and 19 punts inside the 20. McQuaide was automatic. Austin struggled somewhat to find running room on punt returns, although he did have several long runs called back by penalties. He had an electric 98-yard touchdown return and finished with an 8.5-yard average.