After wondering how the Rams would look under Jeff Fisher, the real work begins with training camp.
By ANDREW ASTLEFORDFS Midwest
ST. LOUIS – It's time for the reconstruction to produce results.
The past seven months have included a chance to wonder what the St. Louis
Rams' new era will look like under veteran coach Jeff Fisher. Since Steve Spagnuolo was dispatched in January, along with former general manager Billy Devaney, there have been steps forward (the signing of free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan and a promising draft class) and some movement back (Gregg Williams' suspension and defensive end Robert Quinn's DWI arrest). But now, in the furnace of late July and August, the real work begins.
Will training camp mark a shift in momentum? This is far from a newsflash, but Sundays have been rough in a location where "The Greatest No! on Turf" has replaced "The Greatest Show" far too often since the Rams last lived a winning regular season by going 12-4 in 2003.
That's eight campaigns with no more than eight victories. That's a stretch that has included a close-your-eyes 15-65 record over the past five seasons. That's many years when the countdown to the St. Louis Cardinals' arrival in Jupiter, Fla., to begin spring training started weeks before Thanksgiving.
So another season is here, and there are questions along with fans' and players' return to training camp Sunday at Rams Park.
The reconstruction is more than seven months old.
Now results begin.
Will Sam Bradford recover from his sophomore slump?
Blame it on the Cleveland Browns. For Bradford, continuity has been elusive since he was selected as the top overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Yes, he had a solid rookie season during which he threw for 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions operating in then-coordinator Pat Shurmur's West Coast system.
But the partnership didn't last. Soon after, the Browns hired Shurmur to replace Eric Mangini, and little went well last season for the former Heisman Trophy winner working with then-coordinator Josh McDaniels. He appeared in 10 games, limited by a high left ankle sprain sustained in a Week 6 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and he threw for a paltry 2,164 yards with six touchdowns and as many interceptions during the 2-14 campaign.
New coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, formerly of the New York Jets, has introduced a scheme similar to the one Bradford thrived within as a rookie. Little about three coordinators in as many years is ideal for the Rams' most prized asset, but Bradford must show improvement to avoid a longer slide. Another season in which St. Louis ranks anywhere near the league's bottom in scoring offense like last year (12.1 points per game) won't bode well for future confidence.
How much of a workhorse will Steven Jackson be?
He's tough, trusted and insistent that productive days are ahead. Jackson will continue to be the Rams' go-to option in the backfield this season, like most of his rugged eight-year career that has totaled 9,093 rushing yards.
That much is for certain. But how much help will he receive? St. Louis selected Isaiah Pead, a 5-foot-10, 197-pound waterbug of a runner with the 50th pick in the most recent draft. The rookie figures to add a change-of-pace option that could mean preservation of the 29-year-old star as he climbs in his career.
Still, expect Jackson to carry most of the load. He ran for 1,145 yards and five touchdowns last season – continuing a streak that includes seven consecutive campaigns with at least 1,000 yards on the ground. Consider: No other Rams runner had more than Cadillac Williams' 361 rushing yards in 2011. No other player was close – Jerious Norwood stood third on the team with 61.
Which rookie wide receiver will have the strongest year?
Youth has arrived. Appalachian State's Brian Quick, 33rd overall, and Wake Forest's Chris Givens, 96th, were drafted to help upgrade the Rams' greatest offensive need. Brandon Lloyd, now with the New England Patriots, led the team in receiving last season with 683 yards and appeared to be one of few options Sam Bradford trusted under duress.
Jeff Fisher hopes that changes this fall. Expect learning curves with both rookies. But Quick showed flashes of athleticism in offseason workouts, and Givens was praised for his speed. Any chances for improvement will be welcomed: St. Louis ranked 30th in the league in passing offense with an average of 179.4 yards per game. (Only the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars were worse in the category.)
It's obvious the coaching staff is high on Quick. Fisher considered him to be a first-round talent. And after the Rams missed out on Justin Blackmon (Jaguars) and Michael Floyd (Arizona Cardinals), the 6-foot-3, 220-pound specimen from Columbia, S.C., became a target. Givens is smaller at 6-0, 198 pounds, but he has the potential to be a quality complement to Quick.
Can Danario Alexander make the team?
Another year, more questions for DX. Alexander, a former Missouri star wide receiver, remains an emotional favorite for many Rams fans to make the 53-man roster. He has 737 yards receiving with three touchdowns in two seasons with St. Louis, where he signed as an undrafted free agent in August 2010.
Still, there are health issues. Alexander has had five surgeries on his left knee, four of which occurred in college. He also has had hamstring issues. As a result, he has appeared in only 18 games during his time with the Rams, and last season he had 26 catches for 431 yards in 10 appearances.
Alexander was thought to be one of the last players to earn a roster spot after training camp last summer. Jeff Fisher might be less understanding than Steve Spagnuolo, though, if the wide receiver can't stay on the practice field for an extended amount of time in the next month. Alexander's resilience is admirable, but his career remains fragile with Greg Salas, Steve Smith and Brandon Gibson fighting for jobs as well.
Who will emerge in the battle at left guard?
Prepare for drama. Jacob Bell was the starter last fall, but he left to join the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason before announcing his retirement in May.
Bryan Mattison, an Iowa product, received four starts last season and figures to begin as an early favorite at the position. Rokevious Watkins, selected in the fifth round this year from South Carolina, could contend for the spot. Other names to keep an eye on include Tim Barnes, Robert Turner and Quinn Ojinnaka.
The rest of the offensive line appears settled. Harvey Dahl is expected to start at right guard and Jason Smith figures to slide into the right-tackle slot. Scott Wells is at center and Rodger Saffold at left tackle. Protection will be a concentration this season – the Rams gave up a league-high 55 sacks last fall – so this race will help determine the strength's of St. Louis' ability to shield Sam Bradford.
Will the defensive line live up to its potential?
Their rush could produce reward. The Rams' line has an intriguing mix of youth and veteran leadership entering training camp, so the unit could become one of the team's strengths.
It includes this year's first-round pick, defensive tackle and LSU product Michael Brockers, as well as the team's top selection from last year, defensive end Robert Quinn, who earned five sacks. Four-year defensive end Chris Long returns after earning a career-high 13 sacks in 2011. Former Miami Dolphins defensive end Kendall Langford, another four-year veteran, signed with St. Louis in the offseason and is expected to play most of the time at defensive tackle.
Jeff Fisher has challenged the group to chase history. The coach wants his defensive line to target the Chicago Bears' single-season sack record of 72 set in 1984. If the Rams reach that goal, it would mean quite the marked improvement; in 2011, St. Louis recorded 39 sacks.
How much of an impact will Cortland Finnegan make on the secondary's development?
The Rams' most celebrated free-agent acquisition provides instant attitude. You might remember the scrappy cornerback for the 2010 fistfight he was involved in with Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson that led to a $25,000 fine for both men. Or the reputation for toughness he developed over six seasons with the Tennessee Titans, one of which (2008) produced a Pro Bowl appearance.
Finnegan's arrival means a reunion. Jeff Fisher drafted the Samford product in the seventh round in 2006 when he coached at Tennessee. The player has 14 interceptions, and he will provide veteran leadership for a group that ranked seventh in the league in passing defense last season (206 yards per game).
Look for Finnegan to mentor rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins, someone with raw talent but also questions about his ability to stay clean. The duo could become a physical presence for a defense being formed in Fisher's image.
Can Janoris Jenkins play a positive role?
The Rams hope so. Jenkins, selected 39th overall, has obvious talent but character issues to go along with his ability. The 5-foot-10, 193-pound North Alabama product has a history of arrests, and the cornerback was kicked off Florida's team in April 2011 in part because he was caught possessing marijuana.
But Jenkins' selection shows Jeff Fisher is willing to take chances to try to create of winning culture. Many considered the young player to have first-round skill if not for his checkered past. He had 121 tackles with eight interceptions in three seasons with the Gators before he was forced to salvage his career within the Division II ranks last fall.
So will Jenkins stay out of trouble? That's the big-money question for him, Fisher and Rams leadership. A smart, disciplined Jenkins would be an asset to St. Louis. An unfocused one would be a detriment.
Will Brian Schottenheimer be an improvement over Josh McDaniels?
Put it this way: It couldn't get much worse. The Rams hope the offense's leap is sizable in numerous ways during the coming months. Schottenheimer spent the past six campaigns with the New York Jets, where he was part of the Rex Ryan-led staff that guided the franchise to consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances in 2010 and 2011. However, his tenure in the Big Apple grew contentious over the years – the angst at the end highlighted by the fact that he called 67 pass plays in a loss to the New York Giants in Week 16 last season.
Meanwhile, McDaniels proved to be a major disappointment. The former Denver Broncos coach arrived in the Gateway City with fanfare, only to have his name associated with a unit that ranked last in scoring offense (12.1 points per game), 31st in total offense (283.6 yards per game), 30th in passing offense (179.4 yards per game) and 23rd in rushing offense (104.2 yards per game). The Rams were held to 13 points or fewer 12 times.
How will Jeff Fisher's staff handle defensive play-calling duties?
They will lean on experience. Gregg Williams' season-long suspension because of his role in Bountygate as the New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator has forced Fisher and his staff to be creative. Fisher has said the Rams will most likely call defense by committee throughout the fall. Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, secondary coach Chuck Cecil and linebackers coach Blake Williams, Gregg's son, have all handled coordinator duties at some point in the past few months.
The role is nothing new for most on the staff. Fisher, Cecil and McGinnis have served as defensive coordinators throughout their NFL careers. St. Louis did a fair job on that side of possession for most of last season, given how little relief the unit received because of their offense's woes. The Rams ranked 26th in scoring defense in 2011, surrendering an average of 25.4 points per game.
Will linebackers continue to be strengths?
The quarterback of the defense is unmistakable. James Laurinaitis led the Rams with 105 tackles last season, meaning the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Ohio State product has earned at least 100 tackles in two of his three professional seasons.
St. Louis also added Jo-Lonn Dunbar, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, and Rocky McIntosh, formerly of the Washington Redskins, to the corps to assist Laurinaitis in tracking offenses. Last season, the Rams' rush defense ranked 31st in the league by averaging 152.1 yards allowed per game.
Laurinaitis has received high praise from assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, who called the 25-year-old the "perfect" middle linebacker for the staff's scheme. If Laurinaitis continues his progression, only good things can come for St. Louis.
How many victories would mean a successful year?
One season can bring drastic change. A year ago at this time, the Rams were considered one of the NFL's rising teams. They were NFC West favorites. They had a confident young quarterback in Sam Bradford. They had what was thought to be a smart offensive mind in coordinator Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady's former tutor, to complement Steve Spagnuolo's defensive expertise.
Then it all came crashing down in swift and stunning fashion. A variety of injuries to key contributors played a part, yes, but protection was another issue with St. Louis giving up a league-high 55 sacks. The San Francisco 49ers' rise under Jim Harbaugh only accelerated the Rams' exit from the division race, and by the end, it grew obvious that a wholesale change was necessary.
So Jeff Fisher enters with a new vision and 17 years of head-coaching experience as credibility. This will be a season of acclimation, a building year after the decline last fall. Anything more than five victories will be a surprise – yet a three-win improvement from 2011 would show a turnaround has begun.