Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
11/05/2008

Ever since he lost his first head-coaching gig in New Orleans, Jim Haslett was certain that if he ever got the chance to sit in the big chair again, he would do things differently. He knew the second go-round would be a lot like walking through a darkened room for the second time, where knowledge of the territory is king and mere inches can mean all the difference between clear sailing or a painful toe stub on an unseen ottoman.

So now here he is at the start of the second month as the interim head coach of the St. Louis Rams, and we're already seeing the first bit of evidence of how much Haslett learned from his first mistakes with the Saints. On Monday afternoon, one day after a major figurative stub of the toe — playing an injured and ineffective Steven Jackson in an ugly loss to Arizona — Haslett was no longer walking in the dark.

"Steven's got to give me a full day's work this week," Haslett told reporters. "We can't go into the game not knowing whether he can play or not."

Haslett knew he had made a mistake waiting until the last minute to see if his big tailback could play, and he was making sure everyone knew — most particularly Jackson — that wasn't happening again. Jackson hadn't lied to him. But Haslett knew he had allowed Jackson's own competitive desires to gut it out and play in a big game get in the way of the truth. The truth was that for all his competitive bravado, Jackson wasn't even remotely ready to play at or near top speed.

"He said he was a little sore (in a Monday workout), but again I'm not really sure what that means because I'm just kind of getting to know Steven," Haslett said. "I think the best thing for him is to go out there and condition and run and get that thing as strong as he can, so when he steps on the practice field he can show us and show himself that he's 100 percent ready to go.

"I'm at a disadvantage here in some aspects because I don't really know everybody on the offensive side," Haslett admitted. "I haven't been around them enough to know their thinking. If somebody gets hurt on defense I kind of know them, I know them a little better, I know when they'll be back, I have a better relationship, obviously talking to them. That's the disadvantage you have coming in under these circumstances, so you kind of learn the players as you go."

One of the most important things that a coach must establish with his players is knowing how individuals cope with the traditional old football mindset of "you gotta play hurt." It's often difficult to determine if a guy is about to be a competitive tough guy and play efficiently in pain, or if he's being an unwise braveheart who thinks he's helping by playing with an injury that actually prevents him from doing his job.

But sometimes a coach has to save a guy from himself, and also save the team, too.

In his third season in New Orleans, Haslett made one of his biggest mistakes when he miscalculated an injury to quarterback Aaron Brooks and didn't switch to backup quarterback Jake Delhomme permanently. By the end of the season, Haslett decided to stick with Brooks and Delhomme signed with Carolina. Delhomme led the Panthers to the Super Bowl, while Brooks stayed in New Orleans and threw a franchise record 27 interceptions.

The Jackson situation is not quite as dramatic as the Brooks vs. Delhomme predicament, but the way Haslett is handling it is a clear indication of what the coach has learned from the first experience and how he's applying it to this one. He won't go stumbling around in the dark again. Jackson remains the most important offensive force on this football team, but only when he's healthy. He can't help if he's limping and provides no threat to the opposing defenses.

And now let's pay even closer attention as this ugly season continues to play itself out. Let's watch carefully as we see how long Haslett sticks with healthy players who aren't doing their jobs. We can already see that Haslett has an impatient streak in him. The injuries to receivers Dante Hall and Drew Bennett probably spared both the indignity of being sent to the bench for the rest of the season anyway, because it's clear that Haslett no longer saw them as viable weapons to his sagging offense.

Haslett knows there are some positions on this team where he might be stuck with what he has (read: offensive line). But there are others where he clearly doesn't have to grin and bear it.

So that's why it's time for that corps of young, fast and unproven playmakers named Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton and Derek Stanley to be on the field. If this team is going to lose, it might as well turn the second half of this season into something useful. Haslett is showing that he's unafraid to give the kids a chance to learn on the job. It might not look good all the time, but with a franchise extremely thin on talent, the few youngsters who do show promise should get the playing time over fading veterans who no longer excite or produce.