Rams leave past behind, look to better future under Fisher
By: Warren Mayes
Forget about it is the operative phrase for the St. Louis Rams heading into NFL season.
Besides building a stronger roster after a year away from the NFL, new coach Jeff Fisher has been working on instilling a positive attitude and brushing aside the bad old days.
And why not? The Rams tied for the NFL’s worst record last year at 2-14. The franchise is just 15-65 over the previous five years — the worst five-year stretch for any franchise since the AFL-NFL merger.
Fisher spends no time talking about all those failures. He wants his players to believe they can turn it around fast. As in this year.
“They’re not hungry to win,” Fisher said. “They expect to win. Everybody does. The past is the past, we’re looking forward with the expectation of winning games.”
The Rams can begin that expectation Sunday when the play at Detroit. Kickoff is at noon.
Fisher gets the chance to rebuild the Rams after the coach he replaced, Steve Spagnuolo, compiled a 10-38 record in three seasons. A new general manager is aboard, too, with Les Snead replacing Billy Devaney, who lasted four mostly futile years.
There was a glimmer of hope in 2010, when the Rams went 7-9 — a six-win improvement that left them one win shy of the playoffs. Last year, though, St. Louis started 0-6 against a tough schedule, then injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford, key offensive linemen and pass defenders ended any chance of recovering.
Fisher, though, has some of last year’s better players back and has tried to surround them with a better supporting cast.
It will be a young team. There are 17 rookies on the Rams’ opening day roster, seven more players age 24 or younger and 31 in all on the 53-man roster who were not with the franchise last season. All but one of the team’s 10 draft picks made the team.
It’s the youngest team in the NFL, with an average age under 26. There are just five players over the age of 30, compared with 13 for the season opener last year.
“Well, it’s exciting. These guys are anxious and eager,” Fisher said. “I’d much rather coach a young team than an old team.”
Last season, the offense revolved around two-time Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson, the senior Ram drafted in the first round in 2004. He’ll try to put up his eighth straight 1,000-yard season, and get more rest, too, after the Rams drafted running back Isaiah Pead in the second round.
Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and the NFL offensive rookie of the year. Last year he was dogged by a high ankle sprain, and with better protection could blossom. Center Scott Wells was among the free-agent pickups.
Bradford said he’s comfortable with the offense of new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and unlike last year when his partnership with Josh McDaniels never got off the ground, this time he really means it.
“I think last year I probably rushed to judgment and jumped to some conclusions with my comfort with the offense and everyone else’s general comfort with the offense,” Bradford said. “This year I want to see it against a live defense before I really go out and make that statement.
“But for what we’ve done, I feel very comfortable.”
Bradford likes the youth of the team as well.
“Looking around, I think we’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies in this locker room who are going to help us,” Bradford said. “We’re better because they’re here.”
Danny Amendola, who caught 85 passes in 2010, is back after missing virtually all of last season with an elbow injury. Other potential targets are draft picks Brian Quick and Chris Givens.
More scoring would take the heat off a defense that too often was drilled by the big play and barely avoided setting a franchise record for yards allowed. There are three quality pieces to build around.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who played for Fisher in Tennessee, was the top free-agent pickup. He is being counted on as the shutdown guy in the secondary. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, as second-round pick, could be an immediate contributor.
End Chris Long is coming off his best year and was among the sacks leaders with 13 1/2, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has been a model big-play defender, leading the team in tackles in all three of his seasons.
“We could not have asked for a more perfect middle linebacker,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “He’s exactly what you need.”
First-round pick Michael Brockers, a tackle, bolsters a line that has three first-rounders including end Robert Quinn, who had five sacks as a rookie. However, Blockers suffered a high ankle sprain in the final preseason game and will miss some time healing.
McGinnis is one of three former defensive coordinators on the staff filling the duties of Gregg Williams, suspended indefinitely for his role in the Saints bounty scandal. McGinnis is the most likely to have a hands-on role on game day.
“Believe me, we will get it handled,” McGinnis said. “Everybody is in tune. We’re going to call a defense and make them punt — on your mark, get set, go.”
Defensive end Chris Long, entering his fifth season and just 26, likes the injection of enthusiasm and optimism. He remembers feeling that way after the Rams drafted him second overall in 2008, not knowing he’d be a part of only 12 wins his first four seasons.
“One thing about being young is you’re not afraid of anything. You’re not afraid of losing,” Long said. “They haven’t been through the downs, so that’s kind of nice.
“We’re going into this thing fearlessly in Week 1.”