Archive for August, 2011

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!

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