Burwell: Fisher glad to be back 'where I belong'

BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist
Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Jeff Fisher you think you know — arms folded, perpetually piercing sideline stare, the intense epitome of the scowling, no-nonsense NFL head coach — has apparently not arrived at Rams Park just yet. But give him time.

It's the offseason now, and even though Tuesday morning was the first time in nearly 15 months that the new Rams coach was on a football practice field, the early days of his extensive overhaul process of the franchise are apparently being conducted at a surprisingly easy pace.

"He's got such a cool, calm demeanor about him," says linebacker James Laurinaitis after carefully observing his new boss over the past few months on the job. "It doesn't look like he gets riled up. I haven't seen the riled-up Coach Fisher yet."

That, of course, is all subject to change and at the proper time will crank up to match his all-consuming reputation. Fisher is here to finish the job that Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney started, but never quite completed. It's not so much a dramatic cultural change as it is a more subtle and practical one.

The difference?

When Devaney and Spagnuolo took over, everyone thought they could get the job done. With Fisher now in charge, the thinking part of the Rams collective mentality has been replaced by the knowing. Knowing all about Fisher's track record as a winner in the NFL creates the sort of commanding presence that is needed to take the Rams from struggling wanna-bes to competent and believable contenders.

"He's someone who has been around this league a long time and has won a lot of football games," says quarterback Sam Bradford. "I believe in everything he tells us, I believe in everything he says in those team meetings. ... I think everyone in that locker room is behind Coach Fisher."

We've been through this a lot with the Rams, listening to the predictable comments of the players after another coaching change. Every time, it's the same stuff, as the team kept shifting leaders, kept shuffling the deck, kept hiring and firing, kept searching for the man with the magic touch. Fisher is the first one since Dick Vermeil to show up with a résumé that had some head-coaching heft behind it. And that matters to this group of players, who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

They're not interested any more in being led by neophyte head coaches who are using them as part of on-the-job training. For the past few months, they have had plenty of opportunities to observe how Fisher works and what he believes in. When he stands up in front of the room and goes over offseason scheduling, when he talks at length about his concepts for preparing for next season, when he breaks down serious, deep inner-football conversations and explains how the offensive and defensive playbooks will be installed, there isn't a soul in the room who should have the word "if" floating in their heads.

This isn't a matter of "if" it will work. They already know it has worked, so convincing players to buy in is one less thing that a veteran like Fisher has to concern himself with on his extensive offseason to-do list.

It was rather interesting to watch day one of the two-day veterans minicamp, as Fisher led 60 veterans onto the practice fields at Rams Park. Even though he was extremely fired up to be back on the field coaching again — "This is what's fun," he says. "This is what I missed, and this is where we all belong, getting better." — he is experienced enough to know that you don't win any games at minicamp.

So the low-key, cool and calm Jeff Fisher was on display Tuesday, urging the veterans to practice smart. "He told us don't try to be an Earth City All-American out here today," Laurinaitis says. "No need to impress anyone (at minicamp practice)."

Fisher didn't want anyone diving for passes, trying to knock anyone's head off or make a spectacular hit, block or pull a muscle overextending themselves. There will come a time when competition will matter, and you can bet the tempo, energy and intensity better be there by July when training camp opens and jobs are on the line.

But veteran head coaches know what a two-day camp in April is about. It's about building teamwork, learning the playbook, easing into all the running, passing, catching, blocking and tackling as part of the offseason program.

It's all starting to feel like football again for Fisher. On the field with players in the morning, up in the war room in the afternoon, poring over tapes and stacks of draft grades on players, then staying up all hours of the night to evaluate and stack the draft board.

Up early, out late. Then hurry up, turn around and start all over again. That's the familiar pattern of a workaholic coach. Fisher has eagerly awaited this kind of action after a year-long sabbatical. Like nearly every coach I know, Fisher clearly isn't afraid of some hard work. When someone asked how early his days and late his nights have been, Fisher just grinned.

"Sometimes I pass myself on the way coming in," he joked. "I just wave (to himself) and say, 'Get out of the way.'"

He can't wait to get going, even though the season seems a million miles away. But by early Tuesday evening, it seemed to draw a bit closer when the league released the 2012 regular-season schedule and Fisher could finally add one more important piece of information to his team's calendar.

A trip to Detroit to open the season, a home opener the following week that brings the spectacular rookie Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins to town. A nationally televised Thursday night home game against the Cardinals in Week 5. Two weeks later, the long trip to London to face the New England Patriots. By the time the Rams hit the bye week break in Week 8, we should already know quite a bit about what Fisher's team is all about.

The first half of the season, at least based on last year's records, is neither unfairly overwhelming nor a charitable cakewalk. Three road games, five home games (including London), three of the first eight opponents with winning records (15-1 Packers, 13-3 Patriots and 10-6 Lions). This is the sort of early-season challenge that will let us know quickly what sort of team Fisher's Rams are going to be.

"I haven't lost a game in over a year," Fisher joked Tuesday afternoon.

We know that's going to change, too.