Article is here
Coast to Coast
Mike Carlson continues with his off-season look around the NFL, trawling from Coast to Coast to give you the lowdown on every NFL team – a look back over their 2005 season and ahead to 2006. This week Mike calls into St Louis, where he examines a Rams team starting afresh with a new coach.
The big question everyone is asking about the Rams is whether Marshall Faulk will retire or return. But really, that is not the biggest issue in St Louis. The Rams under Mike Martz were often seen as one of the 'softest' teams in the NFL. This is often the case with teams whose offenses are high-powered. The Rams could win with a defense that merely played middle-of-the-pack, as long as the offense continued to put points on the board. In crunch games, however, if the offense misfired, the defense was generally unable to step up. People often accuse the Colts' defense of letting them down in big games, when in reality it is more often the case that Scott Linehan takes over in St Louis. Photo Getty Imagestheir defense turns in its usual average performance, but the offense chokes under pressure against tougher defenses.
Last year, however, the Rams suffered a total collapse on both sides of the ball. Their defense finished its steady downward progression toward the bottom in 2005. They finished 30th in yards allowed per game, and 31st in points allowed. They had hired Lovie Smith as their defensive coordinator, and tried to give him the kind of players he'd need for a Tampa 2. But they both misjudged any number of draft choices and free agent signings badly, and failed to get the most out them and others. The success of Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher, when removed to Seattle, ought to give you some indication of how bad things got after Lovie left. Larry Marmie, who'd done nothing at Arizona to suggest he was an NFL defensive coordinator, but had coached with Martz at Arizona State, took over, the Rams' defense went into tailspin. The cleanout of first round picks like Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett, and marquee free agents like Chris Claiborne and Robert Thomas shows just how badly they miscalculated. Adam Archuleta, whom Marmie saw as their Pat Tillman, is gone too, to big Dan Dollars in DC.
The Rams are a team at a crossroads. Compare them to the other teams in their division. Last year they looked in disarray, as one expects from the Cardinals, and the front office infighting suggested the *****. The most obvious comparison is the Seahawks, who used to be forever .500, in the Rams' shadow, then had a couple of years of fighting the Rams tightly before taking the ascendancy last year. Both teams have talented quarterbacks without the super-star high-draft pick marquee value. They have multi-dimensional runners, and offensive lines built around a stud left tackle. The Rams had more receivers, the Seahawks a stud guard. Both teams had suspect defenses, and Seattle strengthened theirs at the expense of St Louis.
Offensively, the Rams had been increasingly the kind of team that racks up big yardage but can't put the ball in the end zone. Last year they actually were 9th in yardage and 11th in points, which hides the problem, but they were also 29th in turnover edge. Often that is down to offenses who can't adjust to the shrinking field as you get in the red zone, either with pass patterns or run blocking, and/or who rack up big games against weak defenses. More visibly, the injury to Marc Bulger and Mike Martz' heart problems left the Rams reeling. Many people were surprised to discover that Martz actually had a heart. Perhaps overly aware of his status an offensive genius, Martz the head coach often appeared to consider players chess pieces who would be able to perform miracles conceived by Martz the offensive coordinator manque, if they would only execute his game plans perfectly. Yet his game plans at crucial times smacked of hubris (cf, Super Bowl versus New England) and sometimes his Marc Bulger is the focal point of St Louis' offense. Photo Getty Imagesdecisions seemed motivated more by a desire to prove himself smarter than everyone else than necessarily be right for more mundane reasons. Hence the name I gave him on Channel 5: Mike Smartz.
Joe Vitt, basically the antithesis of Smartz, took over the team, and Rams' President Jay 'Eyechart' Zygmunt famously forbade Martz any contact with his offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild.
The writing was on the wall, and now Martz is OC in Detroit, Fairchild ditto in Buffalo, and Vitt went to New Orleans with the same title he held in St Louis (linebackers-assistant head coach).
The new broom in town is Scott Linehan, another highly-regarded offensive coordinator, best-known for his work in Minnesota with Daunte Culpepper, and for getting the most out of Gus Frerotte in Minnesota and last year in Miami.
But Linehan's hiring didn't end the backroom soap opera. General Manager Charlie Armey, who appeared at times to be feuding with both Martz AND Zygmunt, was 'promoted' by Zygmunt to VP Pro Personnel, which sounds great but makes you wonder how he stands in relation to the newly-hired Tony 'Softly' Softli, who as VP of Player Personnel by definition outranks him. Lawrence McCutcheon, by the way, remains as Director of College Scouting, but two of his best scouts were fired out from under him. Softli comes from personnel in Carolina, but if I mentioned that he more importantly once coached with Linehan at University of Washington, would you, or Charley Armey, be surprised. Armey's track record is decidely mixed: he's been super at identifying quality players from undrafts, street free agents, and low draft picks, but less good at making his high draft picks and big signings count.
Zygmunt, by the way, carries the title President of Pro Football Operations, which leads me to wonder if the Rams have another football team, maybe in the Missouri high school system, that someone else is in charge of.
Offensively, the Rams were a team built to Martz' fine-tuned specifications, but the precise and complicated timing patterns that characterised Martz' version of the Sid Gillman-Don Coryell type pass game will not transfer immediately to Linehan's watch. Which may be why he brought Frerotte along with him from Miami. He may prefer a proven mediocre veteran who knows his system to a proven veteran (Marc Bulger) whom he may consider a product of Martz' system. After all, Kurt Warner hasn't set the world on fire outside St Louis, has he?
Having said that, I like Bulger a lot, and Linehan may too, while realizing he's been injury prone. Of course, Martz' system often left his QBs out to dry, a problem complicated by his apparent disdain for wasting high draft picks on interior linemen. Last year, the Rams filled in for Bulger with 'proven veteran' Jamie Martin, whose lack of success led to rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick, a seventh round pick out of Harvard, taking over.
Fitzpatrick returns, but as he was a Martz project he may not get the chance to develop any further. Especially with both Jeff Smoker and the newly signed Dave Ragone around. Ragone, the former NFL Europe MVP released by Houston and Cincinnati in quick succession, may appeal more to Linehan: the Bengals tried to change his throwing motion and gave up when he didn't want to, he's more a battling Frerotte type anyway.
Interestingly, the QB coach in St Louis is now Doug Nussmeier, a resounding flop in NFL Europe around the time Jamie Martin was playing there; the offensive coordinator is Greg Olson, whose record developing QBs doesn't inspire a lot of confidence (Bears 2003—Kordell Stewart, Lions 2004-5—Joey Harrington). Olson and Nussmeier both go back to the University of Idaho where Linehan quarterbacked and coached. If I were Bulger, I'd be wary. Still, he's an accurate passer who can run an offense, and he ought to be effective under Linehan.
Linehan in Minnesota ran a spread offense that opened up lots of holes for quick backs like Michael Bennett, but of course the threat of Randy Moss deep opened up a lot of things anyway. Rams don't have a Randy Moss, but they do have Torry Holt, the Torry you CAN support. Holt caught 102 passes, Torry Holt is one of the NFL's best receivers. Photo Getty Imageswhich is amazing when you think Martin and Fitzpatrick were throwing many of them. They cut Issac Bruce but resigned him at a more affordable price, he remains a dangerous possession receiver. Kevin Curtis ought to be able to establish himself as a legitimate number two this season, though I think he's more effective from the slot, as is Shaun McDonald. Dane Looker is the holder as well as the fifth receiver, but will face a challenge from rookie Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans, and sixth receiver types Brandon Middleton and Taylor Stubblefield. Hagans is part of this tidal wave of teams signing potential 'slash' players, but he actually has experience at WR (and DB in prep school). He's not as fast as Randle-El, but he's got eyes in the back of his head, and great moves. He'd be a super QB in the CFL.
I'd expect the Rams to show a lot of two-tight end sets too. Both Jermaine Wiggins and Randy McMichael had big years under Linehan, so it was no surprise when the Rams traded huge Brandon Mamaleuna for a fourth round pick (more surprising that the Chargers took him) and let Roland Williams go. They replaced them by using a second round pick to draft Joe Klopfenstein of Colorado, then trading their own fourth and a sixth to move up in round three and grab Dominique Byrd of USC. I thought Klopfenstein was the second-best TE in the draft, and he will probably start right away, although he still needs to polish his skills. Byrd may be a better pass receiver, but is not a blocker, and had injury and personality problems that caused him to drop. If he wants to play, and can avoid letting teammates break his jaw, they could have a decent one-two punch and lots of receiving flexibility. Jerome Collins will be the blocking TE, while underachieving Aaron Walker (ex-*****) and ex-Claymore Rod Trafford are also in the mix. They also signed Alex Holmes, who's probably too short to ever make it, but who is Troy Polamalu's brother in law.
Faulk's injuries may have finally caught up to him. He would be a valuable change of pace for Stephen Jackson; even battered as he was last season he averaged 4.5 per carry (Jackson: 4.1) and caught 44 passes (but only 6.6 per catch, as he just wasn't getting downfield). The Rams signed Tony Fisher from Green Bay as insurance, but he's coming off an injury-plagued season where he averaged only 2.9 ypc. But he's a good receiver (48 catches at 7.2) out of the backfield. Jackson caught 43, while gaining just over 1,000 yards rushing, and has the potential to be a Shaun Alexander-type performer. Two undrafted free agents are in the mix: one, John David Washington from Morehouse, gets the attention because he's the son of Denzel Washington (shades of Justin Fargas!) but the more intriguing prospect in Antoine Bagwell, who averaged 8.5 per carry at Div II California State, and caught 28 passes at 15 yards per catch. Bagwell doesn't have speed (reminds me a bit of Marcel Shipp), and his vision at the top level has been questioned, but as a very poor man's Faulk he's probably worth a look. He might've had a shot as a kick returner if Hagans weren't already on board. Road grading fullback Madison Hedgecock (6-3 265) returns, but Linehan may prefer Paul Smith, a classic west coast type who is also coming off injury having played for both the Niners and Lions.
With the final departure of Tom Nutten, the Rams line is now in transition. Richie Incognito was a draft steal last year because of steroid and behaviour issues, but now looks likely to start at left guard ahead of last year's fourth round pick Claude Terrell. The new line coach is Paul Boudreau, who's had mixed results in his 20 year career. Orlando Pace is a fixture at left tackle, while last year's top pick Alex Barron should start at right tackle. Ageless Andy McCollum, the former Barcelona Dragon, continues to defy the odds at center, while at right guard Adam Timmerman is slowing down, but still a battler. They signed Todd Stuessie as a backup; Linehan is familiar with him from Minnesota. If McCallum finally gets hurt to the point he can't play they might be in trouble; Larry Turner's his backup but is undersized, and Linehan's lines have tended to be big. They signed undrafted Donovan Raiola, who's nowhere near the player his brother Dominic is.
Whether Linehan can generate Viking-type offense with this group will be interesting to watch. Expectations will be high, but the explosiveness of the Ram offense came from a different set of circumstances, and how they translate will be the mark of Linehan's savvy as a boss.
He showed great savvy on defense, however, by bringing in Jim Haslett as coordinator. With the Former Saints head coach Jim Haslett was brought in as defensive coordinator. Photo Getty Imagesdefensive dump of players they indulged in, Haslett has already been building something he (and veteran linebackers coach Rick Venturi, who seems to travel with Haslett) is comfortable with. Fans of the Saints will know that they were prone to breakdowns, particularly in the secondary, and funnily enough, the concentrate so far has been up front.
Haslett and Venturi brought in La Roi Glover, whom they had in New Orleans, to play tackle. Glover wasn't a fit for Bill Parcells' 3-4 but maybe he can inspire Jimmy Kennedy with his work ethic. They brought in Jason Fisk as a short term answer and backup for Kennedy as they space eater, and got a draft steal in Claude 'Johnny' Wroten, who fell to round three because of character questions. If Glover can keep him focussed, he could be a force as the active one-gap tackle. If not, 2004's undrafted find Brian Howard is a battler, but way undersized. Leonard Little's pass rush ability at one end needs to be balanced; Anthony Hargrove is an athlete, but still learning the position at end, so they used the Mamaleuna pick to draft Victor Adeyanju who reminds me a bit of his fellow Indiana product, Adewale Ogunleye. Two players from Rice, end Brandon Green (originally drafted by Jacksonville) and tackle Jeremy Callahan, provide depth.
Their other big free agent signing was Will Witherspoon, who didn't play in the middle for the Panthers but will be moved there by Haslett (who faced him twice a year and ought to know his strengths). But remember, they tried the same thing with Claiborne last year. Pisa Tinoisamoa returns on the weak side, but they drafted Jon Alston from Stanford in round three. Alston's a very similar player, and may have been chosen so the team could afford to cut Dexter Coakley, and save cap money when they do. On the strong side, Brandon Chillar came from Martz' famous 'hot and cold' draft in 2004 (Chillar and Smoker in the same draft?) but hasn't yet been totally convincing.
Raonall Smith, another ex-Viking, ought to have produced more than he has so far in his career, but could move ahead of Chillar. In the middle Trev Faulk was an undrafted find by the Broncos, and can play the strong side: he's physically tough but his instincts are sometimes lacking. They drafted Tim McGarrigle who's virtually the antithesis of Faulk: very smart but lacking physically: he could make it on special teams like Mike Goolsby and Drew Wahlroos, but he's probably got more of a chance to play three downs than either.
Cornerback Tye Hill was St Louis' top draft pick. Photo Getty ImagesI thought the Rams did well to trade down and still get Tye Hill. Again, character issues shade him, but he's got 4.35 speed (10.27 100 metres), long arms and great leaping ability to make up for his lack of height, and although he's got the hands of a seal he is tough to shake man for man. Scouts who didn't like him compared him to former Rams' bust Kevin Garrett. Hill joins Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher, who when healthy, which admittedly isn't that often, may be the most underrated pair of starting corners in the league. In a system that gives them more support, their talent ought to be rewarded. Haslett brought in Fakhir Brown from New Orleans, where his struggles were symptomatic of the Saints' secondary problems. DeJuan Groce is injury-prone and mistake laden, but can play a bit, while another Armey free-agent find, Dwight Anderson, is a special-teams demon. Ronald Bartell has the physical package, and might benefit from a move to safety.
Safety was problematical for both Martz' Rams and Haslett's Saints. Last season, Mike Furrey, making the conversion from WR, led the team in picks. At strong safety Corey Chavous, yet another ex-Viking, replaces Archuleta. He understands coverage better but has really slowed down, though he remains a hitter. Jerome Carter ought to replace him eventually. At free safety OJ Atogwe's play as a rookie indicates he's got a way to go, but Dwaine Carpenter offers little more. Deandre 'No Man Is An' Eiland isn't, but he isn't much more than a body.
Since Jeff Wilkins only missed four field goals last year, and was 4/5 outside 50 yards (admittedly the dome helps) you'd think that Remy Hamilton's agent would've found him a better situation. Hamilton was the all-Arena League kicker this spring, but is likely to be released after keeping Wilkins rested in camp. At punter, Matt Turk had lots of time to talk with Linehan while he nursed at injured groin in Miami last year, he'll compete with Andy Groom, who's got a big leg but is 'unproven'.
The Rams could go either way this season. I think Linehan may be one of the best prepared of the new coaches, but his line and receivers may not be ideal for what he wants to do, and I wonder about his offensive brain trust. Defensively I'd love to see Jim Haslett revert to what he does best, but the results in New Orleans weren't always convincing. There could be seasons in the wilderness, a la San Francisco, or a turnaround a la Seattle, or it could turn out that Linehan is a Dennis Erickson, and not the guy to get the Rams over the hump. This first season will tell us a lot about how he adjusts, and whether the 'new' front office will allow him to succeed.