New spirit of St. Louis

By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
July 28, 2006




EARTH CITY, Mo. The question posed to running back Steven Jackson was innocuous: How different has training camp been for him under new coach Scott Linehan? But for a moment, the old drama flared up. You almost thought the St. Louis Rams soap opera the best off-Broadway show on turf was back for another season.

"One of the big things is, Marshall's not here," said Jackson referring to Marshall Faulk, the seven-time Pro Bowler who'll have season-ending knee surgery. "So I don't have to deal with that anymore."

The response raised some eyebrows, prompting the gathered media to wonder "What did that mean?" A few minutes later, Jackson backpedaled.

"You know what, I don't want any controversy with it," he said. "Me and Marshall are good friends. We haven't talked. I hope he has a speedy recovery and comes back, but what I'm saying is, is that I don't have to deal with being compared to Marshall. I'm not a Marshall Faulk running back. It's not disrespectful to him and it's not disrespectful to me."

It was the quintessential moment for these Rams, who are hammering the idea of an identity change. The franchise has even been kicking around a new slogan: "Do you believe?" Which, considering the attempted metamorphosis, could be interpreted as "Do you believe we don't stink on defense anymore?" Or maybe "Do you believe we can win with a coach who has four years of NFL experience?" Surely, they won't be putting either of those mottos on a billboard, but rest assured, it's exactly what the franchise wants the fan base to believe.

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Said linebacker Will Witherspoon, who is expected to be one of the cornerstones of change: "We're not going to be those guys everybody says, 'Hey, they know the offense is going to score 50, so as long as we hold them to 48 we're good.' That's not our mentality. We've got to prove a point. We've got to go out early, even in the preseason, and make a statement and set an identity for our defense."

You might as well apply that "new identity" concept to the whole team. Despite an already good offensive unit being kept intact, there will be some tweaks from Linehan, who has promised a more consistent balance than the past regime. Unlike former head coach Mike Martz, who never met a third-and-short passing situation that he didn't like, Linehan has vowed to get Jackson more involved than last season's 17 carries-per-game average.

It's a promise that Jackson dubbed "a new regiment."

"Coach is making it a point that the running game is something he expects to be there," Jackson said. "There's no more excuses."

Linehan has the history to make good on the expectation. As Minnesota's offensive coordinator, he turned Michael Bennett into a 1,000-yard rusher in 2002 when the Vikings led the league in rushing. One year later, he took a less-than-ideal platoon at running back and still masterminded the NFL's fourth-best rushing offense. Whether Linehan can duplicate that kind of production in St. Louis will say plenty about his success or failure as a head coach.

As it stands, the Rams still have work to be done on the offensive line, where second-year tackle Alex Barron has to find some level of consistency and give St. Louis its much-anticipated bookend opposite Orlando Pace. But if Linehan can shore up Barron's focus and technique and tap the rich potential of guard Richie Incognito (who is already doing some work with the first-team offense), giving the Rams balance may not be as challenging as initially thought.

Still, it won't be as easy as simply calling more running plays than his predecessor. Linehan will have to balance the expectations of two marquee wide receivers who are used to getting the ball Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and acquaint quarterback Marc Bulger with the first system change of his NFL career. Linehan appears to have jumped into the project in earnest, having spent most of his first camp practice with the offense.

"I wouldn't say he's as hands-on as Mike was. I don't know if there's anyone in the league that's as hands-on as Mike was with the quarterback position," Bulger said. "He's pretty much left me alone and I've stuck to what I've been doing. I try to watch on film the things I get sloppy with that coach Martz would bring up. I think it's more on me now. But six or seven years in [the league] now, I think I know when I need to correct things."

Considering Linehan's history and the team's strength on offense, it's likely the strides made on defense will define 2006 for St. Louis. Already, Linehan has turned over the unit to ex-Saints coach Jim Haslett, whom he told several months ago, "If you come here, I'm hiring you to do your job."

An overnight change might be a little much to expect, even with the additions of defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who will give the line a much-needed businesslike presence, and Witherspoon, who they hope will be a fast, steadying presence in the middle of the linebacking corps. But even with the free-agent signings, it's still a defense in flux. Former defensive coordinator Larry Marmie left behind a group that has almost no clear strength a secondary that has yet to find reliable players, linebackers that have yet to show consistency and a defensive line that seems to lack playmakers.

Glover says Haslett will "do whatever it takes to be successful."

"If it takes blitzing 100 times a game, he'll do it," Glover added. "If it takes playing base and being conservative, he'll do it."

The question remains whether Haslett has the personnel to employ the fluid, "anything necessary" type of scheme. All coaches like to talk about having it maybe three or four defensive coordinators in the NFL can actually pull it off but the one area Haslett excels in is motivation. Knock his game management in New Orleans all you want. He remains coveted in the role of defensive coordinator, and when he's focused solely on that side of the ball, he has shown he can motivate.

"[The day before camp] Jim and the defensive staff really harped on developing an identity," Linehan said. "My only input there was that the identity we build defensively is [the same as] the identity we want to be offensively be aggressive, be attacking, but be sound."

Linehan must prove he can pull the right strings as a head coach that oversees an entire team rather than a coordinator monitoring one unit. Like a handful of other coaches Detroit's Rod Marinelli, New Orleans' Sean Payton and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy Linehan's appointment came as a surprise despite his success as a coordinator largely because he's had only four years of coaching at the NFL level.

There have been questions about whether Linehan has the mentality to turn the screws on his players, too. All of these doubts arose despite last year's six-game winning streak in Miami, which was mostly attributed to Linehan moving to the sideline from the coaching box and kicking the offense in gear with a hands-on approach.

"There was nothing weird about that streak," said Rams quarterback Gus Frerotte, who was Linehan's starter on the Dolphins last season. "He was why we went on that run.

"He came down from the box and put guys in their place just told guys what to do. We seemed to have some guys who were always whining about this or that. Everybody being new, you kind of needed that authority figure, which Scott was. He would go and calm guys down, and say, 'Here is what we have planned. We're going to get you the ball.' Everybody has an ego, and he handled that."

"Scott can be that authority figure if you need that. He can be pissed at you if that's what it takes. He can be your buddy. But he'll always demand respect. And when things don't go well, he's going to let you know about it. He's got it in him to be a successful head coach. I've always believed that since I first got to know him."

Now the rest of St. Louis will get to know Linehan. Whether or not they believe in him or the changing nature of the team he's guiding should be answered soon enough.


Charles Robinson is Yahoo! Sports' national NFL writer. Send him a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Jul 28, 2006 6:00 pm EDT