ST. LOUIS – Chris Long is in transition. Not long ago, the St. Louis Rams’ premier defensive end was a rookie fascination. Not long ago, he was the second-overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft with famous family ties to complement his promising size and speed.
He was Chris Long, the unproven-but-gifted son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. He was Chris Long, the consensus All-American from Virginia who called the moment the Rams selected him the best of his life. He was Chris Long, the low-risk pass rusher whom then-St. Louis coach Scott Linehan viewed as a “no-brainer” to pick the night the Santa Monica, Calif., native became a centerpiece of the Rams’ future at defensive line.
Long remains so – only he’s more seasoned after 64 games, with 149 tackles and 30 ½ sacks for his career. On Tuesday after a minicamp session, he looked toward an empty practice field at Rams Park and considered the passing of time. In three months, St. Louis will begin a season of renewal, and he’ll be trusted to provide veteran leadership in the Rams’ first campaign under coach Jeff Fisher.
“It reminds you that time flies,” Long said of becoming a veteran. “Honestly, it has been a blur – more luckily than anything, because we have lost a lot. So it’s not a bad thing that time has flown by. But it also reminds you that you have to make the most of every opportunity.”
Yes, Long’s wiser with each flip of the calendar, and he has evolved into someone who’s known for production rather than potential. This fall, at age 27, he’ll be the oldest member of a skilled line that includes free-agent pickup Kendall Langford, a defensive tackle formerly of the Miami Dolphins, and fresh faces like defensive end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Michael Brockers – both first-round selections from the past two years who represent promise like he once did.
For Long, though, his outlook has changed. The future has arrived.
“Before I know it, hopefully if I’m lucky, I’ll be an eight-year guy,” he said. “I’ll be looking back like, ‘Where did the last four years go?’ I have to work hard and take advantage of all my opportunities.”
Small moments have marked large change within the Rams this offseason. That’s important to remember when understanding how Long has moved on from last season, when he earned a career-high 13 sacks.
There’s the command Fisher projects at Rams Park as a 17-year veteran. There’s the message sent from locker-room leaders when speaking about the new staff, like when running back Steven Jackson said Tuesday, “You can definitely tell a difference in leadership, a difference in confidence. It’s not so much of on-the-job training.” There’s the credibility that came with Fisher’s hire, an announcement that helped Long focus on continuing his growth.
“It feels good to know if we handle our business as players, he’s definitely going to handle his business as a coach, because he has been doing it for so long, and he has exhibited he knows how to do it,” Long said of Fisher. “It’s a reassuring thing that you’re going to get an honest shake at it.”
The feeling is mutual. Fisher has compared Long to Kyle Vanden Bosch, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions who played for the Tennessee Titans from 2005 to 2009. Like Vanden Bosch, Long has earned a reputation for being relentless, and it shows in the 6-foot-3, 270-pound player’s steady improvement as a pass rusher: Long had four sacks as a rookie, five in his second year and 8 ½ in this third before the breakout season last fall. Meanwhile, he has 122 solo tackles for his career.
“I think Chris has been more comfortable with who he is as a player,” said Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had 105 tackles and three sacks last season. “I think he realizes what his strengths are, and he’s focused on perfecting those things. You can see it in the limited numbers of opportunities he had to pass rush last year with how much we were behind in games. He took advantage of them. … Last year, he didn’t sneak up on anybody. He got even better. I think that’s a testament to his work ethic. In the NFL, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. He’s gotten better every year, and I hope he continues to do so.”
With that improvement, though, comes knowledge that he must continue growing to preserve his future in the league. It’s part of the NFL’s cycle: Long learned how to be a trusted professional by observing former Rams stars James Hall and Leonard Little.
Veterans mentor the young, youth always replaces the old, and the evolution continues for each player until retirement.
Now, Long finds himself on the opposite side of that maxim. He has become an example to young players like Quinn and Brockers. It’s a role Long has tried to embrace while keeping ambitious goals for himself.
“My bar is always high,” Long said. “I want to get better and better. Whatever I did last year, I want to play a lot better football. I’m not talking about from a numbers standpoint. I’m talking from a football standpoint. At the end of the year, hopefully, I would be able to tell that I’ve become a better player.”
Long lets his mind wander a bit when speaking about the future. He sees a lot of potential in the Rams’ defensive line, and he’s eager to watch it develop.
Still, a question remains that will reveal much about the Rams’ success this season: How good can this young group of pass rushers be?
“We can be really good,” Long said. “We have a lot of speed. Robert Quinn looks really good right now. If he keeps working hard, the sky’s the limit for him. I’ve always thought that, and I think he’s on the cusp of being a pretty good player in this league. He’s got to go out and put it together. If guys like him take the next step, the sky’s the limit. If I take my next step, if we all try to take this next step, we can try to be tone-setters for this team.”
Long has shown that ability. His three-sack performance in a stunning victory over the New Orleans Saints last October was a highlight in an otherwise dreary final season under former coach Steve Spagnuolo. That afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome, Long showed that he’s a maturing star who’s creating his own legacy removed from his famous father.
“Chris, he’s one of those lead-by-example guys,” Fisher said. “He goes and goes and goes. When you play that hard consistently play after play after play, you make plays. Young guys look up to you that way, and you can establish a standard of play on the defensive line.”
Fisher has tried to spark that spirit in others by challenging his defensive line to make history this season. He has said he wants the group to break the NFL record of 72 sacks set by the Chicago Bears in 1984.
Consider: St. Louis had 39 sacks last season, tied for 15th in the league. Most likely, the gap will be too large to overcome to set a new standard. Still, the request shows how much faith Fisher has in Long and others on the defensive line.
The trust is warranted. In an offseason of transition for the emerging defensive end, Long is eager to show that last season was little more than Act One.
“Last year, he turned it on real big,” said Quinn, who finished with five sacks and 23 tackles as a rookie. “Just making the O-linemen terrified of you – when you do that, you’ve got the winning edge. It’s definitely something I saw that he did last year.”