Training days: Jackson holdout, injuries cast shadow on Rams camp
By Vic Carucci |
Senior Columnist

Ľ Five observations from Rams camp | Video: Camp report

MEQUON, Wis. -- This hasn't been the easiest summer for the St. Louis Rams.

When they broke training camp Wednesday, they did so without their best player -- holdout running back Steven Jackson -- having ever set foot on the field or anywhere else at Concordia University during three weeks of practice and one preseason game.They did so after a rash of injuries early in camp created additional lingering questions about how the final roster will shape up.

They did so without one of the most familiar faces in franchise history, wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who is now a San Francisco 49er.

They did so with their highly celebrated first-round draft pick, defensive end Chris Long, still looking as if he will need some time to make the transition to the NFL -- especially when it comes to separating himself from blockers.

They did so after a poor showing in a 34-13 preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans.

They did so with their glorious past as a Super Bowl contender no longer visible in the rearview mirror.

No, in trying to pick up the pieces after last year's 3-13 finish, there has been nothing particularly great about a team whose offense once boasted the nickname "Greatest Show on Turf."

"It just really comes down (to the fact that) camp is not easy," veteran linebacker Chris Draft said. "You realize that, at any time, someone can go down. Unfortunately, we've had some guys go down and we're missing Steve. So we're missing some of our big guns right now, but what that does is just give (other) people opportunity."

"There was a period there, for about a week, where we had a lot of guys standing on the sideline," executive vice president of player personnel Bill Devaney said. "It affects your practices. It makes the other guys have to work more. And it was a carry-over into the Tennessee game."

Yet, even where health isn't an issue, the Rams have issues.

The biggest is Jackson's holdout. Devaney said there was nothing new to report in the negotiations between the running back's representatives and the team. In the meantime, second-year players Brian Leonard and Antonio Pittman have been trying to pick up the slack. But the team does not have another back with Jackson's explosiveness and game-breaking skills.

Long's development also has drawn attention. He understands how much work he has in front of him.

"It's a new challenge," he said. "It's a different thing every day you're working on to get better. And sometimes you don't get better at it that day, and you've got to work and work for three or four days until you get better at it. And it's onto the next thing.

"Mentally, (camp's) more taxing. Obviously, the circumstances with me being a rookie, and having to learn a whole new system, that's hard for me, and whole new system technique-wise, that's hard for me. So that makes it mentally more taxing."

For coach Scott Linehan, the benefits of camp go far beyond football. He said he learned more about his players this summer than he has in either of his first two camps with the Rams.

"I know more about who hangs out with who, who leads, who follows, and all those kind of things," the coach said. "You see who's drawn to who, and you can build on all those things as you get into the season."

Linehan tried to give his players a little help in battling the psychological obstacles of camp by bringing in one of the most emotional and animated coaches in NFL history, Dick Vermeil, to address the squad on Aug. 9. Vermeil, 71, coached the Rams during their Super Bowl-winning season in 1999, and then entered temporary retirement. He fully retired after a stint with the Kansas City Chiefs. And it was no problem to leave the chores on his 114-acre ranch outside of Philadelphia and offer some wisdom to the players on his former team. Appropriately, Vermeil spoke about the adversity that teams face and how they can draw on them to build inner strength.

More than anything, he was a symbol of what was possible. The Super Bowl ring he wore especially for the speech came after his third season in St. Louis. The Rams were 5-11 and 4-12 in Vermeil's first two years.

Linehan is in his third season with the Rams. In his first year, the Rams were 8-8. Then they managed to win only three games.

Draft and other veteran players (including the four left from the Rams' Super Bowl-winning team -- wide receiver Torry Holt, offensive tackle Orlando Pace, defensive end Leonard Little, and quarterback Trent Green) -- do their best to remind their younger teammates that it is possible to quickly close the gap between woeful and wonderful. Holt seems to have had a change of attitude since last season, when his frustration with the Rams' struggles boiled over into a sideline shouting match with Linehan in a late-season game. Holt also made public his displeasure over the offseason departure of Bruce. He even created some buzz over wanting to be traded.

Now, he appears to be fully aboard with the program and does everything he can to make sure younger players, especially his fellow receivers, are with him.

Camp: Mequon, Wis.
Ľ For more information

Preseason games:
Aug. 9: Titans 34, Rams 13
Aug. 16: San Diego, 8 p.m. ET
Aug. 23: Baltimore, 8 p.m. ET
Aug. 28: at Kansas City, 7 p.m. ET"There's some leadership here," Draft said. "We have to step up, though. Last year was not acceptable, at 3-13, and it's the leadership that really needs to step up and really bring the rest of the guys together and really get a little bit more of an edge."

Although the goal was to start the preseason with a victory, Linehan doesn't want his team to give the Tennessee game anything more than a passing thought.

"The biggest mistake we would make is to look at that game and say, 'This is where we are,' because we really are a lot better team," Linehan said. "Obviously, it would have been nice to have Jackson in, but he isn't. It's reality. We're not the first team that's gone through a holdout and we won't be the last. We've had some injuries, but so have other teams.

"The biggest thing is, while we maintain a level of competitiveness in the preseason, we're getting ready for the season. We know, when all of the dust settles, we'll have those guys ready to go Ö including Steven. There's no guarantee, but there's no reason for me to believe that it won't happen."

Training days: Jackson holdout, injuries cast shadow on Rams camp