Postcard from camp: Rams
Peter King > INSIDE THE NFL
Setting the Scene
The Rams have been itinerants in recent years, moving from Western Illinois University three hours north of the city to Rams Park in 2005, then to Concordia College in Mequon, Wis., last year and now back home. Their home training facility is 20 minutes west of St. Louis in an office-parkish area a few long spirals from Interstate 70. There's not much spirit at camp practices, other than a couple of loud fans, but who can blame the fine people of Eastern Missouri? The Cardinals are in a pennant race (what else is new?) and the football locals are an abysmal 5-27 the last two years.
1. Steve Spagnuolo has rewritten all the rules around this football team. Here's an example of Spagnuolo touching everything in the building: There used to be framed large photos of individual players doing great things on the walls all over the building. Now, the only photos are of team accomplishments, such as gang-tackling. Quarterback Marc Bulger told me, "From the first minute he talked to us, he made it clear that the only thing we were going to be concerned about is the team. Everyone has got the message. I'm not sure that everyone in our locker room felt that way last year."
The reason the veterans I spoke with have bought in is because Spagnuolo has been consistent with his message and because the players saw his results the last two years as defensive coordinator of the Giants. I doubt this will result in a winning season, but for the first time in a while, this organization seems to be pulling in the same direction.
2. Top draft choice Jason Smith, surprisingly, is playing with the second team. You'd think that picking a franchise tackle second overall in the draft would mean that he would instantly ascend to the starting left tackle job. But not only is Smith not the left tackle (underachieving former first-round pick Alex Barron replaces Orlando Pace at left tackle) but also as of this week, Smith is behind Adam Goldberg on the right side.
It's not that Smith has been hugely disappointing, although he has struggled in pass blocking drills against veteran edge rusher Leonard Little. Spagnuolo simply wants Smith to earn the starting job. He should do that by opening day. For now, Smith is struggling a bit with the mechanics of pass blocking. At Baylor, he mauled people. Now he needs to play with good technique and hand position on pass rushers. He's just not there yet.
3. Look for this offense to revolve around Steven Jackson and the running game, not Bulger and the pass. There's no doubt the Rams want to be a running team. They have had the pads on almost every day of camp and Spagnuolo is trying to instill a physical presence on offense and defense. "St. Louis is a blue-collar town," cornerback Ron Partell told me, "and we're trying to build a blue-collar team. We're going to be tough and physical." That usually means more than 50 percent runs on offense.
New Face, New Place
Defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. Just a guess, but Spagnuolo had to be wretching when he watched the Rams run D last year. St. Louis had a putrid run defense -- 4.9 yards per attempt, 154.7 yards per game -- and if you know Spagnuolo, you know he's going to find someone to plug the middle, or at least to try. That man is the roundish, 340-pound Thomas. At 35, Thomas may have very little left, but the Rams want this from him: 18 or 20 first-down snaps a game, plus a couple more on the goal line.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. When the Rams used a second-round pick to draft the standout linebacker from Ohio State, they knew he had rare desire. But his eagerness to work his way into the starting lineup early has been impressive. His zeal for the NFL began last summer when he took a full course load in summer school so that he'd be able to report to the team that drafted him immediately after the draft. (The NFL has a rule that drafted players can't report to their teams for full-time work until their final exams were done. But because Ohio State has three terms during the academic year and Laurinaitis graduated in March, he was free to report to his new team on time.)
"I can not imagine how far behind I would be if I wasn't able to graduate early and start here early," Laurinaitis told me. "There's no way that I'd know this defense well enough right now to be in this position." A starting position, he means. Spagnuolo elevated him to the starting role on Sunday, pushing former middle linebacker Chris Draft to the outside. Laurinaitis is a 238-pound, sideline-to-sideline player who has studied for years the range of Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher to learn his craft.
I sat in Spagnuolo's office after the morning practice, right across his big mahogany desk from him. Between us was a card with the late Jim Johnson's stern visage on the front. The card read:
Our coach, mentor, friend.
Spagnuolo went to Johnson's memorial service last Friday in Philadelphia, missing only one practice to pay his respects. "I'm so glad I was able to do that for everything Jim has meant to me," said Spagnuolo, a long-time defensive assistant under Johnson in Philadelphia. "I really needed some closure."
On the Menu
I hate to look a gift pizza in the mouth, but I'm about to do just that. Unlike many camps, the Rams do not open their cafeteria to the media, which I don't have a problem with; it's not their job to feed us. The Rams brought in pizza and salad to the media in between practices today. I've always had the attitude, If it's free, it's for me. But I probably would have been better served at Subway. This was very thick, chewy, chilly pizza. The bottled Aquafina, however, was fine. Overall grade: C.
• The receiver group is in trouble here. With the only proven wideout, Donnie Avery, out with a stress fracture in his left foot, the Rams have slim pickings to hold the fort for the three or four weeks that Avery will miss. St. Louis has been pleased with former Falcon Laurent Robinson, who has a good chance to win the starting job alongside Avery. Otherwise, there isn't a proven NFL receiver in camp. Look for St. Louis to be active when final roster cuts are made league-wide.
• The Rams seem concerned that defensive tackle Adam Carriker is going to have chronic ankle problems. He missed eight games last year with an ankle injury and rolled an ankle during a scrimmage last week, putting him out indefinitely. That's not good.
• The Rams just might have found a copy of Justin Tuck in the 6-2, 281-pound James Hall, who isn't as lithe but looks quick enough to play inside and outside. Look for the former Lion to play tackle and end and give the Rams' line the versatility that the Giants had when Spagnuolo coached them.
• Even with Jason Smith at right tackle and Jason Brown (the free-agent center from the Ravens) upgrading the offensive line, I still don't think the Rams have solved their O-line problems. The Rams allowed the quarterback to be sacked 45 times last year -- only San Francisco and Detroit had leakier lines in the NFC -- and when Bulger wasn't getting sacked he was facing consistent pressure. I've never been an Alex Barron fan, and now that he's at left tackle, it's going to be his performance that determines whether Bulger can stay upright.
• The Rams are lucky to be in the NFC West. Although Arizona played in the Super Bowl last year, there isn't a team in the West that is scary good. I can't see any team in the division running away with it. The Rams were 2-14 on merit last year, and this year 6-10 would be both realistic and welcome in a city that isn't expecting much out of them.