ST. LOUIS – Brian Schottenheimer was hired to heal. The new St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator will be asked to do many things to repair one of the NFL’s worst units last season, but mainly, his job is to make his franchise’s greatest weakness become a strength.
With that task, he’s eager to revive his career in the Gateway City. It’s shown in moments like Thursday afternoon, when the former New York Jets coordinator stands near a practice field at Rams Park as players scatter after minicamp.
He’s speaking about progress since he was hired in January as Sam Bradford’s third coordinator in as many years. He says about 90 percent of his West Coast-like system has been installed and that mentoring a quarterback with elite potential excites him.
“What we tried to do was overload them a little bit in the beginning,” Schottenheimer says of introducing the offense. “We tried to go back and repeat things so they could hear it a second, third, fourth and fifth time. But I’m very, very pleased.”
Of course, few were pleased with the Rams’ offense last season. The numbers were as ugly as the boos that became common at the Edward Jones Dome during a 2-14 season: St. Louis ranked last in the league in scoring offense (12.1 points per game), 31st in total offense (283.6 yards per game) and 30th in passing offense (179.4 yards per game). The Rams also were held to 13 points or fewer 12 times.
But former coach Steve Spagnuolo and former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels – the faces of that misfortune – are long gone. Meanwhile, a shakeup within Rex Ryan’s staff allowed Schottenheimer to join Jeff Fisher in trying to repair an embattled franchise that has missed the playoffs each year since the 2004 season.
Both the Rams and Schottenheimer are living fresh starts, and both hope they can produce positive results together. Healing takes time, but new beginnings are never short on lessons.
“You have got to find what those guys do,” Schottenheimer says. “They have to learn about us as a staff. We have to learn about them. … They are picking it up, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress we are making.”
Bradford has greater wisdom this spring. It’s obvious when he speaks about the offense’s potential with a more mature outlook, one gained after his slump last fall.
For him, there was anticipation with McDaniels’ arrival in St. Louis. He was eager to learn from the Bill Belichick protégée who tutored Tom Brady for five seasons.
It’s easy to see why Bradford had high hopes for McDaniels before injuries on the offensive line and elsewhere decimated their plans. The previous year, the quarterback enjoyed a solid rookie campaign in which he threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns operating in then-coordinator Pat Shurmur’s West Coast system. He was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. And despite a failed two-year stint as the head coach for the Denver Broncos, McDaniels had earned a reputation as a creative offensive mind.
“I think last year, I probably rushed to judgments and jumped to some conclusions with my comfort with the offense and everyone else’s general comfort with the offense,” Bradford says. “Whereas this year, I want to see it against a live defense before I really go out and make that statement.”
That caution shows the relationship between Schottenheimer and players still is a work in progress. Bradford and others have compared the scheme to an elevated West Coast system. (“It’s West Coast, but it’s more explosive than West Coast,” Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola said recently.)
Still, moving on from McDaniels could be good for the Rams. Little about the former coordinator’s time in St. Louis is worth remembering. Shurmur’s offense produced 309 more yards and 25 additional first downs in 2010 when compared to what the Rams mustered last year.
With Schottenheimer’s addition, St. Louis will try to move past another lost season. The new scheme is somewhat familiar.
“I think within every offense, there are some similarities – there are here,” says Rams tight end Lance Kendricks, who had 28 catches for 352 yards last season. “I see within this offense there are a lot more shots downfield. We do a lot of different things in the run game, which is a little different. … I think last year I was a little timid just trying to learn everything. My head was spinning from learning different types of things, especially in last year’s offense. This year, honestly, we’re just going out and trying to make plays and try to win some ballgames.”
The yells started early. Tight end Matthew Mulligan will never forget them. Schottenheimer isn’t much of a screamer, but he always addressed Mulligan as “Mulli!” in the Maine product’s first year with the Jets in 2009.
It was the start of a relationship that grew strong from mutual respect. Mulligan came to admire Schottenheimer’s consistency.
Conversations about life happened between the two men as well. With time, Mulligan viewed Schottenheimer as more than a mentor on the field.
“I believe he cares about the guys he’s coaching,” says Mulligan, who had five catches for 58 yards last season before signing with the Rams as a free agent in March. “It’s not just X’s and O’s with him. He cares about their life. I’ve been able to have a few conversations with coach Schottenheimer, whether it be offseason or during season. He has mentored me in a couple areas, and I’m thankful to be around him.”
Mulligan has noticed subtle changes in the ways the coordinator has approached his situation in St. Louis. He sees that Schottenheimer has simplified some parts of the offense to ease the transition.
“I think as a player or as a coach – no matter where you are or where you’ve come from or where you’re going – your ultimate goal is to get better and help everybody around you get better,” Mulligan says. “I’ve noticed coach Schottenheimer here change things up, and that says to me he’s trying to get better, and he’s open to doing whatever it takes to get a team to win.”
Yes, but Schottenheimer must show that he can place struggle behind him too. His six-year run as the Jets’ coordinator ended in early January after a collapse. New York dropped its final three games of the season to the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, missing the playoffs for the first time under Ryan.
Schottenheimer received much of the blame. The Jets were outscored a combined 97-50 in the stretch, and they finished an anemic 25th in the league in total offense by averaging 311.8 yards per game.
“Just being around him, whatever he is taking from his experiences there, it’s making him better,” Mulligan says.
Schottenheimer talks about making the Rams better before leaving for the afternoon. There’s anticipation in the unknown, and minicamps give coaches and players across the NFL a chance to consider potential.
Schottenheimer is no different. He sees ability in Bradford, of course, but he also praises the depth at tight end and wide receiver. At this point, all positions include promise.
“Your job as a coach is to try to fit the system,” Schottenheimer says. “We have a system, we have a philosophical belief – things that we want to be. We are going to be physical. We are going to run the football. We want to have some balance with run actions and have sameness with the things we do in the running game and passing game. But when you have good players, it’s easy.”
Will Schottenheimer have the players to succeed in St. Louis? Time will show, but his role in the rebuilding effort will be crucial. Bradford must be given a chance to develop, and veteran running back Steven Jackson’s long-term durability should be considered. Rookie wide receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens also figure to play major roles as they mature, but how soon will that be?
Schottenheimer’s attention to detail should help him sort through the possibilities. There are many to consider.
“It’s his personality, his knowledge, his communication skills, his energy, and he’s really smart,” Fisher says when asked to name Schottenheimer’s best traits. “He’s a very good play caller, very organized. This is a very detailed staff.”
But many of the details concerning Schottenheimer’s role in the Rams’ recovery aren’t known. Will his play calling be balanced? Will Bradford be confident after learning another playbook? Will the Rams’ offense heal?
Yet one thing is for certain at this early stage: Schottenheimer is eager.