ST. LOUIS – Austin Davis stands near his locker and speaks about making the most of opportunity. There were many who doubted the undrafted rookie free agent would reach this point, preparing as the St. Louis Rams’ No. 2 quarterback four days before the season opener against the Detroit Lions. His work has only begun.
Around him, game-week bustle at Rams Park is underway. Some players walk with a brisk pace toward a shower area. Others change from sweaty practice gear into fresh shorts and T-shirts for the rest of Wednesday afternoon.
Davis is part of coach Jeff Fisher’s vision to rebuild, and it’s somewhat a surprise to him. He was signed in May as part of a group that included returners Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens and Tom Brandstater. Now, Clemens and Brandstater have been cut – the pair had eight years of NFL experience between them – and the 23-year-old is one ankle twist or a crushing hit away from taking the field.
“I look at it as once you’re here, you’re here and everybody is in the same boat – drafted or undrafted, veteran, first-year guy,” Davis says. “It doesn’t matter.”
Davis is still coming to terms with his role. He took most of the third-team snaps in training camp while Clemens, who played under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for five seasons with the New York Jets, led the second team as the presumed favorite for the backup spot.
But Davis showed more command in the preseason. As a result, Rams coaches made a surprise move last Friday by releasing Clemens and keeping the Southern Mississippi product as Bradford’s lone reserve for the moment.
Davis’ situation is an example of maximizing chance. He earned a spot on the 53-man roster as part of Fisher’s youth movement, but he’s not satisfied. He knows he must be ready to lead a huddle at any time.
“I don’t think there was a particular moment where I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to make the team,'” Davis says. “But I came to work and worked hard and hoped for the best.”
The news reminded him that there are aspects of NFL life beyond his control. Davis sat with Bradford and other offensive personnel at an upscale St. Louis steakhouse when he learned from an Internet report that the Rams chose to keep him. The development gave him pause.
“Very surprised, to be honest with you,” Davis says now.
Davis – who broke Brett Favre’s career passing record at Southern Mississippi with 10,892 yards – had pushed for the No. 2 position throughout August. He and Clemens faced varying levels of talent in four preseason games, but the rookie finished with 220 yards passing with one interception and a completion percentage of 64.7. Meanwhile, Clemens threw for 146 yards with one touchdown and one interception and a completion percentage of 60.6.
Given his history with Schottenheimer, Clemens was considered a lock at the start of training camp to backup Bradford. Quickly, though, the veteran had accuracy issues. He often overthrew targets in practice sessions, sometimes tossing balls into a tented area designated for fans.
Meanwhile, Davis showed superior poise for a rookie. He was often smooth in the pocket with his 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame, a trait that became more distinct as Clemens strained. Others around Davis noticed his command.
“I knew he always handled his business and did well,” Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson says. “Cuts came down, and he made it in.”
Adds wide receiver Brian Quick: “He makes plays in practice. That’s what it’s going to take. It translates to the field on game day when he has the opportunity.”
Still, Clemens’ departure introduced a paradox. Davis’ relationship with the veteran leader had matured in recent weeks. Davis called Clemens, “My guy,” and the young quarterback had gained lessons about the West Coast-like system by quizzing the older player.
The give-and-take between the two was similar to other connections throughout the NFL. Eventually, youth replaces experience. As it turned out, Clemens trained his replacement.
“We began to form a good friendship,” Davis says. “He helped me a lot. He knows this offense better than probably anybody in this locker room. It was going well. I was trying to learn everything from him – the way he carried himself, the way he led as a backup. All those things were important and a reason he has been successful in this league a long time.”
Davis remembers poignant advice from Clemens. Once, Clemens told him, “There are a lot of things in this business you can’t control. But do the best and worry about the things you can.”
Those words seem appropriate as Davis stands near his locker to the immediate right of Clemens’ former spot. The label, “10 CLEMENS” hangs above the stall. A pair of blue flip-flops with “10” etched on the back rim in black marker sits in a bottom cubbyhole.
The Rams have moved on. So has Clemens.
“We don’t know answers,” Davis says, “and we can’t control those things.”
Activity in the Rams locker room is a curious mix of old and new. There’s fifth-year defensive end Chris Long talking about placing faith in the franchise after five consecutive losing seasons. There’s rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins talking about facing two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson on Sunday at Ford Field. There’s Bradford, now in his third year, talking about the promise Davis has shown since arriving at Rams Park in the spring.
“I think he has a shot to be a good quarterback,” Bradford says. “Hopefully, we don’t see much of him on the field – that would mean something bad has happened to me. If he does get in there, I’m sure he’ll handle it, and he’ll play well.”
The comments receive a few snickers from the media scrum, but there’s legitimate concern found in those words. Davis has shown skill in the preseason against mostly third-team defensive personnel. But how will he fare against an opponent’s top unit – operating within a quicker pace no less?
Are worries about having an undrafted rookie free agent backup quarterback warranted?
“It doesn’t matter who you are in this locker room – first-year guy, fifth-year guy, old vet – you’ve got to be ready to play when your number is called,” Davis says. “At this point, we hope Sam stays healthy. We hope I never see the field, because he gives us the best chance to win. He’s our starting quarterback, and he’s that for a reason. My job is to keep him prepared, and if your number is called, go in and give your team a chance to win.”
For now, the Rams trust Bradford to stay healthy, despite concerns about lingering effects from a high left ankle sprain sustained last season. Still, Davis’ chance is part of a reconstruction that values youth. There are 17 rookies on the roster, and the Rams are the NFL’s youngest team with an average age younger than 26. So St. Louis’ plan includes faith in the future. But there’s uncertainty too.
“He’s got to be prepared to play,” Fisher says of Davis. “He knows what to do. … He’s paying close attention to it, and if called upon, he’ll be ready.”
Be ready. Davis embraced the approach when he entered training camp as a long shot to unseat Clemens. He knows the approach can lead far – as long as he allows himself to believe.
“Make the most of your opportunity,” Davis says. “Once you get to this locker room and you get to go through OTAs as an undrafted player, you’re still here. And you’re still getting evaluated like everybody else.”