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Olson Feeling Comfortable in Coordinator Role
By Nick Wagoner
Soon after Scott Linehan called a 15-0 loss to Carolina on Nov. 19 the “low point” of the 2006 season it became clear to the first-year head coach that some changes needed to be made.
At the top of that list for Linehan was a desire to begin to become more of a game manager able to focus on all aspects of coaching the team and not mainly on the offensive side of the ball.
The next week against San Francisco, offensive coordinator Greg Olson took over the play calling reins and the Rams brought their losing streak to an end. Olson kept those duties for the rest of the season.
“It was one of the things that I feel the most gratification for, that Greg was able to make that move,” Linehan said. “It wasn’t easy. He’s basically inheriting a system that, certainly, he is learning from myself. We have similar backgrounds, but still, it was new. He was coming from a different system. He handled it great and did a great job, and I think the staff and the players embraced it.”
Olson spent the first part of his coaching career working as quarterbacks coach in San Francisco and Detroit. But Olson is no stranger to play calling. While serving as quarterbacks coach in Detroit, Olson was moved into the role at the end of the 2004 season and again last year. He took the reins for the final three games in 2004 and the final five games last year when the Lions fired head coach Steve Mariucci.
Not taking into consideration the myriad factors governing quality of personnel and the varying ebb and flow of actual games, the Lions averaged almost 22 points per game with Olson in charge in 2004 and 16 last year. In the games he called the plays; the team went 3-5. When the Rams hired Linehan, it was clear that he had the intent to bring Olson with him to St. Louis as his coordinator.
Of course, Linehan and Olson grew up about 15 miles apart from each other and have known each other well for about 20 years. In addition to that closeness, they both learned the tricks of the trade under Dennis Erickson, leaving both with an understanding of similar offensive concepts and ideas.
That said, it wasn’t the easiest and quickest transition for Olson to switch to Linehan’s system. The better part of Olson’s time calling plays in the NFL has been spent in a West Coast system, an offensive scheme centered on short, quick passes and ball control.
It took a bit of time for Olson to get a full grasp on the philosophy of Linehan, which could have played a role in the hesitation to make the switch.
“I think as much as the players got better every week I think I began to get more comfortable, not only just in play calling but again the offense is new to me this year,” Olson said. “I was learning the offense for the first time so I became more comfortable with it as the season went on. I think everybody got better this year including myself and hopefully I will continue to get better every day heading into next season.”
The move seemed to work for the Rams as the offense got better and more balanced each week with Linehan helping to devise the game plan and Olson handling the actual play calling on game days.
In that loss to Carolina, the Rams almost completely abandoned the run, something Linehan vowed not to do when he took the job last year. With Olson in charge, the running game only grew.
St. Louis went from the mid 20s in rushing offense to 17th by the time the year was over and running back Steven Jackson became the focal point of the offense. Jackson had a terrific final month on his way to December’s Player of the Month award.
In the final month of the season, Jackson led the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns, 849 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. He finished the year as the league’s leader in yards from scrimmage with 2,334 and 1,528 rushing yards.
“I think Coach Olie did a great job of keeping us in balance and allowing us to attack down field and be able to use a little play action pretty much to perfection,” Jackson said. “Set up the run, and allow for us to throw off of it. A lot of teams that we faced in the latter part of the year were good against the run. Not only did he keep with the run, but he allowed for the run to set up other things.”
Indeed, the Rams offense hit on all cylinders down the stretch, which helped it post 37 points against Washington and 41 against Minnesota in the season’s final two games. The Rams were 4-2 after Olson took over and finished sixth in the league in total offense.
Receiver Torry Holt said he didn’t notice a huge change in the plays being called, but did notice it freed up Linehan to oversee the whole team and let Olson work closer with the offensive unit.
“I think from an offensive standpoint, there wasn’t a lot of change in the play calling,” Holt said. “I think what it has done is allow Coach Linehan to free up a little more and become a coach. Not that he wasn’t a coach before, but when he took the offense off his hands, once you take that responsibility away from him a little bit and allow Olie to call and have some trust, that allows him to be a better offensive coordinator and it allows coach to be a better coach so I think we got better in that department. Now we have a head coach and we have an offensive coordinator in Olie.”
Although the Rams fell just short of a playoff berth, there was certainly some momentum built toward next season as the team finished on a three-game winning streak, especially with the success on offense as Olson found his play calling groove.
The only regret is that the Rams won’t get an opportunity to ride that momentum into the playoffs.
“It’s a disappointment,” Olson said. “I think anytime you feel like you are starting to play pretty well and hit on all cylinders and it has to end is disappointing, but we are excited about next year because of the way some of the young players especially upfront came around in the end and Steven Jackson continued to get better every week and how really Marc continued to get better every week. We are excited about going into next season knowing more about our team than we did last year at this time.”
With that in mind, Linehan has made it clear that Olson will continue in his role as the play caller next season. And he expects the same type of improvement the offense enjoyed at the end of the year to continue into next season.
“It’s what you do,” Linehan said. “Like I said, I’ve been an offensive coordinator for most of my coaching career. It’s like I told you, it was time that I become a head coach, and I’ve learned to delegate those things, and I’ve learned that that’s a key that really good coaches that I’ve been around and learned from, that they trust the coaches that they’ve hired.”