Dispatches from a recent day spent at the Rams training camp ..
By Don Banks
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Dispatches from a recent day spent at the Rams training camp, held at the team's suburban St. Louis complex ...
• Sam Bradford is known for his cool demeanor and sense of equanimity, but the Rams' second-year star quarterback can get a little agitated and animated on occasion. Like when people ask about St. Louis's accomplishment of going from 1-15 in 2009 to 7-9 and knocking on the door of last year's NFC playoffs. Bradford bristles when he hears the Rams' 2010 season framed as a success story. And that's putting it mildly.
"It drives me nuts that people think like that,'' Bradford told me last Friday night, after a two-and-a-half hour Rams practice. "It really bugs me when people tell me, 'Oh, man, you guys had such a great season.' I mean, no, we didn't. If you want to look at it like, yeah, we made improvement, we got better. But at the same time, we finished 7-9. We didn't even have a winning record, you know? That's not what we're shooting for at all. We didn't finish where we wanted to be.
"That's what frustrates me. It kills me that people really don't know what's going on all the time. People would ask me [this offseason], they're like, 'Oh, you guys made the playoffs last year.' And I'm like, 'No.' And they would say, 'Oh, you were really close, right?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, if we had won our last game, we would have made it.' They'll say, 'Well, maybe you'll do it this year.' I'm hearing that a lot, and I'm like, really?''
Bradford and the Rams faced a pair of playoff-type games to end the regular season, and they had to win both to claim the NFC West and return St. Louis to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003 season. They beat San Francisco at home in Week 16, but lost that quirky winner-take-all-showdown at Seattle, 16-6, on the final Sunday night of the regular season. Seattle finished 7-9 and went to playoffs, becoming the NFL's first division titlist with a losing record, while St. Louis finished 7-9 and went home in dejection.
"I'm not going to lie, I've thought about that game quite a bit this offseason,'' Bradford said. "Seven-and-nine is not what we were shooting for at all. If we went out and did that again this year, I would be extremely mad. And I would expect and hope my teammates feel the same way. A 7-9 record should never be satisfying for anyone. Because if you set your sights on 7-9, you have no shot to do anything better than 7-9. You set your sights on winning the Super Bowl. Losing that game is just motivation to finally get there [in the playoffs]. The first rule is, if you want to go the Super Bowl, you've got to make the playoffs, and obviously last year we came up short.''
Just short, but I think we can cross off complacency as the potential downfall of the 2011 Rams. This guy is driven, and Bradford told me he found it difficult to even watch Seattle's two playoff games, that huge home-field upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Saints and then the divisional-round loss at Chicago. "Yeah, I watched it, but I really wasn't thrilled,'' he said. "It is what it is.''
While Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo last January told his team that it had basically played in a pair of playoff games to end its season, and tried to make something positive of the loss to the Seahawks, Bradford doesn't really buy into that logic. And that's going to serve these Rams well over the year. Because you want a franchise quarterback that's not easily satisfied.
"If you want to look at it that way, I think there is some benefit,'' Bradford said. "It was a good experience for us knowing that everything was on the line. But I would like to play in a real playoff game before we start considering those playoff games.''
• The most critical story of the summer in Rams camp is obviously the fit between Bradford and the offense that new coordinator/quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels brings to town. So far, so good, though QB and tutor wish they would have been able to begin their relationship a whole lot sooner than they did in the Year of the Lockout. Bradford loves the offense that McDaniels has successfully coached in New England and Denver, because it's known as being a very quarterback-dictated offense, with a lot more pre-snap responsibility resting on Bradford's shoulders than in the offense he ran last year under since departed coordinator Pat Shurmur.
"It's awesome,'' Bradford said. "It's a challenge, and I love the challenge. If you ask any quarterback, they want total control. Because if I'm in control and I'm the one making the [pre-snap] calls, then I know exactly where everyone's supposed to go, and I know exactly where I'm going to be hot, and exactly where my problems can be caused. And I know the problems that I can fix with my calls. Whereas if I was letting someone else make the calls, I really don't know all of that. If I'm making the calls I know everything.''
Last year, Rams center Jason Brown was responsible for making most of the protection calls, as well as identifying the defensive front for run and pass plays. Bradford, a rookie, wasn't exactly a spectator, but he was there more to confirm the calls that Brown had just made. There's a night and day difference in McDaniels' QB-centric offense, and guys like Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton have prospered playing in it. Bradford can't wait to take the wheel and go for a spin.
"It's pretty exciting as a quarterback to get to play in this system,'' Bradford said. "When you look at what he's done in both New England and Denver, their offenses put up numbers. The problem in Denver wasn't the offense. When I found out he was coming here, I was extremely excited for the opportunity.''
Spagnuolo said he debated whether to hire a quarterbacks coach to serve under McDaniels, who was fired as the Broncos head coach last December, late in his second season on the job. But McDaniels handled both roles during some of his stint with the Patriots, and Spagnuolo decided to not mess with the success of that track record.
"I really felt it was important that the only person feeding anything to Sam in this first year was Josh,'' Spagnuolo said. "They have established a great rapport and relationship, and Sam is embracing and absorbing all that goes along with this offense. We've kept a good percentage of what we did last year, and Josh was real good about it. Obviously we would have liked to have had more time, but we're playing catch up pretty well.''
In an intrasquad scrimmage Sunday night, Bradford looked at ease in the Rams' new offense, completing 13 of 20 for 140 yards and one interception, with four touchdowns against the team's second-string defense. Eight of those receptions for 70 yards went to Bradford's favorite security blanket, receiver Danny Amendola, who is going to be the NFC's version of Wes Welker in this offense (if he's not already). The newly acquired Mike Sims-Walker, the ex-Jaguar, had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
"I talked to [ex-Broncos receiver] Brandon [Marshall] even before I got here and he said, man, you're going to love this offense,'' Sims-Walker said. "It's built for a receiver. It's a receiver's dream. This offense gives you a lot of chances to make plays. I was watching film of both New England and Denver running this offense, and I was just like, 'Wow,' shaking my head at all the opportunities you get as a receiver.''
• McDaniels is no dummy. He looked at the Rams and saw a young, star quarterback coming off an NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year season, a defensive-minded head coach willing to toss him the keys to the offense, and an improving team that's still on the rise. Hello, St. Louis!
"Sam Bradford is a guy you'd like to coach if you're an offensive coordinator, let's be realistic about it,'' McDaniels said. "He has a unique ability in terms of his accuracy to put the ball where only the offensive player can touch it. He's already made numerous throws that kind of leave you standing there with a smile on your face.''
It helped, too, that McDaniels and Spagnuolo had formed a friendship over the years, from when Spagnuolo's defenses with the Eagles and then Giants were trying to figure out a way to stop the Patriots offense that McDaniels coached.
"I knew the problems he presented when you tried to defend against him,'' Spagnuolo said. "I'm still an admirer for the upper echelon head coaches in this league, and Bill Belichick is one of those. This was probably my closest way to get a piece of Bill Belichick, and I say that with a great deal of respect. I'm always asking Josh, 'What would Bill have done?' Because they do things the right way, and I always believed in that system from the standpoint it was hard to defend when the quarterback can run things and change things at the line.''
Not surprisingly, I couldn't get McDaniels to weigh in much on the Tim Tebow vs. Orton drama unfolding in Denver -- he just kind of grinned at me -- but he did make a point of telling me how much "fun'' he was having just coaching football again. That's coach-speak for something along the lines of "I really got tired of all the headaches you've got to deal with as a head coach, and it's nice to worry about just football for a change.''
Don't forget, after Belichick got fired from his first head coaching gig in Cleveland, he spent time as an assistant head coach or defensive coordinator with both the Patriots and Jets, and then had considerably better luck in his second head coaching stint. It has to be the blueprint McDaniels is hoping to follow after the disastrous way his Denver tenure ended.
"There are a lot of plusses to this situation,'' McDaniels said. "When I came here and interviewed, I spent 10 hours with Spags, [general manager] Billy [Devaney] and [Rams VP of football operations] Kevin [Demoff]. And I knew when I left, this is it. This is where I want to be.''
• Last year at this time, the Rams looked almost devoid of receiving weapons, but that's not the case any more. St. Louis has 12 receivers in camp, and it's going to be difficult to get down to the six the Rams will keep. Besides the productive Amendola, there's the big-play potential of Sims-Walker, who signed a one-year deal after coming off an injury-plagued season with Jacksonville in 2010, third-round pick Austin Pettis of Boise State, fourth-round pick Greg Salas of Hawaii, last year's fourth-rounder Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery, Danario Alexander and the underrated Brandon Gibson.
"All of those guys understand that there's more guys in that room right now than there's going to be come the end of the preseason,'' Bradford said. "We're not keeping them all, and the competition has elevated their play already. For some of the young guys to come in and play the way they're playing, it's pretty impressive.''
Salas and Pettis have stood out early, as has the second-year man Gilyard. Spagnuolo told me the game doesn't look too big for either of his rookie receivers, and nobody can stop raving early in camp about second-round tight end Lance Kendricks, the former Wisconsin Badger who I've been impressed with since seeing him play in person in Madison, where I live. McDaniels is moving the athletic Kendricks all over the field, from tight end, to fullback, even splitting him out wide. If he doesn't already lead the Rams in camp reps, he's close to it.
"He can really run, but the thing I'm most impressed with is how physical and tough he is,'' McDaniels said. "He can block. He's a rookie and he'll make mistakes, but to me the best thing about Lance is he's going to be able to affect the game positively in more than one way. He's not just a pass-catcher. He's a special guy and we're excited to have him.''
• It's going to take a while to figure out how the Rams stack up in the NFC West this season, because they have an extremely backloaded division schedule. St. Louis doesn't play a division game until early November, in Week 9 at Arizona. But six of their final nine games are against the Cardinals, Seahawks and *****. I suppose at least Spagnuolo has time to learn what his team can and can't do by then. But drawing the tough NFC East and the top-heavy AFC North in inter-division play this season probably won't do the Rams any favors. St. Louis starts the season with games against Spagnuolo's two former teams and the talented Ravens: Eagles at home, at the Giants, Baltimore at home.
"I don't know how that's all going to work out for us,'' Spagnuolo said. "But there's nobody who really jumps out right now as a favorite in the division. We're going to remain confident that we can win the deal, but that doesn't mean we're taking it for granted. Every team in the division has a pretty good case to say, 'Let's go win the NFC West.' ''
That's true. In a division where all four teams were under .500 and separated by just two games top to bottom (7-9 to 5-11), everybody has the right to think they can win. The Cardinals traded for Kevin Kolb, the ***** hired Jim Harbaugh, and the Seahawks went out and got Sidney Rice and a new starting quarterback in Tarvaris Jackson. The Rams? Hiring McDaniels was their big offseason move, and they've got Bradford. That makes them the division favorite in my view.