Jimmy Johnson laid the foundation for three Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl victories by trading Herschel Walker for a boatload of draft picks and veterans.
As Indianapolis’ general manager, Bill Polian chose the right quarterback (Peyton Manning) over the wrong one (Ryan Leaf) and surrounded him with an outstanding supporting cast. The Colts were rewarded with one Lombardi Trophy and 11 other playoff appearances in 13 seasons.
In a few years, what the St. Louis Rams have done in 2012 may enjoy the same luster in the annals of NFL rebuilding projects.
Like the 1989 Cowboys and 1997 Colts before their resurgence, St. Louis ranks among the league’s dregs. This is nothing new. The club hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2004. The past five seasons were especially brutal with a 15-65 record.
The 2011 Rams were so bad they couldn’t even win for losing. Indianapolis secured the draft’s No. 1 pick by virtue of posting the same 2-14 record against opponents with a lower winning percentage.
Such lousy results spelled the end of head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney. But this mess also provided a golden opportunity for their replacements — Jeff Fisher and Les Snead — to revamp one of the league’s weakest rosters.
They haven’t let the chance slip away.
The brilliance of what St. Louis has accomplished this offseason was on display again Friday night during the draft’s second day. The Rams had three of the first 13 picks in the second round, including selections acquired from Washington and Dallas in trades.
The first two second-rounders were used to address needs at wide receiver (Appalachian State’s Brian Quick) and cornerback (North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins). The Rams then added an extra fifth-round pick by dropping down five slots from No. 45 in a trade with Chicago. University of Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead, a change-of-pace complement to Rams bruiser Steven Jackson, was tabbed at No. 50.
Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson joined the mix in the third round.
On top of this, St. Louis owns Washington’s first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 after dropping from No. 2 to No. 6 in this year’s draft so the Redskins could secure the rights to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
On top of that, the Rams scored in free agency by adding quality veterans like cornerback Cortland Finnegan, center Scott Wells and three defensive linemen (Kendall Langford, Trevor Laws and William Hayes) who bolstered a team weakness.
Things are going so well for the Rams that they even made the best out of a bad situation Thursday night during the draft’s first round.
The two players St. Louis most coveted at No. 6 — Alabama running back Trent Richardson (Cleveland) and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville) — were snatched beforehand following trade-ups. Dallas, which desperately wanted Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne, offered its own first-round choice (No. 14) and a second-rounder (No. 45 overall). St. Louis agreed and still got the next player atop its draft board — LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
Bold moves like those involving the No. 2 and No. 6 selections were needed to accumulate more talent.
Rams general manager Les Snead said the team’s goal with the No. 2 pick was to exceed the draft compensation paid by the New York Giants for Eli Manning in 2004. The Giants surrendered their own 2004 first-round choice (quarterback Philip Rivers), a third-rounder and 2005 first- and fifth-rounders to San Diego.
That was accomplished thanks to the strong interest in Griffin from other squads drafting high.
Snead said St. Louis was initially shooting for additional first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 as well as a swap of 2012 choices when bidding opened for the No. 2 pick. Washington’s willingness to accommodate and cede a 2012 second-round pick sealed the deal in mid-March.
“The Eli deal was out there and we said, ‘Let’s beat it,’” Snead told FOXSports.com after Friday night’s draft concluded.
Even with such shrewd maneuvering, there is no guarantee that this incoming draft class will excel. Brockers, who turned pro as a redshirt sophomore, was drafted more on potential rather than his body of work at LSU. Quick will have to fare better than fellow Appalachian State product Armanti Edwards (Carolina) in making the transition from a smaller college program. Jenkins’ off-field issues dropped him into the second round despite his first-round talent.
This group, though, can’t fare any worse than Rams’ draft classes from the past five years.
All eight choices from 2007 are gone. The second overall picks taken in the 2008 and 2009 drafts (defensive end Chris Long and right tackle Jason Smith) haven’t proven worthy of such lofty status. And after a shaky 2012 season, there are even questions about whether Sam Bradford can become a true franchise quarterback.
Conscious that it will take time to build a contender, Snead willingly parted ways with veterans like wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, cornerback Ron Bartell, guard Jacob Bell and center Jason Brown whose prime is starting to pass.
“Because of the situation we’re in here, the thinking was, ‘Let’s get younger,’” said Snead, who was hired away from the Atlanta Falcons. “We want to thrive sooner than later. But when we’re thriving, we want to do it with young players.”
Slowly but surely, holes are starting to get filled. As that happens, the onus will fall upon Fisher to field a winner.
One blow to the coaching staff occurred earlier this offseason when new defensive coordinator and Fisher confidante Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for his involvement in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. With the door seemingly open for Williams’ eventual return despite the damage done to his personal and professional reputation, the Rams are taking a coordinator-by-committee approach in 2012. The brain trust includes Williams’ son Blake, who is the Rams’ linebackers coach.
Offensively, new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must restore his name after being booted by the New York Jets. The process starts with getting Bradford — the top overall pick in the 2010 draft — back on track.
Fisher’s record with Tennessee fluctuated from 4-12 to 13-3 in 11 seasons following a Super Bowl XXXIV loss to the Rams. The Titans lost that game when wide receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled by linebacker Mike Jones in front of the St. Louis goal line as time expired.
But if the past few months are an indication of what is to come for the Rams, Fisher won’t be coming up short again with his new team.