EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams each had matching 2-12 records heading into Week 16 last year and were basically slotted into the second and third picks in the upcoming NFL draft, with the Indianapolis Colts essentially having the worst record clinched by that time.
On Dec. 24, Minnesota went to Washington and pulled out a 33-26 win that left players and coach Leslie Frazier relieved to end a six-game losing streak, even as running back Adrian Peterson sat distraught with two torn ligaments in his left knee. St. Louis, doing its part to secure the second overall spot, lost its last seven games of the season.
It was a franchise-changing weekend for the Rams, nearly entirely because of Minnesota’s win. St. Louis ended up with the No. 2 pick, which it traded to Washington of all teams, to collect a bounty of six drafts picks and sent the Rams’ rebuilding job into overdrive.
“We were also talking to Miami as well,” St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday on a conference call with Minnesota media. “But at the end of the day, when it came down to it, we felt like…both sides felt like they had the perfect deal. And so it was something we couldn’t pass up.
“It just fell into place for us. We have a franchise quarterback back here, we certainly need picks, and we’re looking forward to building our team as a result of that trade.”
With Sam Bradford already in place, the Rams felt comfortable trading the rights to Washington, allowing the Redskins to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has taken the league by storm. Yet, almost a year removed from that fateful Minnesota win, both teams are entertaining playoff thoughts with three games left as the Vikings (7-6) travel to St. Louis (6-6-1) this week.
Combined with the hiring of Fisher, general manager Les Snead, and some shrewd maneuvering, the Rams have turned their fortunes around. Coincidentally, Peterson’s amazing recovery has done the same for Minnesota. But the Vikings are still wondering about their quarterback situation with second-year starter Christian Ponder and were left without the chance to draft Griffin or enjoy the benefits of a trade like St. Louis.
The Rams, which have 17 rookies on their roster, received first round picks in 2012, ’13 and ’14 in the trade with the Redskins and a second round pick this year. St. Louis, which received Washington’s sixth pick, traded back again with Dallas for the 14th and 45th picks and netted defensive tackle Michael Brockers at 14, cornerback Janoris Jenkins with the Redskins’ second-round pick (No. 39). And they still have the extra first rounder the next two seasons.
With the league’s worst record over the past five seasons (50-65), St. Louis has undergone a transformation that leaves the future bright. On the current 53-man roster, 32 players weren’t with the Rams last year. Of those that are gone, Fisher said 24 aren’t playing in the NFL this year.
“I wasn’t part of it, but for the last five years no team in NFL history had lost more games in a five-year span so something was going on,” Fisher said. “So it was clearly a challenge for us, but it starts with the coach and putting together a coaching staff, and we feel like we’ve done that. I really enjoy working with these guys and enjoy the challenges, and they’re very competitive and they work hard. And then, of course, it was a collaborative effort to go out and bring the right guys in to fill some spots, i.e. Scott Wells, of course, and Kendall Langford and those guys have really helped us.”
Steven Jackson, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, has spent nine years in a Rams uniform and played in the playoffs just once, his rookie season in 2004 when he was the second-leading rusher to Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
“It means a lot,” Jackson said of still being in playoff contention this year. “Each and every player, we all hope and work to win the Super Bowl. The only way to do that is to be in the postseason and we haven’t had that opportunity around here for quite some time. So, to actually be able to have this conversation, it means the world. It makes going to work exciting and fun.”
St. Louis has taken steps. And even though a playoff berth this season is still unlikely in the crowded NFC, the Rams feel confident in what they’ve built and continue to overhaul, thanks in part to one Vikings’ victory late last season.
“We’ve replaced a lot of players, and that’s an ongoing process,” Fisher said. “We’re not there yet. We have a lot of work to do. But we’re very fond of this team right now, just because of the way it’s responded, and it understands that it’s OK to come to work and have fun. And when it’s time to put the fun aside and get to work we do that. So it also has a slight air of confidence, which they need to have. They carry respect in each week for every opponent, but they also have confidence in themselves, and know if they play near perfectly they have a chance to win games.”