ST. LOUIS — If the Rams stumble in September, they won’t have to look far for an excuse.
They can point to their youth, of which they have plenty. The Rams, in fact, are the NFL’s youngest team for the second season in a row. They’re almost young enough for coach Jeff Fisher to need to collect parents’ permission slips. The average age on the 53-man roster is a mere 25 years, 183 days, according to Stats.com. (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Seattle and Buffalo complete the top five; all will start the season with an average age younger than 26.)
The Rams list 12 rookies and 14 second-year players on their roster. For Sunday’s opener against Arizona, eight first- or second-year players will be in the starting lineup, including three rookies — receiver Tavon Austin, linebacker Alex Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald.
Four of the team’s six linebackers are rookies, including three — Ray Ray Armstrong, Darren Bates and Jonathan Stewart — who made the team as undrafted free agents. Three of the four starters in the secondary have no more than a season’s experience.
Austin Pettis is the senior member of the receiving corps and he’s entering just his third season, his first as a full-time starter. Three of the other five receivers have yet to play in an NFL regular-season game.
The running back position is even younger, with second-year man Daryl Richardson the only one of four who has carried in an NFL game. (Isaiah Pead, also in his second season, is not on the 53-man roster because of a one-game league-mandated suspension.)
After watching all the youngsters in practice for the past few months, is Fisher ready to see how they perform when the games begin to count?
“Well, we have no choice so they’re going to play,” Fisher said after Thursday’s practice. “Unfortunately, there’s going to be some growing pains. They haven’t played in a real game and I think there will be a little more of the settling down things taking place, as opposed to getting them fired up and emotional play. It’s just like, ‘Take a deep breath and act like you’ve been here before and go out and make plays.'”
Give Fisher credit, though, for setting a tone throughout training camp that youth will not be tolerated as an excuse.
“These are young men. They’re not kids, and they’re going to be ready to play,” he said.
His message has been heard in the locker room, too. The veterans are making sure the youngsters know a mistake is a mistake, no matter how much experience you don’t have.
Sam Bradford, for example, pooh-poohed the idea that the Rams’ penalty-marred preseason could be tossed aside as youthful discretions.
“It doesn’t matter how young we are,” he said. “We still can’t make those mistakes.”
Linebacker James Laurinaitis is attempting to turn the youth into a positive.
“They bring an energy and youth about them that’s a great thing,” he said. “Will they make mistakes? Sure. But veteran players make mistakes. I still make mistakes.”
Another advantage of relying on a young player — especially in the season opener — is that the opposition doesn’t know what to expect. Arizona not only will be facing the dynamic Austin for the first time, it has little more than a clue about how the Rams might deploy him.
“So you have to get ready for some things,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said in a conference call with St. Louis media. “Knowing (offensive coordinator) Brian (Schottenheimer) a little, there’ll be some Wildcat with him. There’ll be some other things, but he is a dynamic player.”
While the Rams are youngest at the skill positions, most of their experience is where teams ideally want it: on the lines. There will be no rookies starting on either line. On offense, right tackle Rodger Saffold is the least experienced starter and he’s heading into his fifth season. The defensive line isn’t quite as seasoned, but two of the four starters — end Chris Long and tackle Kendall Langford — are entering year six.
“Like coach Fisher says, you really try to be strong on the offensive and defensive lines,” veteran center Scott Wells said. “You control the trenches, it gives you a lot of opportunities to be successful as a team. We have veteran guys on the offensive line and we have some veteran guys on the D-line.”
For the rookies, Sunday will be more than a season opener. It also will mark their career opener as NFL players. Wells, who broke in with the Packers in 2004, spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad and did not make his debut until December. Ten seasons later, he remembers it well.
“Against the Lions late in the season at Lambeau (Field) and it was freezing,” he said Thursday. “They had Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson as their interior D-linemen, so I had some big bodies. It went well and we won and I graded out well.”
The key, he said, was listening to the veterans.
“They really tried to simplify things for me,” Wells said, “by saying, ‘Don’t do too much. Focus on your job. Don’t do somebody else’s job. Do your job.’ If everybody does their job well, the team as a whole should have success.”
And that, for the young as well as the old, is the surest way to avoid excuses.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.