ST. LOUIS – The start was subtle, almost nondescript after seven months of anticipation. But this transition will be judged on substance, not style, and the 17-year veteran coach of change carried on the only way he knew how.
Jeff Fisher stood between two fields 10 minutes before the start of his first training camp as the St. Louis Rams’ new leader. He gestured toward the horizon, and he chatted with players who had filed from the locker room. This day, he knew, made him feel like a rookie again.
An air horn sounded, cutting through a cooler-than-expected Sunday afternoon at Rams Park. With it, a journey that will include growth for Fisher as well as his franchise began. There were claps from fans behind a steel fence. There were cheers. There were some who wore dark-blue jerseys honoring the Rams’ past and present – names like Faulk and Bruce, Bradford and Laurinaitis that served as reminders that winning football has happened in St. Louis and can return.
“Every training camp felt like my first one,” Fisher said later, after the two-hour session. “I’m very excited about this.”
Sunday was a moment for excitement, a chance to forget about the bad (no playoff appearances since the 2004 season) and the ugly (a 15-65 record over the past five campaigns) that have accompanied fall in this baseball-crazed town far too long. It was a moment to remember that turnarounds don’t occur in one day or, usually, a single season or two or three. It was a moment to remember building takes time.
Sure, the Rams must be patient. But with training camp comes optimism: There’s a sense that they have their man to deliver a winning campaign for the first time since going 12-4 in 2003.
Don’t expect a “Greatest Show on Turf” rerun this year though. There are too many unknowns, like a leaky offensive line that surrendered a league-high 55 sacks last season.
Still, Fisher offers hope after the dreadful Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo years. He offers credibility – a 142-120 career regular-season record with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans that included six playoffs berths, four division championships and a Super Bowl appearance after the 1999 season.
Above all, he offers a chance to believe.
“I think the greatest thing about coach Fisher is he is confident, and he’s so confident he doesn’t feel like he has to come out and give us a bunch of lip service every meeting or every practice,” said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who added that a left ankle sprain sustained in a Week 6 loss to the Green Bay Packers last season has healed. “He doesn’t say much, but when he speaks everyone listens, because we all understand if he’s saying something it’s for a reason and it’s extremely important. I think his natural vibe, his calmness, his confidence rubs off on everyone.”
That confidence was constant throughout Sunday’s practice. During drills, Fisher walked a short distance behind the offense, a model of composure.
Responses like, “Ohhhh!” and “Nice catch!” and “There you go, Danny (Amendola)!” that lifted from the crowd and players on the sideline were met with a nod or a blank stare from the coach.
Remember, Fisher has lived the preseason grind too many times before to be surprised. He exchanged quiet words with chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and general manager Les Snead early in the session. Later, he gave simple commands like, “First down, left hash!” His assistants, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis – who have 41 years of NFL coaching experience between them – barked his orders between repetitions.
“It seems that Coach Fisher has put together an absolutely stellar staff,” Rams running back Steven Jackson said. “There’s a lot of knowledge amongst those guys. On top of that, he does a good job of feeling the chemistry of a team and piecing it together. There have been a few examples already within a day of how he takes control and asks guys for input on certain things.”
What Jackson saw was a glimpse of a culture change that Fisher insists is months old. In the offseason, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, St. Louis’ headline free-agent signing this past winter, denied that the Rams are remaking themselves under a man who spent part of his year away from the NFL climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. In reality, though, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Someone must do it. After all, Fisher’s job requires a climb of another kind. Linehan, a proven offensive coordinator, and Spagnuolo, an accomplished defensive coordinator, came to St. Louis without previous head-coaching experience. Eventually, the former rising stars flamed out, and both are to blame for the Rams’ spiral the past six seasons.
Enter Fisher, who cracked Sunday that most of the 1,602 in attendance came to watch the unrestricted free agents signed in the offseason. Yes, he’s a reason to hope that competent football will be played at the Edward Jones Dome soon. But let’s also use caution: His most recent victory in the playoffs happened way back in January 2004, and he last led a team to a winning season when the Titans went 13-3 in 2008.
So are Fisher’s best days long gone? Or does he have another climb left?
“We’re just carrying on,” Fisher said. “We’re just going to carry on. Our challenge today was to have the best first day of training camp that we possibly could. I thought it was a good practice. Tomorrow, we’ve got to add to today and we just take it one day at a time.”
It’s a simple, subtle approach. And this early in the reconstruction, it’s perfect for the Rams.