A new Rams plan

By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/30/2009

One of the first things you notice on the practice field is the ever-present pencil. It's resting on Steve Spagnuolo's ear. Or in his hand.

He'll squat like a catcher at home plate and start scribbling while a drill takes place 10 feet away at Rams Park.

He's used the same kind of Papermate pencil for the last decade. You know, the plastic ones where you turn the end to get the lead out. Spagnuolo uses it on the football field to help his players get the lead out.

What's he writing about?

"I actually don't (know)," safety James Butler said. "But I know when he gets up to speak to the team, he has a list of notes. So I don't know if he's writing down in practice what's going on or what. But he's always writing down notes."

And then there are the practice "props."

— The long plastic strip that's placed at the line of scrimmage, with the letters T-G-C-G-T on it. (As in tackle, guard, center, etc.)

— The red cones placed several yards behind the line of scrimmage. (Players not involved in the play must stay behind the cones.)

— The footballs with the tips painted white. (It's to get defensive backs in the habit of catching the ball at the tips.)

— The "beeper box," which goes off when the quarterback has held the ball too long during 7-on-7 passing drills. (It can be calibrated for 3-step, 5-step and 7-step drops.)

You look at all this, and you wonder if Spagnuolo was the type of kid who took a lot of notes, kept his room clean, made his bed.

"I probably would say yeah," Spagnuolo said, flashing a "you got me" look at the questioner. "I was actually one of those people that went to class. I can't sit here and say I didn't go. I did. And I always took notes. If I didn't take good notes, I wasn't going to do good. Because I had to study. I wasn't a natural learner."

The bed making?

"I don't know why I remember this," Spagnuolo said. "(Maybe) because my mother used to say it to people. I made my bed every day till I got to be like 15 or 16 — whatever that age is (for teenage rebellion). And then all of a sudden I became not quite as consistent."

So yes, Spagnuolo always had a clean room.

"I don't know, I operate a little bit better that way," he said.

IT'S IN THE DETAILS

Now, at age 49, Spagnuolo is trying to make the Rams operate a lot better as a rookie NFL head coach. The task is daunting to say the least. This is a franchise that hasn't been in the playoffs since 2004, hasn't had a winning season since 2003, and has lost 27 of its last 32 games.

As he tries to lay the foundation for success, attention to detail is a critical component of Spagnuolo's rebuilding project.

"Let me put it to you the way I say it to the team," Spagnuolo said. "I firmly believe that in the NFL, it's built on parity. That's what the league wants. That's what makes it so exciting — that at the beginning of the year, pretty much everybody's equal in talent.

"If you stay healthy, all things being equal, to me the difference in winning and losing would be the details. It's not a clichι. I'm not trying to make anything up; I just firmly believe that. Because you put two equal teams out there, it's going to be the team that's detailed, focused, doesn't make any mistakes, etc., etc., etc., that's going to win the game."

That's why Spagnuolo jots down his notes, constantly tells the players to "focus and finish," and harps on the little things.

"Some people are like: 'Why's he worrying about that?'" long snapper Chris Massey said. "But it's good, because the little things and all the small details he keeps preaching to us are going to pay off in the long run."

For example, Spagnuolo has made it a habit of attending every special-teams meeting — from start to finish, according to Massey.

"He hit us this morning with our field-goal protection in a preseason game," Massey said, a few days before the Atlanta game. "Just the little things that we were doing wrong. ... I mean, he doesn't let anything get by him."

So you better get it right. And you better be on time. To wit, one of the training camp coaching interns showed up late for a team meeting at the start of camp. He was immediately dismissed.

THE DEAN

Yes, Spags runs a tight ship. So much so that he's already earned a nickname to that effect from his players — the Dean. As in Dean Spagnuolo, head of the Rams' "campus" in Earth City. The Dean isn't a yeller or a cusser on the practice field or in the meeting rooms, but he gets his point across.

"He tells it just like it is," center Jason Brown said. "I mean, brutally honest. But whatever he sees out here on the football field, he's not going to sugarcoat it. He lets us know exactly what we need to get done to win."

Players say he has the "coach's glare" down pat. And Spagnuolo hits the hole — his speeches are crisp and concise, in other words the polar opposite of the long, meandering talks from predecessor Scott Linehan that quickly had players rolling their eyes and looking at their watches.

"There's no need to beat around the bush," tight end Randy McMichael said. "Spags gets to the point and goes directly to what we need to work on. That's his style. Let's get to work, go through the details, let's put the work in on the field."

There's no doubt Spagnuolo has the players' attention. There's no doubt the players are buying in. His success as New York Giants defensive coordinator — complete with Super Bowl ring — brings instant street cred into the locker room.

But how will Spagnuolo deal with a three-game losing streak? What happens if there's an off-field issue that garners instant headlines? Or the injuries pile up? What happens when he gets pounded in a dozen different directions by a variety of issues — some big, some small, some medium — that pop up out of nowhere on a daily basis?

"He's not going to flinch," said Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who hired Spagnuolo in January. "You know there's going to be bumps in the road. There is for just about every team.

"He will be the same. I mean, it's not going to be a roller coaster. And that was part of the lure. He'll be like a rock. He hasn't changed one bit — from the first meeting with the team to the first preseason game, and it'll be the same way going into the first regular-season game."

Nonetheless, there's always the possibility that even if a lot of things go right, even if Rams players embrace the details, that they simply won't be talented enough to win many games this year. When things get a little rough over the course of a season, will the players still "buy in"?

"That still is the challenge that we know we're going to face," Spagnuolo said. "I'm sure somewhere along the way here, something's going to happen. There is an unknown that's going to go on here.

"I can probably guarantee you that I'm going to pick up the phone and I'm going to call Andy Reid, and I'm going to call Tom Coughlin. I may call Brad Childress. I'll use as many resources as I can to ask, 'Hey, have you gone through something like this? What do you think? What's the wisest thing to do?' "

And when he does, Spagnuolo will pull out his pencil, and start taking notes.