Thursday, January 4, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

In the ebb and flow of his first season as an NFL head coach, it would have been easy for Scott Linehan to get caught up in the power and ego involved with his job title.

While Linehanís first time out didnít result in a playoff berth, it did involve a two-game improvement over last season and plenty of lessons learned about what it takes to win at footballís highest level.

Along the way to an 8-8 season that saw the Rams start out 4-1, fall as low as 5-8 and battle back to 8-8, Linehan gathered a variety of things that should serve him well as he develops as an NFL leading man.

ď(Itís) one time around the track,Ē Linehan said. ď(I) learned a lot, got a lot more to learn, but I think progress has been made, and weíre making the adjustments necessary to get to the next step; which we werenít able to get to, but we made a concerted effort to get there. I think it makes it easy to set our goals for next season, and we can make the same amount of improvement that we made in one year from this season to the next, and it gives us a legitimate chance to achieve the goals we actually set for ourselves last year.Ē

Make no mistake, Linehan and the Rams had big plans this season. Like most teams, they had designs on a playoff berth, a division title and beyond. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that many of those goals would be reached or were at least within striking distance.

After five games, the Rams were 4-1 and coming up with big plays at opportune times. But they werenít exactly dominating those games and had some flaws that would be exposed in the next part of the season.

St. Louis suffered a devastating late-game loss to Seattle the next week that sent it on a tailspin that ended with the team losing seven of eight. Mixed in that streak was a pair of losses to division rival Seattle and the game that might have been the turning point for Linehan and the Rams.

The Rams dropped a 15-0 loss to Carolina on Nov. 19 in a game where they barely made it to midfield. Soon after, Linehan found himself re-evaluating what the team was doing from all aspects.

ďIt was a low point,Ē Linehan said. ďIt was Carolina for me just because I felt like we were stumbling, and we didnít really look like we had the direction we had going into that game. I thought we competed very hard all year long, but I felt in one game, in my opinion, and I know there was a little stretch there where we were down a little bit, but that was the game where I didnít feel like we showed the competitive spirit necessary to win football games in the NFL. We had to make some major adjustments. It always starts with the head coach, and then I think the other coaches and players need to do the same thing. Hopefully we were able to overcome a time like that, and really move on and learn from it.Ē

Itís easy to talk about making major adjustments, but to identify what those are and actually follow through is something else all together, especially for a first-year head coach. But when the Rams struggled to get much of anything going against the Panthers, Linehan made a bold and drastic move.

The following week against San Francisco, he turned the play calling over to offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

ďI think it was difficult at the time just because itís a pretty humbling experience to go through that,Ē Linehan said. ďBut I also believed it was the right thing to do. The overall plan at some point was that that was going to happen anyways, regardless of the Carolina game or anything else. Maybe going into this year, maybe two thirds into the season, maybe the last game of the year. We didnít really know. I think youíve just got to be prepared to make the adjustments that you need to make to improve.Ē

Improve the Rams did. The offense began to roll as Olson found the perfect blend between the pass and the run and running back Steven Jackson emerged as a star. Linehan began to focus more on running the whole team, handling every problem that came along and even focusing some attention on the defense.

The Rams finished the season on a three-game winning streak and what Linehan calls the high point of the season. The teamís blowout win against the Vikings in the finale built momentum toward what everyone in the organization believes is a bright future.

ďIím a big believer in momentum,Ē Linehan said. ďYouíve got to use it when you can get it. I think we can use the things that we learned from and that we made the adjustments necessary to get ourselves back in position to be competitive or at least have a chance to get in the playoffs, we can use those lessons and some of the adjustments that we made for the future. Iíve always said you canít replace experience. You canít go bottle it up. You canít go get it. You canít buy it. Youíve got to go out and get it done. Weíve had some positive and negative experiences, but I think weíve learned from all of them. I think itís something that we can certainly, momentum-wise, use for the next season.Ē

Linehan and the Rams will head into the offseason with a fairly simple list of priorities. Linehan doesnít expect much if any turnover to his coaching staff and the needs for help stopping the run defensively are clear.

Other than falling short of the playoffs, Linehan enjoyed his debut season and believes the team laid the foundation for something special.

ďItís been great, to be honest with you,Ē Linehan said. ďI canít say that itís always been easy. The reason we do what we do is because we love what we do. Itís easy to love it when everythingís going well and youíre winning, but you really get tested when itís a gloomy day outside and you just got shut out. I think the thing that was most gratifying for me is that our guys stayed pretty steady. I think itís a testament to our staff and the maturity level of our players that they were able to keep their heads above water and keep their wits about them when things werenít that good. I think know that weíve ended the season on a positive note, even though we didnít make the playoffs, it certainly gives us a lot to look forward to in starting over.Ē