Rams’ Saffold finds peace in switch to right tackle

ST. LOUIS — Rodger Saffold wasn’t pleased.

The position was a part of his identity. In the 47 games the St. Louis Rams had played since 2010, he had started there 35 times. Only injuries had kept No. 76 from his place. He was the Rams’ left tackle, a title synonymous with big money and respect. He was the protector of star quarterback Sam Bradford’s blind side.

Until suddenly, without a chance to fight for it, the job was no longer his.

“I think it was more of a shock than anything,” St. Louis Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said. “He had some moments, as we will say in our room.”

When the Rams signed former Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long to a four-year, $34 million contract in late March, the team described the acquisition of the elite lineman as a no-brainer. Long was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, a 6-foot-7, 319-pound mountain of a man who had made four Pro Bowls in five years. The team celebrated while Saffold wrestled with the request he knew would come next.

His agent had made it clear Saffold was not interested switching positions when the Rams started courting Long. Some wondered if Saffold, entering the last year of his rookie contract with the team, would skip voluntary organized team activities as a sign of protest.

“I hadn’t played right tackle since ninth grade,” Saffold explained, after the dust finally settled.

Boudreau understood Saffold’s initial reaction, the ‘moments’ he would rather leave in the past. He figured his upset tackle would come around, and he was right.

“Rodger is not that kind of kid,” Boudreau said. “He wants to win. He wants to be part of the winning tradition we are going to start here. So, he’s going to make it work.”

So here was Saffold this offseason, relearning a position his 25-year-old body had not played in a decade. He says he is on board now, and his coaches have praised his selflessness for embracing the switch. His continued willingness to adapt will be influential for the Rams’ 2013 season, as well as the rest of Saffold’s career.

Boudreau uses a baseball metaphor.

Imagine a Major Leaguer changing his swing from left to right. The instincts that make the hitter a pro, his ability to track pitches and send the ball a certain way, are still there. It’s the awkwardness of the unfamiliar swing that makes it hard.

Or, here’s one anyone can try.

“If you’re right-handed, start writing left-handed,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau has coached NFL offensive linemen since 1987. He knew Saffold, unlike some left tackles, could make the switch to the right side. He cited the 6-foot-5, 314-pound player’s all-around athleticism, hip flexibility, use of leverage and proficiency at run blocking as evidence.

There is one disadvantage, though. Saffold became a starting left tackle at Indiana University halfway through his freshman season. Then, as an NFL rookie in 2010, he claimed the starting spot for the Rams. He never spent time on the right side — something required of backup NFL guards and tackles so they can fill any position at a moment’s notice.

“If you are a guy who is a backup guy, Rokevious Watkins or Brandon Washington, you are a swing guy,” Boudreau said. “So, you are going to have to work like a switch hitter. You are going to have to work a right-handed stance, a left-handed stance. And you get used to it. In Rodger’s case, he’s always been there. Let’s say he’s been playing football for nine or 10 years of his life. He’s always been that way. Now, all of a sudden, he’s changed. It is a mental thing. And it is a physical thing.”

The frustratingly slow transition started during organized team activities. There, absent of shoulder pads and contact, Saffold spent three weeks learning how to reverse engineer the technique that made him successful on the left side, and apply it to the right.

“You’ve got this muscle memory from going one way,” Saffold said toward the end of the sessions. “Now, you’re trying to flip it and go the other.”

Time and time again, he got down into his new stance, took a step and punched his arms out like pistons. Constantly, he checked the position of every body part, from his feet to his head. Boudreau sometimes asked Saffold to complete this footwork barefoot so the player could better gauge his weight distribution and balance.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It’s the key to creating new muscle memory.

“When he gets into a situation where he is more comfortable, then his athleticism, his bend, his flexibility, will come up and come to the top — just like it did on the left side,” Boudreau said.

Saffold left for summer vacation with an iPad that Larry Clerico, the team’s director of video operations, had loaded with clips.

Some showed Saffold during previous seasons, a left tackle dominating defensive linemen with flawless footwork. Others showed him during organized team activities, a right tackle who often fell out of his stance instead of fired, who backpedaled awkwardly, kicking as if on invisible stilts.

Comparing the two was supposed to help Saffold convert the latter into the former.

Jim Hanifan chuckles when he tells his favorite story about a switch.

“Many, many years ago, I made a big move for an individual,” the retired NFL offensive line guru said. “That man was Dan Dierdorf. I moved him from left tackle to right tackle.”

It was 1974, and Hanifan was the offensive line coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Before a practice, while his linemen were loosening up, he noticed his four-time Pro Bowl right tackle, Ernie McMillan, was in a left-handed stance.

“Why did you get down in that stance?” Hanifan asked.

“I’m a natural left hander,” McMillan answered.

What transpired was a switch that shifted the 36-year-old McMillan to left tackle, where he played his final two seasons before retirement. But it was Dierdorf, Hanifan’s 25-year-old left tackle who moved to the right side in the aftermath, who reaped the reward. Dierdorf made the Pro-Bowl five consecutive times as a right tackle, then added one more trip later in his career. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

There are others.

Boudreau cites Willie Roaf, who switched from right tackle to left tackle after his rookie year, and Larry Allen, who played right tackle, right guard and left tackle before settling in at a left guard for his final nine seasons. Both are also members of the Hall of Fame.

Hanifan offers the following advice for Saffold: Bury any blind-side fascination, and embrace a chance to diversify.

“If I was sitting here with him right now, I would say, ‘Rodger, this is an opportunity for you,'” Hanifan said. “Show the people, not only the Rams, but the National Football League what you are made of. For the good of the team, you’re coming over to the right side. Come out here with a bang, not a whimper, and get after it. Prove what kind of player you are.”

A full-contact trial by fire awaits Saffold at the end of this month.

Chris Long, the Rams’ defensive end who has 24.5 sacks in two seasons, will line up in front of Saffold’s face when training camp begins. He’s proof that quarterback threats thrive on both sides of the defensive line.

“It doesn’t matter if you get hit by the left guy, or the right,” Boudreau said. “Our goal is: Bradford ain’t getting touched after he throws the ball. Dwight Freeney was always a right defensive end. If they found a big, stiff guy at right tackle, Freeney would go over there. They’re going to find the weak link. It’s been that way forever.”

Saffold says he won’t be a weak link. He says he will be ready.

“It’s unexpected,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, you’re happy for it. Because it is more experience, more you can do. It makes you a more-valuable player. Knowing I can play right and left is going to be good for me and my family. So, there’s no problem.”

He paused, then added:

“I think I’m really going to be able to play well at this position.”

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com