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The 2013 Rams: Will youth be served?
• By Jim Thomas
They have been careful not to trash what preceded them; then again, why pile on?
The record spoke for itself — 15-65 in the five-year period from 2007 through 2011. A gridiron disaster area if ever there was one and a deep hole, a huge talent gap for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
There was really only one way to go over the long term. Young. But this young?
“Now, never did we say: ‘We want to be the youngest team in football,’ ” Snead said.
But they were just that in 2012 — the youngest team in the NFL. And it looks like a repeat in 2013. League rosters are still settling in and nothing’s official, but it appears the Rams will be the league’s youngest squad once again.
How young? An astounding 29 of 53 players on the Rams’ roster are entering their first or second seasons in the league.
• Four of the five wide receivers fall into that first- or second-season designation.
• Same goes for all four running backs — five if you include Isaiah Pead, who doesn’t count on the opening day roster because of a one-game league suspension.
• Four of the six linebackers on the opening-day roster are rookies.
• In the secondary, four of the five cornerbacks are first- or second-year players; at safey, it’s three of five.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily bad,” asserts Gil Brandt, football analyst for NFL.com and former personnel executive for three decades with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Those young guys bring a certain energy to our locker room,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think it gives us a spark.”
For the veterans, the music and slang can be a little different as the “Generation Next” of Rams football invades the locker room.
“You catch onto it quick,” veteran defensive end Chris Long says, smiling. “You spend enough time around these guys, you catch onto it pretty quick.”
THE WAY OUT
Fisher was attracted to the Rams job at the end of the 2011 season in large part because of the presence of a young, talented quarterback in Bradford, and the fact that the Rams had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
“When we got here and evaluated the roster, we thought that with the number of holes we had from top to bottom on the roster, that you’re going to end up becoming a very young football team,” Fisher said.
Sure, there was free agency. But there were limits. For the most part, the Rams have tried to add quality starters in free agency — cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and center Scott Wells in 2012; left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook in ’13. Obviously, starters cost money in free agency. Lots of money.
“And when you do that, sometimes there’s not enough cap room to go around to afford the vet backups,” Fisher said. “We’ve done everything we could possibly do in free agency within reason.”
So to a large degree, that put the onus on the draft, and the undrafted rookies. And in what largely was seen as a “two-quarterback” draft, having the No. 2 overall pick was a valuable commodity. Once Indianapolis took Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall, there figured to be multiple teams competing for that No. 2 spot to nab Robert Griffin III.
“We had a piece of real estate that we could turn into some picks,” Snead said. “And then we could turn those picks into some more picks. So you knew you were going to acquire a lot of talent through the draft.”
So far, the 2012 trade that let Washington take Griffin, and several spinoff trades, have brought the Rams:
• Defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
• Cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
• Running back Isaiah Pead.
• Offensive guard Rokevious Watkins (Oops!).
• Linebacker Alec Ogletree.
• Wide receiver Stedman Bailey.
• Running back Zac Stacy.
• Washington’s first-round pick in 2014.
Besides giving up the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, the Rams used their original sixth-round pick in ’13 as part of a trade-up for Stacy. So all of the players listed above were obtained for those two picks.
“Like we said, we can’t build Rome in a day,” Snead said. “But we want to do it as fast as possible — that’s the goal. We can compete while we’re doing it, but let’s acquire young guys that we can raise, grow ourselves, and then all ascend together.”
Keep in mind, too, that among the players retained by Snead and Fisher on the original roster they inherited, most of them were younger players.
“Besides Steven Jackson, the best players that were on this team were young,” Snead said. “It wasn’t like you stepped in and you were coaching the Baltimore Ravens and you had these pillars.”
Unfortunately for the Rams, they had more rubble than pillars. According to a Post-Dispatch study, the Rams had 16 players on injured reserve and 53 more on their season-ending roster to conclude the 2011 campaign — for a total of 69 players.
Twenty-eight of those 69 were out of work at the end of the 2012 season; 26 had not played a single down during the 2012 campaign. In short, it was a massive housecleaning of largely veteran players.
“So I think all of those factors combined for us to now have the youngest team in the league,” Snead said.
RAISING THE YOUNG
Snead calls all the young players Simbas, young cubs that he hopes some day will become Lion Kings. If that’s the analogy, then Fisher is the head lion trainer.
“The pluses, the advantages of being young, are that young players are going to continue to improve,” Fisher said. “Sometimes the difficulty with a young football team is when they step on the field — specifically this year’s class — and they happen to be starters, there’s a lot of things that they haven’t seen yet.”
Of course, there is practice time, meeting time, walk-through time, to coach up the younger players and get them ready for the pro game.
“And it’s the coaching staff’s ability to communicate, that’s the key,” Fisher said. “You think you’ve got everything covered, but ultimately you don’t.”
At least things are more focused for the young players now that the regular season is here. For example, over the course of training camp the Rams’ entire offense was installed. Or re-installed for those who were around during the spring practice period. It’s a lot of material to absorb.
There are even instances late in camp where the defense spent one period working against the Rams’ offense (and Rams playbook), and the next period working against — say — Baltimore. That can be confusing. In the regular season, the focus is narrower because you’re working strictly on a specific opponent and using just a slice of the Rams’ playbook. That makes the weekly task easier for the young Rams.
As Fisher sees it, he doesn’t have to be more patient with rookies and younger players. In his mind, it’s all about the mistake. Or more precisely avoiding the mistake, whether it’s a young player or a 10-year vet.
“It’s all about the error (on) that play,” Fisher said. “You know, they don’t make mistakes on purpose. We have to correct the mistake.”
And make sure they don’t become repeat mistakes.
“It ultimately becomes our responsibility, not theirs,” Fisher said. “So hopefully you can acquire guys that understand football and don’t have any difficulty with your schemes and your systems.”
Getting the X’s and O’s down is only half the battle — if that. Rookies and young players need to learn what NFL life is all about, how to be a professional on and off the field, eating healthy, learning how to prepare, take care of your body, and make the right decisions off the field.
“We spend a lot of time in that area once we get down to our final roster,” Fisher said. “We’ll start meeting with our ‘rooks’ on a weekly basis — sometimes bi-weekly basis — on the adjustment to the NFL, the length of the season, the demands, the requirements, the responsibilities.”
Obviously, it’s a group effort to raise the “Simbas,” and it helps to have a seasoned assistant head coach in Dave McGinnis to help with the process.
“I tell you what, I think McGinnis is kind of a guy that’s the babysitter — or whatever you want to say,” Brandt said. “He goes to those (young) guys, and helps ’em grow up quickly. That’s a big thing. He’s somebody that the players like and trust, and I think he has their best interests at heart.”
Fisher has designed McGinnis’ job so that he has the freedom to roam in and out of any meeting room and not be tied down to any one area or side of the ball. With 28 years in NFL coaching and 40 years overall, he can be a trouble-shooter for Fisher, someone that can help the youngsters grow up and also help groom the younger coaches on the staff.
Perhaps fitting with these duties, the players almost universally refer to the 62-year-old McGinnis as Mac Daddy.
“We’re gonna be the youngest team in the league again,” McGinnis said. “But we’ve got talented young players. Rookies, they don’t know it, but they’ve gotten to this point for a reason. They’re competitive individuals. They’re clearly talented individuals, and they’re success driven. You don’t get to this level as a coach or as a player unless you are success-driven. And anybody that is success-driven wants to learn, and wants to get better, and wants to be taught.”
There are two things, McGinnis says, that can’t be manufactured at this level of football. You can’t manufacture loyalty, and you can’t manufacture experience.
The loyalty is a Fisher specialty. In what can be a cold and unforgiving business, Fisher creates as much of a family atmosphere as possible. Fisher tries to take care of his players’ bodies, which helps prevent injuries. He can be demanding, but he also likes to have fun.
Rams players have said they enjoy coming to work every day, and McGinnis is Fisher’s first lieutenant when it comes to making this happen. This approach helps the rookies acclimate and buy in almost from the moment they’re drafted.
“When you’re with Jeff, you’re constantly being taught how to be an NFL professional player,” McGinnis said. “Not only in their personal lives but just in the way you play the game. It’s how he breaks down the game, how he works on situational football, the way he explains things in team meetings.
“What a good team is, what a bad team is. Why you’re doing well. Why you’re not doing well. With all those things, Jeff makes it easier for young players to get up to speed because he gets it on so many levels and that accelerates their learning.”
It is McGinnis’ belief that one by-product of football’s free agency and salary cap era is that it’s harder to keep veteran players. That has led to younger rosters in general throughout the league. And with fewer veterans around, there’s more responsibility placed on coaches to help bridge the experience gap with a young team.
“It’s the life lessons of the NFL, and the fact that they have to get up to speed pretty quick,” McGinnis said.
Players need to know that their coaches are honest, know what they’re talking about, and as Brandt said, have the players’ best interests at heart.
“Because a locker room can smell a phony as quick as anything in the world,” McGinnis said. “A professional locker room is the most real place in the world. ... The players want somebody that can help them, and can be real, and that they know cares about them.”
FAST, ATHLETIC, EXPLOSIVE
But in the end, it almost always comes down to the players. And in the case of the Rams, their success or failure in 2013 largely hinges on all those young players.
Will they be quick studies and challenge for a playoff berth amid the likes of NFC heavyweights San Francisco or Seattle? Or will the experience gap be too much to overcome, bringing a season of ups and downs, flashes of brilliance sprinkled with mistakes, and inconsistency woven through the fabric of the season?
One of the overriding goals of the Rams’ player acquisition process this offseason was to get faster, more athletic, and more explosive wherever possible. To increase the potential for big plays across the board. After a 7-8-1 season of impressive improvement in 2012, the potential is there to take the next step in year two of the Fisher-Snead regime. Namely, making the playoffs.
“I would make an assumption that the expectation level is much higher than it was (a year ago), and that’s a fair assumption because that’s where we are, too,” Fisher said early in camp.
Whether those expectations are met depends in large degree on the young receiver corps: No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Brian Quick, and Bailey. And don’t forget the tight ends, Cook and Lance Kendricks, who at age 26 aren’t exactly graybeards.
“They’ve got a lot of options on this football team,” said Torry Holt, the former Rams wide receiver great who helped mentor the young pass-catchers during camp.
“Obviously, we’re going to go through growing pains, but at the same time those guys have to understand what they’re expected to come in and do — and that’s play at a high level,” Bradford said. “We’ve tried to make that clear to a lot of the rookies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They might be rookies, but they have to grow up fast because we are depending on them for our offense to be successful. So, we can’t afford them to have a season of learning. They’ve got to be able to come in and help us immediately.”
Cook is one of the faster players at his position in the NFL. The same can be said for Austin and Givens.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who worked with the likes of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes during his six-year stint with the New York Jets, doesn’t think he’s worked with a faster receiver group.
As he enters his fourth NFL season, Bradford knows that’s the case in his young NFL career.
“It’s easy to say that this is the fastest group of skill players that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Bradford said. “There’s no doubt that this offense has a totally different feel from the one last year. If you look at some of the pieces that we’ve added, we’re faster; we’re faster at almost all the positions on the field now.
“And I think that puts a lot of stress on the defense. If they hesitate for a second, we’re by ’em. We’re gonna have to figure out how to best utilize that speed, and the things that we can do with that.”
So how will the Rams use that speed, particularly the speed, elusiveness, and versatility of Austin — the mighty-mite rookie and prized draft pick from West Virginia?
“You’re going to have to come out, watch, and see,” Fisher said, smiling.
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