Wednesday, May 13, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
After 11 seasons in the league, all spent with the Rams, Leonard Little is the last man standing.
With the offseason departures of Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Trent Green, Little is the final player on the team’s roster from the 1999 Super Bowl championship team as the 10-year anniversary of that magical season approaches.
At the team’s second minicamp earlier this month, that reality began to set in for Little.
“It goes by fast,” Little said. “For me to be sitting here and be the longest tenured Ram, I never thought it was going to happen. But it is here, so I have to try to lead the young guys as much as I can and try to bring them along. Once you’ve been in the league over 10 years you already know basically what the steps are of being successful. I just try to do what I need to do to make this team better and plus try to talk to the young guys and try to help those guys out too.”
What Little has done to help make the Rams better throughout his career is simply be one of the league’s best pass rushers. In his time in the league, Little has racked up 81 sacks, the most in the history of the franchise since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
At 34, Little is the team’s elder statesman but remains its most viable pass rush threat. And though he is the first to admit he doesn’t have the speed rushing from the outside he once did, he believes he still has plenty in the tank as he heads into the final year of his contract.
“I’m energized every year,” Little said. “What people don’t realize is this is like my eighth year in the league. I didn’t really play my first three years here. I still have the energy I usually have. I just try to go out and get better every day.”
Having Little at his best would be a tremendous advantage for a revamped Rams defense that is still in the process of coming together.
With new head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole in the fold, the Rams are incorporating myriad defensive ideas into the new scheme.
That scheme is expected to be an aggressive, attacking type of unit that takes bits and pieces from what the Eagles, Giants and Panthers do in getting after the quarterback.
In Spagnuolo’s defenses, pass rushers are at a premium.
“It’s exciting for me because this is my first defensive head coach,” Little said. “He has had success in the past and it’s a matter of us knowing what we have to do first and then we can play fast and create turnovers and do the things we need to do. This defense is going to rely on the guys up front to put pressure on the quarterback. That’s going to be the biggest thing about this defense, so it really puts pressure on the front four to be great pass rushers and get to the quarterback.”
Despite what some outside observers might think, the job of the front four in the Rams’ new defense requires much more than pinning your ears back and chasing the quarterback.
“It’s not like that,” Little said. “It’s a lot of thinking involved with this defense because it requires the defensive ends to do a lot of things. We’re dropping in coverage. Like I said, we’re taking philosophies from three different teams, so we have to learn a lot of different stuff. So that’s what we’re trying to do is just get honed in and hopefully in training camp everything goes smooth.”
One way for things to go smooth for Little is the opportunity to play at full speed for a full season, something he hasn’t been able to do in either of the past two seasons.
In 2006, Little posted arguably his best season, finishing with 70 tackles, 13 sacks and six forced fumbles.
A toe injury limited him to seven games the following season and he was forced to have surgery on it soon after he went on injured reserve on Nov. 7 of that year.
Last year, Little appeared to come back healthy before suffering a hamstring injury in the season opener against Philadelphia. He missed the next two games but came back as the pass rushing force he was expected to be with two sacks against Buffalo on Sept. 28.
Little added a sack the following week against Washington and another sack and a half against Dallas the week after.
The injury bug bit again against New England when he aggravated the hamstring injury and left the game in the second quarter.
Although Little played out the season, he did it in serious pain and wasn’t as effective the rest of the way and finished with six sacks.
Since the end of the season, Little has done all he can to get back to health. At both minicamps, Little was able to participate in the majority of the work and reported no pain from the hamstring.
“It’s getting better,” Little said. “I’ve been doing a lot of rehab on it. I’ve been doing everything with the team, so it’s getting a whole lot better. Hopefully, by the time I go to training camp and the next minicamp I’ll be able to go full speed. I’m going full speed, but I haven’t really turned it all the way up. But I’m doing what I need to do.”
Soon after the season ended, Little was advised to let the injury rest for about eight weeks. So Little didn’t do much of anything for about two months and only started running again in March.
Back at close to full speed, Little is embracing the changes and enjoying having a defensive head coach for the first time in his career.
“Knowing that we have a defensive head coach, to me, this is my first defensive head coach, so in knowing his background and his history it really makes guys want to go out and learn and do what we have to do to make this defense good because he has a history to uphold,” Little said. “A lot of guys have to learn different things and I think guys are really into it and trying to learn what they have to do.”
As the Rams prepare for the summer and training camp, Little is doing his best to adjust to life without some of his released friends and teammates.
And though the likes of Holt, Pace and Isaac Bruce won’t be around to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their success together, Little wants it to be known that it was an honor for him to play with them for as long as he did.
“Man, I mean it’s really weird,” Little said. “I’ve been with those guys like 99 percent of my career; from day one of my career. It’s weird to see those guys go, but it’s the nature of the league. You know things like that are going to happen, so you just have to take it in stride and try to move on from it. But it was nice playing with those guys because all three of those guys are Hall of Famers. I can always tell my kids that I played with some of Hall of Famers.”