Fisher hiring won't solve all of Rams' problems

BY foxsports • January 13, 2012

ST. LOUIS — Jeff Fisher represents a splash, a public-relations coup for a franchise that in a decade has transformed from one of the NFL's best into one of its most embarrassing.

But Fisher alone is not the answer to the St. Louis Rams' problems. A correction at Rams Park and inside the lifeless Edward Jones Dome won't happen until roster upgrades are made on the offensive line and within the receiving corps.

Former Rams coach Dick Vermeil knows how to create a winning culture in St. Louis. He captured a Super Bowl title with the organization during the 1999 season and ushered in one of the most prolific offensive eras in NFL history.

When I reached Vermeil by phone Friday afternoon, I asked him what Fisher must do to make the Rams respectable after a seven-year playoff drought. Vermeil credited the eight Pro Bowl players who made his job easier during St. Louis' championship run.

Then he asked about the Rams' current talent, aware of his answers before he spoke.  

"How many (Pro Bowl players) did they have this year?" he said.

Zero.

"How many did they have last year?"

One.

"If you don't have good players, you're not a real good coach," Vermeil continued. "But a real good coach with leadership abilities and responsibility and authority can eventually bring what it takes to an organization to win. There's no magic wand."

And Fisher is no magician. His pedigree is encouraging — he went 147-126 in 16 full seasons with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans. He produced six winning campaigns. He led the Titans to the playoffs six times, and he coached against Vermeil in Super Bowl XXXIV.

But Fisher will enter a situation in need of major repair. Injuries riddled the Rams' offense this season. But that development doesn't explain how second-year quarterback Sam Bradford went from the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year to someone who slouched in front of his locker with a towel over his face as teammates dressed around him following late-season losses at home.

Bradford's poor protection was one reason why he looked stunned at times when analyzing the latest defeat. It became obvious in November that he was living through a challenge he had never experienced before: He operated behind an offensive line that surrendered an NFL-worst 55 sacks — and other than Pro Bowler Brandon Lloyd — Bradford seemed to doubt his wide receivers' ability to create space against defenders.

"I always thought you had to start with your line," said Jack Pardee, the former Houston Oilers coach who had Fisher as his defensive coordinator before Fisher replaced him during the 1994 season.

"If you can't run the ball or have any pass protection, you're just going to get your quarterback killed. With the line, that's your basics. From there, you can develop. There are enough players around now where you can find some speed. I think you can build a team real good once you get your linemen, once you get your foundation. You can find all the other spots."

Finding talent to fill spots of need will be key for Fisher and the Rams' next general manager, because the team's problem this past season became more about a losing culture. Late in the schedule, former coach Steve Spagnuolo spoke about how proud he was of his players after defeat — as if losing eight games by at least 17 points was a reason for grown professionals to break out juice boxes and orange slices in the end zone.

As a result, changing the mindset in the Rams locker room will be Fisher's biggest challenge. If he is successful, there are reasons to believe a turnaround is possible despite the fact that St. Louis resembled an NFL team only in name at times this season.

Bradford's ceiling is high, and the former Heisman Trophy winner appears willing to learn. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson earned a seventh consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season this past year. And lost in the focus on the Rams' weak offense was the fact that St. Louis' defense — led by fourth-year defensive end Chris Long's 13 sacks — appeared capable until late in the second half against most opponents.

Fisher will have the chance to build on those few positives within a division that provides opportunity. Yes, the San Francisco 49ers will be a favorite for years under Coach Jim Harbaugh.

But the NFC West won't be mistaken for the AFC North anytime soon: Little separates the Rams from the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. So St. Louis can build knowing it is closer than it appears to becoming the division's second-best team.    

The fact that Fisher will match wits with the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals twice a year is a public victory for the Rams. Fisher's choice of St. Louis over South Beach means a franchise that fought for relevancy within its own city during the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series run can give its frustrated fans a name to embrace.

From that perspective, Fisher is a better fit than Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen or other up-and-comers the Rams interviewed while waiting for their first choice to make his pick.

"I think he's a fine man," Vermeil said of Fisher. "It's a very, very good, astute selection."
Still, Fisher alone is not the Rams' answer. His hire should represent the first step in a culture change that must happen.


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