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Long learning hard lessons in rookie season
By Steve Wyche | NFL.com
ST. LOUIS -- Chris Long found himself in an awkward situation earlier this week.
The coach who had a say in making him the Rams' No. 2 overall selection in last April's draft, Scott Linehan, was fired Monday. Two of the personnel men who also were in his corner, general manager Jay Zygmunt and president John Shaw, were, in essence, declawed by owner Chip Rosenbloom at the same time Linehan was let go.
Yet, Long also felt the temperature of the locker room before Linehan's dismissal and it was feverish. Compounded with an 0-4 start and the mixed feelings some players had toward Linehan, things were unhealthy.
The dysfunction consumed some players. But not Long.
His DNA is NFL-laden, with former Raiders great Howie Long being his dad. So the unexpected of the NFL is something he knew to expect.
"I'm not freaking out," said Long, the Rams' rookie defensive end. "We're not freaking out. I feel grateful for coach Linehan bringing me here and the rest of us rookies here. We're all grateful. We feel like we've got a guy who is capable of helping us in (interim head) coach (Jim) Haslett now. This doesn't change anything for me."
Long's narrow, football-driven focus is one of the reasons why the Rams drafted him out of the University of Virginia. There is only so much he can control, so he figures he should go hit somebody in the meantime and let others work through the muck. His lack of experience in NFL turmoil and his youthful optimism play heavily into his favor at the moment.
That is a good thing for him and the Rams.
"If this is as bad as it gets I'm going to be just fine," Long said. "I just have to play better so I'm just going to try and play and get better. I have a lot to worry about just being a rookie. I can't worry about all these exterior things."
Long's approach has translated to production. He has 16 tackles, which leads all rookie defensive linemen. He and fellow defensive end Leonard Little have two sacks apiece to lead the Rams. Only three other rookies -- Seattle's Lawrence Jackson, Miami's Kendall Langford and Cleveland's Alex Hall -- have gotten to opposing quarterbacks as often.
Long's dual strengths as a run-stuffer and tireless pass rusher are serving him well in St. Louis' 4-3 front, although the defense has been the second worst in the NFL, giving up an average of 411.8 yards per game. The Rams have also given up a league-worst 147 points, all but 14 surrendered by the defense. Those numbers have overshadowed any individual success.
While Long has shown the desire to get better, the key for him and other young players with St. Louis -- like last season's first-round pick, defensive tackle Adam Carriker -- is to avoid the temptation to get mentally beat down, veteran defensive tackle La'Roi Glover said.
Lessoning personal and team expectations lead to remedies of excuse-making, finger-pointing and a miserable existence.
"This, what's gone on, football as a whole, is a metaphor for life," said Glover, who is in his 12th NFL season. "With those young guys, I've told them, 'It doesn't matter how you start. It matters how you finish.' I've been in games where I've had the worst first quarter, second quarter, third quarter ever but finished the fourth quarter strong, made some great plays and won the game. It's the same with this situation. We're 0-4 now but we have a lot of football to play. If your mentality changes, it's not about, 'It's a drag or here we go again.' It's about forgetting everything that's happened -- even what happened the play before -- and keeping the focus on what's ahead."
Glover's words seem retroactively prophetic to Long's trek thus far.
Long's solid start is a vast change of how he looked during the preseason. Like a lot of rookies, especially those who play defensive end, he appeared overmatched. He made just one tackle in the three preseason games in which he played. Grumblings about another addition to St. Louis' spotty draft history arose.
Long stayed the course. He heard the same things when his career started at Virginia and emerged as one of the top players in the country. It would get better, as he has told, and still does tell himself.
Long had two tackles in the Rams' season-opening loss to the Eagles; four tackles and a sack the following week vs. the Giants; a season-best seven tackles in a loss to Seattle; and three tackles and a sack last Sunday against Buffalo.
"As soon as Philadelphia hit, it was like the preseason's over and something just changed in my game," Long said. "I immediately felt a lot more confident. I played like I knew these were real games, and everything just started flowing a lot more naturally. Things are coming to me. I know I can do this."
Besides his belief in his ability, Long said there is time for him and his team to re-route things. Following a much-needed bye this weekend, the Rams have 12 games to acquit themselves or prove the guilt shouldn't have been completely placed on Linehan.
The way Long looks at it, a dozen Sundays are more than enough time to figure things out. Those 12 remaining weeks also could turn out to be the longest three months of his football life if those who don't share the same optimism fail to uphold their end of things.
Long can't see that right now. His football world is narrowed by blinders. This is where being a rookie is a very good thing.
Every day is new.
"That's a long season that's left, especially for a rookie," Long said. "I've never seen a season like this or been through a season like this. It's easy to keep my focus and keep it positive."
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