Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Point Forward

It’s week one.  Rams fans, take a really deep breath.  Some fans want to point fingers in a number of directions.  But the one direction fans should point their fingers is forward.  The best is still ahead.

Sure, the game against the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t have the optimal result.  In fact, it could have been the worst thing that could’ve happened for the team.  Injuries, especially, brought the team down, as well as the hopes of Rams fans, on Sunday.  But it’s not time to panic.

I’m sure there were several of us that made brash predictions that the Rams would surprise the Eagles, as they rode in on their high horse, thinking they were the greatest team ever – “The Dream Team”, as Eagles backup quarterback Vince Young called them.  The Rams proved the Eagles weren’t unbreakable.  If not for injuries, an untimely fumble by Sam Bradford, along with several dropped and poorly thrown passes, the Eagles could very well have lost that game.

Spagnuolo explained the injuries as best he could after the game, “Steven’s (Jackson) got a quad. I’m not sure whether to call it a pull or a strain or whatever. We’ll have a better idea on those tomorrow so he’ll be reassessed.  Jason Smith is an ankle. (Head Athletic Trainer) Reggie (Scott) has called it a high ankle. I’ll have a better idea what we’re dealing with tomorrow.  C.J. Ah You – (it’s) just his wrist. Hopefully that’s OK and we think we’ll probably take a picture of that.  Danny Amendola did dislocate his left elbow. It’s not broken but it was dislocated, and now the thing is getting an MRI and see how much damage is actually done in there so we won’t know that until.  Ron Bartell got a stinger. Sam banged his right index finger on a helmet. It’s not broken they did x-ray it but they’ve got to find out a little bit more about what we’re dealing with here. And again, probably take it into tomorrow.  Quintin Mikell just cramped up when he came out.”  That’s quite a mouthful.  But hopefully these injuries won’t be lingering.

Jack gets his TD (stlouisrams.com)

Steven Jackson looked amazing in his two runs before leaving the game.  With those golden shoes, it was like “The Predator” was directed by Joel Schumacher (director of the gold and neon-macerated “Batman Forever” movie).  Jackson exploded for a touchdown with his first run, and it looked like it was a new day for the St. Louis Rams.  But toward the end of the run, Jackson pulled up with an injury in his thigh.  “It was one of those freak things that I just felt a little something there,” he said.  “I tried to go back in there that second series, and I just couldn’t be the runner that I wanted to be.”  It was a two-sided play – one that showed how good he can be, and one that proved how quickly things can change.  “It was very disappointing. Like I said, I prepared all offseason for this, had a great training camp, really felt mentally in tune to the game plan. I was really looking forward to it, and I knew I could have had a big role in this game. Plus, to jump on Philadelphia like we did and for me to have the news that I won’t be able to finish the game is very disappointing, especially when you see your teammates battle the way they were battling.”

And battle, they did.  Carnell…I keep messing that up…Cadillac Williams made a heck of a Rams debut, running for nearly an hundred yards.  Williams said, “During camp, coach just came to me one day and said, ‘Cadillac, stay ready.’ In this game of football, you just never know what could happen.”  And it was a good thing he was ready.  It was a great performance.   He’s got a lot to prove.  “I feel like I have a lot of football left in me,” he said.  “I do want to establish myself as a guy who can get the job done, so every time I get my chance I’m out there just doing my best. That’s just me.”

Williams on the rush (stlouisrams.com)

Bradford appreciated Williams’ work, saying, “It’s very comforting. Obviously, anytime you lose Jack you know it’s frustrating because he is a great player. His presence on the field changes things in the defense, but we’ve got two guys behind him that can come in and keep the level of play very high.”

But it wasn’t enough.  Spagnuolo was as upset as you might expect.  He said, “We knew no. 7 was going to be tough to stop. We thought we would do a better job in that but we didn’t. But like I said to the team I think it goes back to – overall – there were fundamentals things we didn’t do right.”  That wasn’t it, though.  As frustration mounted, so did the penalties.  Spags said that “when you play good football teams, the first thing you’ve got to do is make sure you don’t beat yourself. We didn’t do that today so we suffered the consequences.”

 

One of the bright spots was that Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels was able to find a weakness on the Eagles defense, their inexperienced linebacking corps, leading to a lot of yards on the ground (154 yards total, 5.9 avg), in fact the seventh best output in the NFL before the Monday night games.  Coach Spags agreed, but wasn’t impressed with the rest of the team’s performance.  “I thought we ran the ball effectively. Drops are going to kill you, penalties are going to kill you. Bad tackling, or backside leverage as we’ll call it, with the cutbacks are going to kill you. They’ve got some talented, talented players. But I just thought if we had done some of the fundamental things right I don’t think the talent would have come out quite like it did.”

Eagles coach Andy Reid liked what he saw from Coach Spags and the Rams, saying, “My hat is off to Steve and his football team; they went down today like crazy with quite a few injuries out there. That is a tough deal. He sure has done a nice job, along with his coaches and front office. He has a pretty good football team.”  The Rams certainly sent the house on a lot of plays, putting pressure on Vick to scramble a lot.  “They showed us a lot of looks which we knew they would. Spagnuolo and Ken Flajole know what they are doing and that is good test for us. We were able to hit a few big plays against them, and you need those when they are coming after you like that.”

Spags and Reid, old friends together again (stlouisrams.com)

Vick was anything but comfortable out there.  He said, “They blitzed like crazy and it was tough being on the road, our communication was down a little bit.  But, we still found ways to make plays…and we did it the way we wanted to do it, it wasn’t pretty but we got the win.”

Vick throws past an outstretched C.J. Ah You (stlouisrams.com)

 

Vick was impressed with the Rams, as well, saying, “I knew coming in they were going to play very hard, extremely hard, and they played very well and I give them a lot of credit.”

But on the field, Vick wasn’t that impressed.  Every time the Rams sat back, thinking they had him contained, the slippery devil found a way out – on his way to 98 rushing yards.  Spagnuolo said, “if you could cut that yardage in half when he tucked it, just by however, then you‘ve got a fighting chance. But (when) he gets out there, there is nobody in the league like him. He knows how to play in the dome.”  And he slipped out the Rams grasp too many times.  “I’m sure that’s some of it,” Coach Spags said.  “I did feel like we were there and didn’t finish.”

Vick slips out (stlouisrams.com)

But it’s not all bad news.  The team made some good plays, and hung in for most of the game.  The final score didn’t really give justice to the team’s effort in the first three quarters.

Look at the offense.  They accrued a lot of yards, but just didn’t make the necessary plays to win the game – too many drops and some errant passes.  Bradford tried to find a silver lining.  He said, “If you watched us, we moved the ball up and down the field on them. It’s just we just hurt ourselves with the mistakes every drop. It seemed like there was always one negative play that occurred after we got the drive going, and it just seemed like we were never able to overcome that one negative play. But for the most part I thought our guys did a great job executing. I think we only had one three-and-out in out today. We just got to find a way to be perfect. We can’t make those mistakes that keep us from getting in the end zone and putting points on the board.”

Bradford was actually a little too understanding of his receivers dropping the ball (I’m surprised they didn’t drop the flag in the pregame ceremony), saying those things just happen.  Sam, they don’t happen that much in the National Football League if you want to win.  Rookies or not, this cannot happen.

 

There were a few bright spots, and a lot of not-so-bright spots.  But they can’t look back.  Bradford said, “We still have 15 more games, and I don’t think anyone ever folded camp after going 0-1 to start the season.”

Rams safety Quintin Mikell agrees, “We’re not going to hang our heads and think it’s the end of the world. It’s a good team that we lost to. We had some plays that we left out there on the field. (At the) end of the day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re still a good team.”

LeSean McCoy tries to dance around Laurinaitis, to no avail (stlouisrams.com)

Linebacker James Laurinaitis, the leader on Rams defense, was especially upset at the amount of rushing yards they allowed in the second half.  But next week will be here before they know it.  And they have to be ready by looking at the film and making corrections.  Laurinaitis said, “You let it hurt, you let it kind of tick you off, and then you do something about it. You don’t sulk and feel bad for yourself. You change it with hard work during the week.”

That’s right.  You point forward.  Though they have the class not to call themselves “The Dream Team”, the New York Giants are a good football team – and it’s on the national stage.  Bradford knows that.  “You know we have a big game next week on Monday night against the Giants,” he said, “so we have to get ready for that.”

 

It will be a rough few weeks for the Rams – at the Giants, home against the Ravens and Redskins, then at the Packers and Cowboys, and back home for the Saints.  As Brian Billick pointed out on Sunday’s broadcast, that’s just not fair.  But then the Rams get to play their suspect Division Rivals for pretty much the rest of the season.  Rams fans, keep pointing forward, because the best is yet to come.

An Eagle is crushed (stlouisrams.com)

Gone…But Not Forgotten

Pavol Demitra, Nov 29, 1974 - Sept. 7, 2011

One of the great St. Louis Blues is gone, but not forgotten. Pavol Demitra, former Blues center Igor Korolev, Ruslan Salei, and several other notable hockey players tragically lost their lives in a plane crash 150 miles from Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, September 7, 2011.

An estimated 43 of 45 people were killed in a Yak-42 airplane when it crashed into the Volga River banks, just outside of Moscow. En route to its season opener in Belarus to play the Dinamo Minsk, Demitra’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, Lokomotiv (coached by former NHLer Brad McCrimmon), never made its destination.

Demitra and Salei were 36 years old, and both wore #38 for the Blues. Korolev was 41. Some of the other former NHL players who perished were Alexander Karpovtsev (41), Karlis Skrastins (37), Stefan Liv (30, a Detroit Red Wings prospect), Josef Vacinek (30), Jan Marek (31), and Karel Rachunek (32). Many more talented hockey players lost their lives, and the whole hockey world is shattered today.

Former Los Angeles Kings star, and Demitra teammate, Luc Robitaille said in The LA Times that Pavol was “just a fun guy to be around.”  Robitaille said Pavol was “just happy to play hockey.  He loved the game – that’s why he was still playing.”

In the team’s official statement, Blues GM and President John Davidson said, “On behalf of the St. Louis Blues, we are deeply saddened by the tragedy that took place today in Russia involving the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club. The entire hockey community has been affected by this news and our most heart-felt condolences go out to the families of those who perished.

“The St. Louis Blues have lost two members of our family, Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families as well. Pavol and Igor were both incredibly passionate and dedicated players and their influence in St. Louis was not only felt on the ice, but throughout the community.”

Blues great Keith Tkachuk is “beyond devastated” by the passing of two friends in the crash, Demitra and McCrimmon. Tkachuk said, “Brad was my teammate in Phoenix and later coached me in Atlanta and was truly a wonderful man who will be greatly missed.  Pav was like a brother to me and I cannot believe that he is no longer with us.

“This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time.”

We can look back at the great memories we share of Demitra and Korolev. If you want to comment on their loss, below, please do. It’s only right that we share our memories of them. Here’s what I remember about them.

Korolev was part of the Blues’ “Russian Connection” line in 1992-93, which included Vitali Prokhorov and Vitali Karamnov. While the latter two returned to Russia after the experiment, Korolev had a strong NHL career (119 goals, 346 points in 795 games) until he returned home in 2004. He was a solid two-way player.

Demitra came to the Blues in a time of transition. In one of the great steals in Blues history, they traded Christer Olsson for Demitra in 1996 after Pavol held out in Ottawa. While the Brett Hull era of the Blues was coming to an end, Demitra stepped up to almost fill the scoring void that Hull left when he signed with Dallas. After a short preview in 1996-97, Demitra came back the next year to net 22 goals and 52 points in 61 games. In his 494 games with the Blues, Demitra scored 204 goals and 493 points. His tandem with center Pierre Turgeon was highly productive. The two just seemed to click, with Demitra never scoring fewer than 20 goals in any of his full seasons. Pavol won the Lady Byng Trophy in 2000, awarded to the NHL’s Most Gentlemanly Player.

I remember when the Demitra era had first begun. He loved the city and game so much that he was absolutely elated to be in the position he was – on a top line on a playoff team. In an intermission interview, he was so overwhelmed with emotion that all he kept saying was that he was “so happy, I’m so happy.” But with his Slovakian accent, it came out as “so hoppy, I’m so hoppy.” And we were “hoppy” to enjoy his play for so long.

One of the most exciting players to watch in a Blues uniform, many of us were disappointed in his exodus from St. Louis in 2004. Back then, Blues fans (including this author) were spoiled by the long string of playoff berths without the glory of a Stanley Cup. Many fans were quick to blame the “non-playoff performers”. While he wasn’t the unstoppable offensive force that was known for being in the regular season, he still performed well in the playoffs – 18 goals and 43 points in 66 playoff games. But that production, and the Blues production overall in the playoffs, just wasn’t good enough for us. Don’t we miss those days of playoff intensity? In those years of regular season futility, wouldn’t we have loved to see Pavol “hoppy” in St. Louis again? The Blues have made the playoffs only once since he left.

We should celebrate the great memories that Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev gave us. I’ll never forget them. St. Louis will never forget them. And we’ll never see anyone “hoppier” than Pavol was when he was a Blue.

Demitra had two young children, Zara and Lucas, and a wife named Maja. Korolev is survived by two children and his wife, Vera. The hearts of St. Louis Blues fans everywhere go out to them and the families of those lost.

Blues Celebrate a Demitra Goal (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)

Labor Day Work

It’s a holiday for most of America, but not at Rams Park.  The Rams did some work today on and off the field – making roster moves and practicing on Labor Day.

After sneaking his way onto the team with his versatility, Ben Guidugli has been released.  The Rams picked up a great blocking tight end in Stephen Spach, and another veteran blocker in center Tony Wragge.  Center Hank Fraley was also released.

Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo explained how tough it was to let them go.  “We had to make room.  We had to release (TE) Ben Guidugli and (C/G) Hank Fraley which again is not easy to do.  Especially when guys have been around here and have been loyal and great people, (it’s) a hard thing to do.”

New Ram Stephen Spach breaks a tackle while playing for Arizona (AP Photo: Ralph Freso)

Spach is primarily known as a blocker, bouncing around the last few years in Philadelphia, New England, and Arizona.  Wragge has played both guard positions, as well as center, in San Francisco.  “Obviously we’ve seen or gone against the 49ers so we we’re familiar with (Wragge),” he said.  “I thought he would add something to the team depth wise and the same thing with Stephen Spach.  I was actually in Philadelphia when Stephen was a rookie, so I knew him that way.  He got released…it’s a couple of those that you don’t know that are going to appear and they do, so we made those moves.”

But Spagnuolo doesn’t want to typecast Spach as just a mauling blocker, especially in a Josh McDaniels offense.  He said, “Yeah, I mean it’s like when (TE) Billy Bajema came here and everybody tags him as that.  I don’t think they particularly like that because they’re tight ends, they’re athletes.  We’ll find out what all these guys can and can’t do and try and take advantage of their assets and move on.”

Are they done?  Probably not.  But Coach Spags has faith in General Manager Billy Devaney, and his coaches.  Teaching a new system to new players goes with the territory.  “That’s why the coaches are here,” Spags said, “and I think we have a good staff to do that.  But it’s not easy to do that.  You certainly don’t want to have a lot of that going into your first game.  But most of these guys we bring in, Billy (Devaney) and his staff have done their research and we feel like that’s one of the things we put a lot of onus on, the intelligence part.  So hopefully they can get up to speed quickly.”

It’s game week, folks.  And the Rams are as excited as we are to get things going.  After an undefeated preseason, the Rams are looking forward to the challenge of facing an Eagles team that many pundits have all but given the championship to.  Spagnuolo is – without a doubt – taking the Eagles game seriously, but knows there won’t be much of a letdown in competition after it.  “The four preseason games are in the rearview mirror,” he said, “and the only game that’s in the forefront is Philadelphia.  That’s only the way I can describe it or do it.  Philadelphia is an elite team.  It’s going to be a hell of challenge, and I think our guys are looking forward to it.  But in this league all 16 are going to be challenges so we’ll try to face them one at a time and just focus on the one at hand.”

The Rams have as good a chance as anyone to beat Philadelphia.  They are not invincible (OK: sorry for the pun).  As Dennis Green once said, “You wanna crown them?  Then crown their (behinds)!”

Time To Win

Sam Bradford Wants More (stlouisrams.com)

It’s time to win – that’s the plan for the St. Louis Rams. When Sam Bradford expressed his disappointment with the result of the 2010 NFL season for his team, nearly to the point of disgust, it said a lot about the Rams quarterback and his teammates.

Rams fans have been through a lot for the last few years, being forced to watch a lot of bad football. For a long time the team MVP was punter Donnie Jones – he had plenty of playing time over those years. My, how things have changed…

No longer will Rams fans have to look for something else to watch on Sundays after their team goes down by a hefty margin by the end of each first half. No longer will they have to have their children turn away while watching the games in fear of indoctrinating them on how not to play the game. And no longer will Donnie Jones be the MVP. It’s time to win.

As we talked about in my last post, the best sign of the Rams turnaround is the difficulty they had over the past weekend in choosing who they would cut, and who would comprise the new Rams. There were a few surprises, such as the cutting of Donnie Avery and Daniel Muir. But what matters is that they had to cut such players. It shows this team is very deep; and that depth, as we alluded to earlier this week, is the reason this author believes they will be the NFC West Champion.

In our last conversation, we focused on the depth of the offense. After Saturday’s cuts, the depth has not diminished. Avery’s release paved the way for fan-favorite, and Missouri Tigers legend, Danario Alexander to make the team. Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo praised his toughness, saying that “he is one tough sucker. Nobody works harder at it. He never tries to take anything off. He is always out there battling even if his knee is swelling and he can’t really run full speed, he is still out there practicing. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Alexander probably sealed his spot on the team by making a huge over-the-shoulder catch late in Thursday’s game against the Jaguars. He showed he can be the deep threat this team needs – especially after cutting Avery – on that play, finding separation in single coverage. And he showed his tenacity on that play, as well, since he had a ball go through his hands earlier in the game that might have made many players bury their head in the sand. But DX just came right back to show he belongs in this league.

Alexander's Near Miss (stlouisrams.com)

More on Avery’s cutting, many people are wondering how he (along with enigmatic receiver Mardy Gilyard) doesn’t make the team and Dominique Curry does. It’s as simple as this – the guy is just a flat-out Special Teams dynamo. Coach Spags knows how important that facet of the game can be. After Friday’s practice, he said, “(Special Teams Coordinator) Tom McMahon was in here an hour or so ago. We sat down and just talked more about how he saw the guys. Special teams is really, really important to us and it should be with any team and it always is with us.”

In another surprise move on offense, tight end Fendi Onobun was released despite his freaky vitals and skills, and undrafted rookie from Cincinnati Ben Guidugli was kept. Guidugli has quietly been a dependable blocker and sure-handed receiver. Most of all, he can play some fullback when needed, which makes him a better fit. And he’s played well on special teams. General Manager Billy Devaney said, “He’s another guy that we used in multiple positions. He caught the ball pretty good. He can play fullback, he can play on the line of scrimmage, in motion. He gave us a lot of versatility.”

Probably the most heart-breaking offensive cut for the Rams had to be Thaddeus Lewis. He did everything they asked of him, and constantly proved that he was a winner. But with the amount of quality receivers, running backs (and Coach Spags’ fetish for defensive linemen), there just wasn’t enough reasons to keep more than two quarterbacks. The Rams will hope that Lewis will clear waivers and make the practice squad, but they can’t be upset if he gets a better chance on another team. Another heart-breaker had to be the cutting of Keith Toston, who seemed to get better every game.

Now on to the defense – the real reason for the Rams turnaround last year, and the true key to their run at the NFC West Championship. The kind of quality players they had to cut on defense proves how good this unit could be this year. Now no one here is saying that they’ll be the new Baltimore Ravens, but they could be a top five defense this year – even though they’ll be playing some of the best offenses in the league.

Defensive end George Selvie, defensive tackle Daniel Muir, and linebacker Zac Diles were the major cuts on defense – the latter two were brought in to add to the depth of their positions, and the former showed some promise last year by making 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Diles was even forecast as a possible starter at the start of preseason, as he was with the Texans prior to joining the Rams. He just seemed lost out there in the preseason, never fathoming Spagnuolo’s system. But it just shows how deep this defense can be.

At the defensive line, Spags’ linemen fetish (10 last year and 9 this year) could really make it one of the best front lines in the game. Chris Long finally has shown that great talent he inherited from his Hall of Fame father, Howie Long – no, not his acting talent, but his nose for the football. Long had 29 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2010. He even knocked down three passes, had 16 quarterback pressures and 21 quarterback hits. He is the real deal. No word yet on whether he’ll be starring in “Firestorm 2”. I’m still working on the screenplay…

Chris Long (stlouisrams.com)

On the other end of the line, James Hall is coming off a career year in 2010 with 54 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles. He’s 34 now, but still has plenty of gas in the proverbial tank. His new understudy, 2010 first round pick Robert Quinn, has done nothing but impress.

Quinn had to miss an entire season of football because he received improper benefits at North Carolina (he wasn’t alone in this fiasco), and then had to sit out while the NFL tried to figure out how to split up between owners and players their precious money. But it didn’t take long for him to start producing. After coming so close to getting his first sack in the first two preseason games (I was going to start calling him “Almost”), he finally brought down a QB against the Chiefs in his coming-out party. He later blocked a field goal, and his career officially began – and it looks like it will be a very good one. C.J. Ah You (career high 19 tackles and 4 sacks in 2010), Eugene Sims (2010 6th round pick) round out the depth at DE. On Sims, Devaney said, “Eugene is an exciting young guy to watch. He’s got a ton of ability to rush the passer, and he’s one of our top, top Special Teams guys because he’s unique. A guy that big, and…he has gotten bigger since last year. Like any normal second-year player, he’s taken a step up from his rookie year. We really think Eugene has a chance to help us in a lot of ways this year.”

Lining up between the bookends is another very solid group. Fred Robbins had a career year, as well, getting 28 tackles, 6 sacks, and a forced fumble. He’s certainly no little guy – at 6’4”, 325 – and uses his size at the line to his benefit (he knocked down 7 passes last year). A Super Bowl Champion with the Giants in 2008, Robbins adds valued leadership on the front line.

Next to him is Justin Bannan. Another wide-body (6’3”, 310), Bannan is a brick wall in the middle, and will make running backs think twice about trying to run his way. Gary Gibson (2010 starter) and Darell Scott (4th round pick in 2009) round out the great depth of the DTs. On the decision to cut Muir and keep Gibson and Scott, Devaney said, “Darell had a good camp, and that’s what we’re talking about competition. We signed Daniel Muir during free agency, and we liked Muir and Muir has shown he can play in the NFL. What it did, we had guys like you want to see, Gary Gibson and Darell Scott respond and have tremendous, tremendous training camps. It’s what we said earlier in this process. We’re going to keep the guys we think that give us the best chance to win. Just because we signed a guy as a free agent, if the guys that were here beat him out, then so be it. We weren’t going to let draft status affect whether you made the team or not, whether you were a free agent, were you undrafted. I think we stuck to that pretty good.”

The Rams linebackers have the task of stopping the run, which last year’s squad couldn’t do well enough to satisfy Coach Spags (17th in run defense in 2010). Not much needs to be said about James Laurinaitis. But I will anyway. He led the team in tackles in both of his seasons, and is without a doubt a true leader. As we talked about before, the guy is too smart for football. He talks like a professor, but hits like an animal. The son of the great professional wrestler (and one of my personal favorite wrestling duos, “The Legion of Doom”/“The Road Warriors”), “Animal”, James is as is fun to watch as was his father. “Animal”, by the way never misses a game, so be respectful of the fan sitting next to you – or you might end up getting bodyslammed by a wrestling legend…

James Laurinaitis (stlouisrams.com)

Flanking Laurinaitis are two new veterans who are known for stopping the run – Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga. Leber has always been coveted by Spagnuolo, and for good reason. He’s a ten-year veteran who’s played both outside linebacker positions. He has been a tenured starter on a Vikings defense that has been ranked in the top ten for three years in a row. And he hasn’t missed a start in four years. Though he didn’t get a sack last year, Leber has 24 career sacks, and 12 career forced fumbles.

From Left: Bryan Kehl, Brady Poppinga, Ben Leber (stlouisrams.com)

Poppinga was the odd man out this offseason in Green Bay after Clay Matthews became such a force in Poppinga’s former position in 2009. Last year, his season was cut short by a knee injury. After talking with him, we know his time at Green Bay wasn’t because of a lack of energy. If you’ll allow a personal story, Poppinga was my first Rams locker room one-on-one interview (after the first preseason game), and he was so excited to do it, you’d think he had asked me for an interview. After the second game of the preseason, I was back in the locker room, and he picked me out of the crowd – even remembering my name. But that’s the kind of guy he is – good in the locker room and on the sidelines, constantly revving his mates up. And his extensive knowledge of the game shows. I mentioned that Laurinaitis sounds like a professor when he talks; Poppinga sounds like a motivational speaker.  Don’t be surprised if you see Poppinga broadcasting someday. Here’s the interview I had with him after the game against Indianapolis. You’ll see what I mean…

The depth at this position is so much better than years past. Special Teams anchor Chris Chamberlain is back; his 28 Special Teams tackles in 2009 were the most by a Ram in over a decade. He had 19 last year, despite missing five games to injury. And Bryan Kehl has been a great addition to the team. A fourth round pick by the Giants in 2008, he his 28 career Special Teams tackles will help Chamberlain out. His coverage skills are top notch, as well.

Chris Chamberlain is happy to be back (stlouisrams.com)

Someone who captured a lot of attention this preseason is seventh round pick Jabara Williams (AP Third-Team All-American and Stephen F. Austin’s MVP as a senior). He fell in the draft because of his size, but the guy just produces. He has that seek-and-destroy edge to his game, and had a great camp and preseason (11 tackles). And the Rams thought highly enough of him to cut two good veterans in Diles and Na’il Diggs. Devaney said, “Williams from day one showed, he’s bigger than people thought coming out at 240 pounds. He’s really athletic. He picked things up quickly…He is a tough guy. He is smart. He likes to hit and we thought in the future he has a chance to be a really good player.”

Jabara Williams tackles DuJuan Harris (AP Photo)

The Rams boast a great crew at safety. Quintin Mikell will drive offenses as crazy as his name does my spell-checker. He has quickly adapted to the defensive scheme here, and is actually more suited to the Rams defense than the former resident ballhawk Oshiomogho Atogwe. Mikell is especially great at stepping up on the run and blitzing, something Atogwe wasn’t all that great at. He’s had over one hundred tackles in the last three years, four career sacks and 7 career forced fumbles. And with 15 pass deflections last year and 13 the year before, he’s no slouch in the coverage game.

Quintin Mikell's Interception vs. Indianapolis (stlouisrams.com)

After a tremendous preseason and camp, Darian Stewart stole the other starting job from the stalwartly dependable Craig Dahl (98 tackles, 2 interceptions in 2010). Stewart went undrafted (probably because he’s only 5’11”) in 2010, but made the team, and has continued to progress ever since. His sack against Drew Brees last year proved he could step up to the line well, and with Mikell on the other side, the two of them should be stout against the run. Having Dahl to help anchor the Special Teams and for use in sub-packages makes the safety position one of strength.

Cornerback is where things get shaky, though. Ron Bartell has become a shutdown corner who uses his veteran savvy when his speed falls short. He is a sure tackler, and a true leader, as well. This was the guy who organized team workouts and paid for everyone’s hotel bills to do so, after all. But if he gets injured, the Rams could be in trouble.

Bradley Fletcher has developed into a solid corner, and one thing’s for certain about him – you’ll never catch him arm-tackling anyone. He hits way too hard to be a cornerback. But he’s still learning the coverage game, and has to prove he can shut down wide receivers.
Beyond these two, the Rams could be in trouble if one of them goes down. Al Harris has been one the great cornerbacks in this league for a long time, but does he have another season in him? Justin King has been all right – good tackler – but his pass coverage skills could improve. If the game against the Jaguars is any indication, at least he tries to teach a lesson to anyone who beats him by strangling them when the ball gets close…

Justin King defends vs Steve Breaston (stlouisrams.com)

But the Rams aren’t planning on standing pat with what they have. Devaney said they are seeking to add some more depth at corner, “We’re looking at corners. The problem is there’s a lot of teams looking at corners and they’re not out there. But we will keep looking, I promise you.”

All in all, as we said before, this team is far deeper than past rosters. And it should make a difference this year. Devaney said it best, “You want competition at every position and we’re getting to that point where we are putting a pretty good team together and I expect next year to be even tougher. I’d much rather have those decisions, those tough decisions, than be sitting there and say, ‘What difference does it make? These guys aren’t very good anyways.’ At least now we have decisions to make on really good football players.” And hopefully, that means a really good season of Rams football.

It’s time to win.

The Chains Will Move

(Image from stlouisrams.com)

Perhaps my favorite headline from “The Onion” newspaper, the bastion of sarcasm that fans of snark and satire like me love to peruse, was from a couple years back that said, “Hank Williams, Jr., wins award for football preparedness”. After watching a couple preseason games and covering the team for a month, this author says this year’s award for football preparedness should go to the Rams front office of COO Kevin Demoff, General Manager Billy Devaney, and Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo. Despite the uncertainty of whether the football season would even happen, these guys undoubtedly had a game plan in place, and wasted no time enacting it. And the result is a team that should be the favorite to be NFC West Champion.

OK, you’re reading this and saying, “Whoa, Joe; three preseason wins, and you wanna give them the freakin’ trophy?” Take it easy, allow me to explain myself.

For the first time in over a decade, with the exception of the secondary, depth is no longer a problem for this team. In fact, as the mandatory roster cuts loom, Coach Spags and company are going to have a really hard time making decisions.And that says a lot about this team. No other team in the West even compares to the kind of quality depth the Rams have on their roster.

Donnie Avery's TD vs. the Titans (stlouisrams.com)

At wide receiver, how many of us remember the last few years where we didn’t even have enough players at that position to finish the season? Look at last year, for instance, where the Rams had so few quality wideouts that they had to sign the ghost of Danario Alexander. (OK: sorry, DX.) They were so desperate for talent like his that they said, “One knee is fine enough, sign him up; I mean did you see what he did his last year at Mizzou?” True, Alexander has shown a lot of toughness and tenacity in trying to fight through his injuries, and we’re all rooting for him to make it in the NFL because of that. But that’s just it – it was a desperate act last year to get some talent on the roster. Even if he doesn’t make the team, it is inevitable that his talents could be needed. After all, if history proves correct, it is only a matter of time before the extremely talented Donnie Avery’s bones explode, or whatever freaky injury that will eventually ail him. Just like DX, we’re all rooting for him because nobody deserves the kind of bad luck he has had. That is, except for me for making those bad jokes…so much for my karma.

 

We're all rooting for DX, Danario Alexander (stlouisrams.com)

Getting back to the point of the team’s depth, Danny Amendola (2010: 85 receptions, 689 yards, 3 TDs) is back, providing his wrecking ball style of receiver play. As Coach Spags said, “Every time I watch him he goes faster than everybody else. And that’s how he is. He is a mile-a-minute, every minute.” That’s why we love watching him. Brandon Gibson (2010: 53 rec, 620 yds, 2 TDs) seems like a different player than he was when the Rams first acquired him. Seemingly overwhelmed in past years, this more complicated offense isn’t overwhelming him – even in a short offseason. “All you can do is continue to learn and get everything right,” he said.

Mike Sims-Walker was added, as well, to this position to improve the Red Zone statistics (Sims-Walker has scored seven touchdowns in each of the last two seasons). As you know, the Rams were atrocious at scoring once they were inside the twenty-yard line. In this preseason, the Rams have scored seven touchdowns on eight tries in the Red Zone. That is because of the depth of talent the Rams have on offense, including Sims-Walker. The versatile receiver loves the competition between the wideouts.  Coach Spags loves what Sims-Walker brings to the team.  He said, “I think the quarterback is comfortable with him, that’s really important for a wide receiver. He’s come in here and again, he’s grasped the volume of the play book. He’s one of those guys that Nolan Cromwell talks about can play all three positions, so that’s a luxury. And versatility in the wide receiver corp is pretty good.”

Mike Sims-Walker's TD catch against the Chiefs (stlouisrams.com)

When NFL great – wide receiver Chris Carter – blasted the Rams for having no true number on wide receiver on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” show, I threw my radio across the room. What’s the point of having one these days? Put it this way, Cincinnati had two in Chad Johnson (his momma called him Johnson, I’m going to call him Johnson) and Terrell Owens. Were they Super Bowl Champions? No. So, in my interview with Sims-Walker I asked about that fact. I asked him if it was better to have so many talented receivers or to have a true number one. He said, “I like the fact that we have a lot of good receivers; we can do a lot of special things. We spread the ball around and there’s no falloff at any spot.” It leaves teams wondering who to cover. Yes, we finally have depth…but not just at receiver.

Remember the past few years of biting your nails down to the knuckles in fear of an injury to Steven Jackson? With apologies to last year’s backup, Keith Toston, the Rams knew they needed to add some depth there. Adding Carnell….er, I mean Cadillac…Williams and Jerious Norwood just made my fingernails a little longer. The Rams could send out the bruisers (Jackson and Williams) to soften up the opposition, and then allow the extremely slippery Norwood to slip and slide his way through the beat-up defenses. And all three, especially Norwood, can catch the ball out of the backfield – giving Sam Bradford an extra safety net when blitzed. And we saw against the Chiefs how effective the Rams offense can be when they pound the ball now. Safeties and corners around the league are shedding tears of fear just thinking about Jackson running at them with full rest – even with his Predator-esque locks tucked into his pads.

Steven Jackson brushes off a tackle (stlouisrams.com)

Tight end, too, is stacked.  Lance Kendricks has convinced a lot of us that he is ready to be one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league.  And Coach Spags, what have you seen from this kid?  “A lot, (he’s) a versatile guy; there’s been a lot of playbook thrown at him.”  Kendricks was known as a guy with good work ethic, and he’s proven it this preseason.  “I don’t think he’s missed a rep of practice,” Spagnuolo said, “and there are a bunch of other guys in this training camp that have done that. But that’s a credit to him the way he prepared himself physically and certainly mentally. He’s picking it up pretty good.”

Lance Kendricks catches a TD vs. Kansas City (stlouisrams.com)

I know the Kendricks pick surprised a lot of us at the time, but now that we see his skills on the field one can wonder how he slipped so far in the draft.  And for my fellow combine stat freaks, the 20 yard shuttle competition had Kendricks on the top 15 with a bunch of wide receivers. Say no more. The inconsistently dependable Bill Bajema is back. I know that description doesn’t make much sense, but I have a hard time remembering a guy who can drop an easy pass, and then follow it up with a couple circus catches. OK, I remember another – Daniel Fells. Bajema will help the depth – a solid blocker and receiver. And then there’s Mike Hohomamm…Hooomannn…hang on, let me copy and paste it in…Mike Hoomanawanui. It’s even harder to spell than to say. Big Mike could still be the number one tight end on the team if he can get healthy. Finally, rounding out the depth at this position is Fendi Onobun. He has freaky skills, and is showing it on the field these days. He was instrumental in the Rams comeback against the Titans, and will be hard to cut.

On the line, signing Harvey Dahl, as we said in a previous article, solidified Bradford’s protection. His addition made last year’s starter a backup, and made a shaky position a position of strength.

 

Sam Bradford (stlouisrams.com)

And then there’s the quarterback position. Well, no need to talk about this one. Sam Bradford, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, looks like a veteran leader out there. He’s a guy who is used to winning – so much so that he was actually disappointed with last year’s result. AJ Feeley is a dependable alternative in case the unthinkable happens, and Thaddeus Lewis rounds out the depth at the position. Though he might not make the team, he proved against the Titans that he can move the football. Lewis doesn’t have a Peyton Manning arm, or Michael Vick’s legs, but he moves the chains. And with the depth surrounding whomever is hiking the ball, the Rams figure the chains will move.

And this is just the offense. To further prove the point of the Rams depth, and why the Rams will win the NFC West this year, check back with us later this week. We’ll be looking in depth at the defense.

Marshall Does Not Fumble

Marshall Faulk (AP Photo)

Where have you been? No; not me. Marshall Faulk, where have you been?

Since his retirement, Marshall has been working as an analyst for the NFL Network, spreading his unfathomable football knowledge with the rest of us football geeks. By the way, his retirement was the last time I cried; but it’s OK – as Dennis Leary once said, when a major pro athlete retires is one of the few times a man is allowed to cry. Well…that, and when he takes one in the junk. All right, maybe I need to be more sensitive…

Marshall’s also has been busy getting inducted to a little boys club called the NFL Hall of Fame. And he’s not doing commercials wearing fairy wings like some other Hall of Famers we know (what happened, Neon Deon?). Speaking of which, neon colors aren’t even cool anymore. Marshall would never fairy wings; the guy does not fumble like that (speaking of commercials – old 989 Sports commercials).

Marshall is one of those guys who, when you think of football, you think of him. Allow me to start an online argument – Marshall Faulk is the greatest all-around player to ever don an NFL uniform. He’s not the master of stats in NFL history. Most yards gained in a season – no. Most yards in a career? No. Most TDs? No.

Marshall at home, in the end zone

OK, my fellow stats geeks; here’s some fodder for you. Marshall has the record for career games with 200 yards from scrimmage or more (14), and the most consecutive seasons of 2000 yards from scrimmage or more in his career (4). Some dudes named Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson did it four times, but not four seasons in a row.

Marshall is tied for the most career 2 point conversions, with 7. As a matter of geek fact, he had two in one game for the Rams against Atlanta on the 15th of October of 2000. He’s second on the single season list of most yards from scrimmage with 2429 (1999 with the Rams), bested only by Chris Johnson’s incredible season of 2509 yards in 2009. And he’s tied for 6th in total seasons leading the league in scoring. He’s one of two players to have more than one thousand rushing and receiving yards in the same season (otherworldly), in 1999. And he was the MVP of the NFL in 2000. I’m not sure why he wasn’t in other years. In his first eight seasons, he rushed for one thousand yards or more in seven of them. And he is tied for the record for most consecutive games with 4 or more touchdowns, as well as the most games in a season with 4 TDs or more. He had two seasons of 20 or more touchdowns, only equaled by a few players. Did you get your fix? OK, now I can get to the point.
It’s not the stats, it’s not the MVP award, and it’s not the Super Bowl ring. What makes Marshall the greatest all-around player in the league was how he revolutionized the game. Stay with me…

Sure, there were guys before Marshall who could be considered better rushers (Jim Brown, Walter Payton, etc.), and better receivers (Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, etc.). But no player before him was both. Marshall paved the way for guys such as LaDainian Tomlinson, and those who might follow him. The flaw in this argument is that there are so few players with this kind of two-fold talent. Fine; you guys are tough to argue with. But I believe that sets him apart from the rest. Stay with me…

Get off me

There were guys who could be considered better winners – Charles Haley (5 Super Bowl Rings), Terry Bradshaw (4), Joe Montana (4), Ronnie Lott (4). But keep in mind that those guys had great teams. “Hold on a minute, Joe; Marshall was on the Greatest Show on Turf!” Stay with me…

Before Marshall joined the Rams, we languished through the Tony Banks years (with apologies to Felony), Rich Brooks (with apologies to Isaac Bruce), and Steve Walsh (with apologies to his teammates).

Then Dick Vermeil showed up. Our favorite wine-producing, spaghetti-making, hug-inducing coach stormed into town out of retirement, and quickly turned the team into a winner. Oh wait, he didn’t. The Rams were 5-11 in 1997. Then they drafted pancake nemesis, Orlando Pace. It was a good start. But they needed something else. The Rams were 4-12 the next year. Then Indianapolis decided to spend its money elsewhere, leaving Marshall up for grabs – a prospect that Coach Vermeil embraced (pun very much intended).

Hmmm…the next year, the Rams went 13-3. Coincidence? You tell me. Even my fellow stat geeks have to recognize that kind of turn around. I know that offseason included other important additions, including the much underrated Right Guard Adam Timmerman (the Greatest Show doesn’t go on without him) and drafting Torry Holt, but Marshall came here to win. And the Rams recruited him to do so. The end result was the first Super Bowl in St. Louis Rams history.

I don't think so

It is that turn-around which I attribute to Marshall’s importance as a player. As an admitted homer for the Rams in those years (I wasn’t the respected author I am today…stay with me), it made me a real football fan. Save your bandwagon-jumping comments; I didn’t miss a game since the Rams came here, and followed the Chiefs beforehand. I’m sure I’m not alone in that assessment.

Marshall’s arrival changed the football scene in St. Louis. Always known as a baseball town, with a strong cult Blues hockey following, St. Louis was suddenly a football town, as well. Times have been tough since he retired. Though Steven Jackson has admirably broken tackles left and right on his way to a great career, I believe he lacks what Marshall had – an ability to make everyone around him a better player.  He was a coach on the field.

Again, Jackson has been a great player, but he hasn’t created the kind of havoc in opposing teams’ defensive planning that Marshall did. They always had to wonder if they should cover him in the run (which Marshall could do very well) or cover him in the pass (which Marshall could obviously do well, too). If they played him on the run, they were going to have to cover him with a linebacker, which was a mean thing to do to any linebacker because Marshall was certainly going to make him look bad. If they played him on the pass, they were going to leave one of the great wide receivers on those teams (Bruce, Holt, Ricky Proehl, and Az-Zahir Hakim) in single coverage (or no coverage).

No one in NFL history (at least in my time) has ever created such mismatches and headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. He revolutionized the position from the normal bruisers, such as Jackson, and the pass catching specialists (such as Amp Lee), into a backs who could do both (Jackson can catch a pass out of the backfield, but he can never be considered a wideout in the backfield like Marshall). And the most telling sign that he was the greatest of this sort is that there hasn’t been anyone like him since, save for one or two talented back.

Catch me if you can

Yet the most important facet of Marshall’s game was his football intelligence. One of my favorite memories of him was him picking up Hakim when the receiver was writhing in pain with time clicking away in a comeback attempt for the Rams. If he hadn’t, time would have been taken away. Because of this play, which had nothing to do with stats and records, the Rams were able to spike the ball, and later complete the comeback victory. Even his teammates were amazed by his intuition – Demarco Farr still tells this story today.

At the press conference held for Marshall at Rams Park on Friday, August 19th, 2011, announcing that he would…well…be announcing for the Rams for the remaining preseason games, the questions posed by our city’s great reporters, such as Jim Thomas, were what you would think – “what do you think of the Rams”, “how about that Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson”, “how does it feel to be a Hall of Famer”. I didn’t have time to get a question in. I would have asked about his playing ability, of course: “what’s it like to be able to turn left while you’re in the middle of the air?”
But I really wanted to ask him something that ties this all together. It was his football IQ that made him so great. I wanted to ask him, “When are you going to get into coaching, and leave this broadcasting stuff to the people who only pretend they know the game…you know…us broadcasters?”

What do you think? Marshall Faulk, Rams Offensive Coordinator? What a day that would be. But it should make us all feel great that Marshall thinks very highly of our own OC, Josh McDaniels. Marshall is excited for the Rams this year. And we’re all excited to see him on game day, once again.

Those Were the Days...

Rams Preseason Preview

This video was recorded at the annual St. Louis Rams Scrimmage at Lindenwood University on August 7, 2011. Watch it in HD! And read the corresponding article, “A Tale of Two Trenches”. Special thanks to Lindenwood University Television, Greg Shufeldt, and the St. Louis Rams Media Coordinators.

Producer/Editor: Joe Richter

Cameras: Adam Hermann, Neal Brown, Joe Richter

 

A Tale of Two Trenches

Rams training camp; no matter who you are, it can make you feel pretty small.  Especially when you’re the kind of guy who had to endure the painfully appropriate “Rudy” chants while playing for your high school football team.  Yes, I played high school football.  OK, I didn’t actually play; but I did practice.  They had a special position for me – it was called Left Out.

The best way to describe the Rams 2010 season is to call it “A Tale of Two Trenches”.  After all, they say that football is won in the trenches.  Sure, we got to enjoy watching a star emerge in Sam Bradford.  But the reason for the Rams renaissance last year was their work in the trenches, and their moves in the offseason just dug those trenches a little deeper.

The defense especially was the key to the turn around.  The Rams defense hasn’t been this good since Kevin Carter (one of the nicest guys I ever met), Demarco Farr and Grant Wistrom were the anchors of the Greatest Defense on Turf.  That’s right; those guys were much underrated in those Super Bowl seasons.  Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, etc. were great; but would we have had the same chills on Super Bowl XXXIV if Mike Jones hadn’t made The Tackle?

We all know that things haven’t been the same since The Tackle.  Another Super Bowl and some Bill Belichick cheating (OK: sorry, Bill!  The Rams should have given Marshall the ball more), and all of sudden getting to the Super Bowl just wasn’t good enough.  Let’s face it, Rams fans – we were quickly spoiled.  And we learned that really quickly years later.  Oh, what we wouldn’t do for a Super Bowl loss these days…

So let’s move forward to today.  Put it this way, we won more games last year than the previous three seasons combined.  Just take the 2009 and 2010 seasons into perspective, though.  In 2009, the Rams gave up 54 touchdowns (30th in the NFL), 436 total points (31st), and only managed 25 sacks (30th).  In 2010, the Rams leapt forward to 7th in the NFL in sacks with 43, 4th in the league with 32 TDs against, and 4th in the league with 328 total points against.  No matter how snarky I want to get, that kind of jump in rankings is no joke.  Coach Steve Spagnuolo did exactly what he came here to do – to stop the laughing around the league.  Nobody’s laughing anymore when they play the Rams (much like when people are reading my blog…).

Chris Long, Fred Robbins, and James Hall all had career years.  And that’s just the line.  Middle Linebacker James Laurinaitis not only solidified the middle (leading the team in tackles since he joined the team), but also emerged as a leader on a defense that desperately needed one.  By the way, have you heard this guy talk?  Brilliant guy – sounds more like a professor than a football player.  He’s one of the few players who gives you introspective answers that far surpass the usual “give it 110%, work hard, do what’s best for the team” responses.

In the backfield, Ron Bartell finally became so much more than someone with great potential; he just became great over the last two years.  After swatting down 19 passes in 2008, teams just stopped throwing his way for the most part, as he had nine and then ten passes defended in the last two years.  Add that to him being as solid a tackler as there is around the league.  And then in the offseason, he paid out of his own pocket to get a bunch of Rams together to practice.  That is the mark of a man who wants to win, and who’ll do anything to get to the Big Game.  But I’m getting off my trenches theme, so I digress…

On the offensive side – well, it’s obvious that the story was Sam Bradford.  But think back to when they drafted him.  So many people, including me, were worried Bradford wouldn’t make it through the season alive.  Think back to 2009 – if you can think of a pass play that didn’t end up with Marc Bulger, or his backups, supine on the ground, I’ll be impressed.  The Rams gave up 44 sacks that year (tied for 7th), and 98 QB hits (3rd).  So, GM Billy Devaney drafted Roger Saffold in the 2nd round in 2010, and Jason Smith (1st round in 2009) to add some protection.  And Saffold’s contribution to this team can’t be underestimated.  Last year, Bradford was sacked 34 times (tied for 18th), and was hit 79 times (11th).  Of course, Bradford was, to say the least, a bit more mobile than Bulger…

So, what did the Rams do in the offseason?  They added more to the trenches.

Getting back to the defense, Devaney knew the Rams biggest problem last year was stopping the run.  The Rams were 17th in the NFL in holding back opposing rushers with 113.1 rushing yards allowed per game.  Something needed to be done.

To enhance the defensive line, the Rams first drafted DE Robert Quinn, who is already practicing with the first team defense – despite not playing football for a year and a half.  But settle down, James Hall has another year in him.  Quinn will be one of the best backups in the league.  At DT, Devaney scored a touchdown by signing behemoths Justin Bannan (6’3”, 310) and Daniel Muir (6’2”, 312) to shore up the line against the run.  Laurinaitis said in an interview at the Lindenwood Scrimmage, “I like the big guys.”  Then he giggled at how poorly that might have come out.  “Whoever’s in there, I just love what they do; it makes our job (as linebackers) a lot easier.”

At linebacker, Devaney scored again, signing Zac Diles – who can play all three LB positions.  His best position is the weak side, though, which the Rams coveted.  He had 82 tackles for the Houston Texans last season.  At 26, he has his best years ahead of him; someone who can grow with Laurinaitis.  The Rams also added solid veteran Brady Poppinga, and they just signed Ben Leber (32 years old, 24 career sacks) to an already deep group.  Laurinaitis said, “We added some experience at linebacker, guys who have been in this league for a while.  Any time you add experience and competition, it’s going to bring out the best in everybody.”

And that’s just it, the competition on defense is really tough, especially the line.  And that competition will weed out the weak.  Laurinitis said, “Some people shy away from it.  Some people thrive on it.”  That’s life in the NFL, and if you want to be a good team, you need competition within the ranks.  “You want players who are going to push each other, and see who rises up through it.  We’re getting to the point where we have a lot of good position battles going on right now across the whole team, and that’s exciting.”  Trust me, James, we’re excited, too.  Maybe the Rams Defense could be called the new Legion of Doom (OK, I had to fit an Animal reference in there; James is the son of the great wrestler, after all).

In the offensive trench, the Rams added a guy you want to next to in the trench – just not on the other end of a dark alley.  Offensive Lineman Harvey Dahl, known for his grittiness on the line, might be the most important pickup of the offseason.  He isn’t just good, he’s good and mean.  Dahl’s usually counted among the league’s toughest players and dirtiest players in polls of his NFL peers.  Despite the mean reputation, the guy’s a big teddy bear.  When I talked to him, he was full of jokes and was clearly happy to be part of the Rams.  “We’ve still got one of the best backs in the NFL (Steven Jackson),” he said.  “You got to be physical, and move guys off the line of scrimmage.  And I think that’s what we’re gonna do is just pound the ball and try to give Sam some time.”  On Sunday, Bradford kept stepping up behind Dahl’s blocks to complete passes.  If nothing else, Jackson now has one less tackle to break…

Harvey Dahl, showing his mean streak (AP Photo)

So, the keys to the season last year were the two trenches.  But you can never settle in this league, and the Rams were aggressive in the offseason, adding to each.

Laurenitis said, “We’ll find out more on Saturday…that’s when guys really start getting motivated and excited to play is when it’s against another team.”

After a summer of heat that would burn the devil, and a level of uncertainty about whether we would even have football on Sundays, I think we’re all as ready as Hank Williams, Jr.  for some football.  OK, sorry about that…

A video is coming soon!

The Once and Future Blues

The St. Louis Blues – they’re not just an exciting hockey team to watch, but a bastion of charity and community awareness in the region.  Whether it’s the Des Peres Giant, goaltender Ben Bishop, raising money for our veterans, or alumni and current players teaching hockey to area youths, the team has become an institution in St. Louis.  And this week’s Blues Youth Hockey Camp is yet another example of how much they care about the people and city they entertain.

Think about it – when I grew up there was one player born in St. Louis in the NHL, Pat LaFontaine.  But he grew up in Detroit (poor guy).  Then Paul Ranheim (who played more than one thousand NHL games) and Landon Wilson (who got more than 300 under his belt) represented our fair city.  Still, hockey was nothing more than a club game just a couple decades ago.

Fast forward to today.  There are quite a few St. Louisans in the NHL, such as the Stastny brothers, Yan (now playing in Russia) and Paul, solid Calgary defenseman Chris Butler, the menacing former Blue, and now – it’s fitting – a Devil, Cam Janssen, and netminders Ben Bishop and Chris McKenna.  And that’s not the end of the list.

After decades of Blues hockey in St. Louis, the city is suddenly a hockey hotbed.  It may be a testament to St. Louis’ people that so many Blues players make the city their home.  True, our summers are hot; but the people are just as warm.  And the amount of players that stick around proves that.  If nothing else, you might say we’re “South Canada” because, in my experience, Canadians are just as welcoming as a people as St. Louisans are.  I saw ex-Blue, Gino Cavallini, at a charity hockey game raising money for the Disabled Athletes Sports Association, and asked him what it was that keeps the players here.  He said, “You bounce around so much and you find a place you love, and you find the people you love – a town that really takes to you – and it’s hard to move.”  To him, it was the people.  Gino was traded in 1992, but moved back in 2007.  “I called St. Louis my home, even when I was traded.  I’m originally from Toronto, but my home is St. Louis.”

To make St. Louis even more of a “South Canada”, the players who make the city their home got involved in local hockey.  From Larry Patey and Bruce Affleck to Patrik Berglund and Scott Mellanby, the boys in blue have given their time to local teams and players to make hockey so much more than something reserved for private schools and private teams.  Many high schools now have teams, and the amount of players from the area being drafted into the NHL proves how much hockey has evolved in the past couple decades.  Cavallini said hockey was bound to take off “when guys like John Wensink, Mike Zuke, and Larry Patey started retiring, and getting involved in (local) hockey – even before that it was Bob Plager and Noel Picard.  But you got to give credit to the local community and the volunteer coaches that are out there that have been avid hockey fans since the Blues came here in the late’60s.  And it’s starting to pay dividends.  This is a town where you can see, on any given night, alumni in a rink – or a present player with their kids in a rink.”  And the result of that is the great hockey coming out of this town.  “Per capita, we may have more kids playing hockey in college than any other hockey center in the U.S.”  At least we’re still beating Texas…

Some of the great local coaches Cavallini mentioned were at the Mills for the Blues Youth Camp, fostering the future of St. Louis hockey.  Even Blues GM Doug Armstrong’s son, Blake, who will be attending Tufts University in the fall, generously gave up some of his summer to help out.

Sure, it was neat to see Berglund and Bishop come out on the ice for a surprise visit with the kids.  But it is the time invested by local coaches, as Cavallini said, that has really made the difference.  It could be argued, however, that those guys wouldn’t be on the ice, or the kids themselves, had the Blues not become such fixture in the community.  Let’s look at some of those dividends Gino was talking about.

In this year’s draft, three area players were drafted by big league teams – two of which were taken in the first two rounds.  Scott Mayfield was drafted 34th overall this year by the New York Islanders, and will play for the University of Denver Pioneers this year.  Then Dave Lowry’s boys were taken later on – Adam in the 3rd round (by Winnipeg) and Joel in the 5th (Los Angeles).  (It should be noted that Joel was born in Calgary).  Dave Lowry should not be forgotten for his role as bodyguard of the dynamic duo of Brett Hull and Adam Oates.  He was much more than just an enforcer; Lowry also chipped some scoring, with 104 points in his 311 games through his five seasons here (53G, 51A, 432 PM).  He is now an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames.

In 2010, a Kansas City boy, Mark Alt, was taken in the second round by Carolina.  Then Rob Ramage’s son, John, was selected in the 4th by Calgary (currently a Wisconsin Badger), Tony Dehart was taken in the following round (Islanders), along with O’Fallon prospect Michael Parks.  Parks was taken by the home team, the Blues, and is committed to play at the University of North Dakota this year.

2009 saw one local boy taken, defenseman Chris Wideman, who’s currently playing for Miami University.  Scouts are already taking notice of the Ottawa Senators prospect’s smart play with the puck.

The point of all this is that it’s not just the Lowry and Ramage boys being drafted, or Basil McRae’s son, Philip (who proved to be an NHL talent last year with the Blues after they selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft).  There lots of talent here.  Area coaches are raising the bar, including ex-Blues.  So many ex-Blues are coaching, or are helping out when they can: Rick Zombo (Lindenwood University Lions), Jeff Brown (St. Louis Bandits), Al MacInnis, Kelly Chase, Keith Tkachuk; and the list goes on and on.  And this youth camp held by the Blues is one of the big reasons why St. Louis hockey is truly on the map.  Berglund and Bishop hung out, Mellanby did some instruction, as well as former NHL goalie and current Blues color commentator, Darren Pang.  I believe the instructors asked Panger to not wear a helmet so they could tell him apart from the kids (sorry, Panger!)…

Darren Pang with kids from the Blues Youth Hockey Camp (photo courtesy of David Pokorny)

Mellanby said, when it comes to amateur hockey, “St. Louis teams are going out there not just to compete, but to win; and they can compete with anybody in the world now.”

Nearly ten players born in Missouri have been drafted by NHL teams in just the last three years; three of which were picked in the top three rounds.  Hockey isn’t just a local club game anymore, and – thanks to the St. Louis Blues, their alumni, and local coaches and volunteers – maybe we’re seeing the next hockey great on the ice rinks of the St. Louis area.

The Real Captain America/Re-Launching a Rocket

The Real Captain America, David Backes (original image from blues.nhl.com)

 

The Real Captain America

When I saw there was a “Captain America” movie coming out, I was initially happy that someone wanted to make a movie about David Backes.  To my dismay, it’s about some weakling nerd from Brooklyn.  Bummer.

If you’re unsure as to whom should be the captain of the Blues, it’s American David Backes in my book.  And, unlike Steve Rogers, Backes doesn’t need Tommy Lee Jones (or whatever kind of freaky steroids they put the comic book hero Captain America on) to get motivated and into shape.  In an interview with one of the best – and classiest – broadcasters in the St. Louis area, Scott Warmann of KMOX, Backes talked about his offseason.  He said he nearly spent his entire summer training in preparation for another great season (82 games, 31 goals, 31 assists, +32, 93 penalty minutes in 2010-2011).  He said, “Hopefully, we can stay a bit healthier and continue that momentum that we started at the end of the season last year.”  We’re with, you David.  But why do I call him Captain America?

Backes was one of the leaders of the United States Olympic Hockey Team that nearly shocked the indomitable, Gold Medal-winning Canadian team in 2010.  And he will, no doubt, be an American leader next time around.  Because of his leadership on that team, my friends and I began calling him “Captain America”.  He seemed to take the defeat as hard as we did, and he took his frustration out on the rest of the league when NHL play resumed.  The Silver Medal just wasn’t enough for him, no matter how proud he and the rest of the team made The United States.  If you were wearing another team’s sweater, you were going to get pounded by him – especially if you had worn Team Canada’s sweater in the Olympics.  Talk about a real American hero…

Backes is saying all the things a captain should.  It was great to hear he was, again, as frustrated as I was once the playoffs began last year.  I thought I was the only sore loser when it comes to viewing the NHL Playoffs.  Once my team is out, I can’t bear to watch as much brutally entertaining playoff hockey as I should.  He explained, “It’s a bitter taste” to watch playoff hockey; “I don’t watch them religiously, but I’ll flip on ten minutes of a game or highlights, and see some of those guys who we dominated some of the years – especially Vancouver whom we played right with, and they ended up in the finals, and a Boston team we beat in the regular season that ended up winning the (Stanley) Cup.”

That’s what it’s all about for an unofficial captain of a team – winning the Cup.  Backes said he and his teammates know that’s what is most important.  Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins, and other new teammates know it, as well.  Those three guys already have their rings, but as Backes said, “they just want to hold the Cup over their heads again.”

When Warmann asked him his thoughts about being team captain, Backes (very captain-like) quickly brushed it off, especially with the new veteran leadership acquired by Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong this offseason.  He said Army transformed a talented young team into an “experienced team, now; we’re going to have veteran leaders that can keep us calm when things get crazy and give us a kick in the butt when we need it, too.”  He would love to be captain, but he said, “Even if it’s not me, I’ll be the same player I’d be with the ‘C’ on – trying to lead, trying to set examples with hard work, and trying to make things right and do what’s best for the team all the time.”

Though he wouldn’t take credit for persuading anyone, it should also be pointed out that Backes called Arnott and Langenbrunner before they signed with the team to help entice them to join up.  Again, that’s a team captain move.  The added size and experience on the Blues roster couldn’t have made too many Western Conference teams too happy.  The Blues were a pain as it was before the signings, and Backes agrees, “Those guys (the new signings) have played against the Blues, and know we got a hard working team that’s not fun to play against.”  And that has a lot to do with our Captain America.

I know our Captain America doesn’t quite have the ultimate villain that the big-screen Captain America does, the Nazis, but the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks are certainly villainous enough.  The Blackhawks are, well, the Blackhawks – Blues fans don’t have to learn to loathe our longtime regional rival.  And the Red Wings have been menacingly good for a maddeningly long time.  By the way, will Nicklas Lidstrom please retire?  The guy is 41, never seems to lose a step in his game, and has a hard time even missing a game.  In fact, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner – awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman – has never missed more than a handful of games in his entire career.  He’s like the Swedish Wolverine (sorry, I had to get another comic book reference in there).

Anyone who wants to be a captain cannot forget what he’s fighting for, and Backes certainly hasn’t.  He wants to win the Cup for his teammates and his organization.  But he certainly feels obligated to repay the loyalty of Blues fans.  He said, “It’s all about winning games, climbing the standings, and bringing the people in St. Louis what they have been supporting the Blues for so long now, and that’s winning a Stanley Cup.”  Please save us, Captain America.

 

Jonathon Cheechoo with the 2006 Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy (image from sharks.nhl.com)

Re-Launching a Rocket

And he does it again.  In last week’s post, we talked about Blues GM Doug Armstrong swooping in and saving the day by adding some quality veteran players to the talented young Blues roster.  Well, he donned his cape and did it again since then by acquiring Jonathon Cheechoo for a low-risk $600,000, two-way contract (according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).  Although Cheechoo hasn’t been the player he was years ago, he could be yet another vital component to the Blues prospective playoff run.  With all the additions Army made, the word “prospective” is hopefully no longer necessary.

Cheechoo turned 31 on the 15th of July, and injuries have hampered his production since he scored 56 goals and 93 points in 2005-2006.  The guy was one of the most dominant players in the league that year, winning the Maurice “The Rocket” Richard Award for leading the NHL in goals – and the Blues are looking to re-launch that missile.  A positive season in the AHL might be the very rocket fuel he needed.  As competitive as the AHL has become because of an influx of talent over the past couple decades (hockey is blowing up around Europe, the United States, even Mexico!), the “A” just isn’t the “N”.  Just having the NHL within the reach of his stick might be the dangling carrot Cheechoo needs to get his game together.  And don’t forget what the Blues strength and conditioning staff has done for its younger players.  Now that he’s (hopefully) healthy, Cheechoo could get the juggernaut-like power he had when he found the back of the net 56 times.  He doesn’t have to score fifty, though.  Cheechoo just has to add to the depth of a roster that needed all the help it could get last year due to the injury issues it had.

Even better about Cheechoo is his playoff experience.  With 59 career playoff games under Cheechoo’s belt, this acquisition now puts Armstrong’s total career playoff games added over the offseason up to 402.  And, as we talked about last week, before Armstrong’s superhero act this offseason the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games on it.  That means Armstrong added three times more playoff games to the roster than it had prior to his hard work in the two months.  These guys are obviously as serious as the fans are about not just making it to the second season, but making a serious run at the Stanley Cup, as well.  It’s the kind of thing a prospective new owner might love to see.

And if you don’t believe me about hockey in Mexico, check out this link: http://www.hockeymexico.com/

Just don’t ask me to translate…yet.  It, along with the ridicule of my Spanish-speaking friends, makes me want to brush back up on those four years of Spanish I took, though.  Mexico’s Under-20 World Championships Team won the Gold Medal in Division III this year, earning them a spot in Division II next year.  However, I don’t quite see Army going after defenseman, and Team Mexico’s Captain, Manuel Escandon just yet.  And now you know too much about Mexican hockey.

Return top