Sunday, February 25, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Scott Linehan was only about month into his new job as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams around this time a year ago. Soon after taking his first job as a leader of an NFL team, Linehan instantly got to learn about the difficult decisions facing a head coach in the league.

The Rams and receiver/legend Isaac Bruce were working hard to renegotiate Bruce’s contract. After failing to come to terms, the Rams were forced to release Bruce, though they had planned to ensure that he would finish his career as a Ram one way or another.
Standing in line at a local Starbucks, Linehan was still a relative unknown around town. He didn’t get recognized too often and he was able to successfully blend in with a crowd.

While waiting in line, a man in front of Linehan had the sports section open to an article about Bruce’s release. Soon after the man slammed the paper shut and said ‘We hired this (guy) a month ago and he’s already cut our best player.’

“I’ve been on the job for a month and we end up cutting one of arguably the best players ever to play for the Rams,” Linehan said as he recounted the story.

With most of St. Louis angry with him already, Linehan did his best to retain his anonymity so the angry fan wouldn’t let him have it. When the Starbucks employee working the counter took his order and asked him for his name, Linehan responded that he knew what he ordered and didn’t need to give his name.

After arriving here for his second go-round at the NFL scouting combine earlier this week, Linehan is much more relaxed than he was a year ago. Linehan spoke with the media Saturday afternoon, breezily answering any and all questions and telling tales of his near run-ins with fans.

Of course, it’s easier to be relaxed when you aren’t in the process of simultaneously
assembling a coaching staff while trying to figure out what you have on your roster, what you need to get, how you’re going to get it and how you’re going to retain one of your most popular players.

“It seems like a whirlwind year from a year ago standing here as a first time head coach,
going through this process,” Linehan said. “What a difference a year makes.”

In the time since Linehan last appeared in Indianapolis, he has gone through a rollercoaster 8-8 season in which the Rams started 4-1, suffered a lull in the middle and finished on an impressive three-game winning streak.

Free agency is set to begin on March 2, about a week away. This year, the Rams are more
than ready to start that process.

“We know a lot more about our football team, especially me and our staff as far as what we
have,” Linehan said. “I think we had an idea of what we had from studying film and tape. You look at your team first when you come in as a new staff and evaluate your team for free agency and the draft.

After having gone through a season with your football team, you certainly know a lot more about really what you actually do have. About half of our team changed from the year before. I feel much more comfortable looking at the combine and free agency as well at this point and have a really good idea of what we feel we need as a football team.”

WHITHER CURTIS?: Wide receiver Kevin Curtis is expected to enter the free agent market when it kicks off next week. In a rather shallow pool of free agent receivers, Curtis will likely be one of the most highly-sought players available.

Detroit is among a number of teams expected to make a run at Curtis. And though the Rams would like to retain him, Linehan is being realistic about the possibility of his third wideout returning.

“It’s still too early,” Linehan said. “We certainly would love to have him back. We have been talking to his representative. It’s 'way too early to say what the market will be for him whether it’s workable or not. We are certainly hoping that at least we will have a shot at bringing him back. He’s going to have a number of options so we are hoping he’ll be able to stay with us.”

Fellow receiver Shaun McDonald is also an unrestricted free agent and a strong possibility to depart. Linehan acknowledges that there is a good chance the team will need to reconfigure its receiver corps and he won’t rule out anything when it comes to the draft considering the talented crop of wideouts available.

“I think there are different ways of giving your self quality depth, possibly free agency,” Linehan said. “This is a very good class of receivers with the juniors coming out.”

BETTING ON BULGER: Quarterback Marc Bulger isn’t quite due for free agency yet, but he’s only a year away. And the Rams have made it clear that bringing Bulger back is a priority.

“I visited with Marc at the end of the season and we talked about getting together with his
representative and having him finish his career as a Ram,” Linehan said. “That will take care of itself. We know it’s a priority, he knows it’s a priority and we just let the guys that get that stuff done do their job as we go through this. It won’t be a distraction, I know that. Marc understands that, we understand that and when the time comes, we will address it.”

Ideally, the Rams and Bulger could come to terms on an extension before the season begins, but Linehan said he isn’t terribly worried that something won’t come to fruition for the two-time Pro Bowl signal caller.

“I think before (the season) would be great,” Linehan said. “If you do it during the season it makes sense. I don’t think you need to rush into it. There is always a time and place for everything, but before the season or during the season I still think it’s something where you don’t want to go into the last year of a guy’s deal, especially at that position.”

WHAT ABOUT BUTLER?: While cornerback Travis Fisher will be an unrestricted free agent on March 2, there has been plenty of speculation about the status of his former fellow starter at corner Jerametrius Butler.

After looking around the market and the desire of teams to keep their players because they have extra money, Linehan said there’s still a possibility that Butler might not only return next season, but also be a part of the defensive plans.

“He factors in too,” Linehan said. “Corners are hard to come by. You look at it and get that free agent list out and you see what a difference a year makes. J.B. could end up factoring in more this year than last year. I could see that happening.”

Butler returned from an injury last season only to find himself inactive for many of the team’s games. Of course, Butler wasn’t happy about that after starting so many games in previous years. But Linehan said he is willing to wipe the slate clean with Butler and have him as a more prominent contributor in 2007.

“I don’t think any player likes to not play,” Linehan said. “At times, he wasn’t very pleased with that and I didn’t expect him to be. Last year was last year and this year is this year. I think everybody has a chance to re-establish themselves in my book.”