By Ben Volin

The NFL isn’t exactly known as a league for innovators or risk takers. Most teams run pretty much the same plays out of the same formations. Coaches get fired in one place and immediately hired in another. There’s a specific way of conducting business, and change comes gradually.

Yet it’s hard not to notice this offseason that one team has consistently done things its own way.

“I can’t say that we do everything traditionally,” Kevin Demoff, St. Louis Rams executive vice president and chief operating officer, said by telephone last week. “Unique could be good or bad, I guess.”

The way Demoff, Jeff Fisher, and general manager Les Snead run their team isn’t really good or bad — just fascinating. Whenever a story has popped up this offseason about a team doing things a little bit differently or uniquely, invariably that team is the Rams, now entering Year 3 under Fisher and Snead.

Their rookie orientation is unlike anything else in the league. They negotiate contracts their own way. They were the only team in the league to cancel their mandatory minicamp. Fisher is at the forefront of the player-safety initiative as the spokesman for the league’s competition committee. And they embraced the Michael Sam experience, media circus and all.

“I see a head coach who continually finds ways to challenge the staff, challenge himself to get better, and is always willing to look at the world a little differently,” Demoff said of Fisher, entering his 19th full season as an NFL head coach.

Let’s start with how the Rams handle their rookies, because everything about it is unique.

For a month, all 11 draft players sat unsigned — everyone from No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson to No. 250 pick Demetrius Rhaney. Then on June 12, the Rams tweeted out a photo — all 11 players signing their contracts at once.

It was the second straight year that the Rams had their rookie class sign en masse.

“It’s a reminder that they’re a draft class — all 11 of them,” Demoff said. “They live together in the hotel, they ride the shuttle, they eat their meals together, and they all sign their contracts together. You want them to feel a sense of camaraderie, make them feel that they’re all treated as equals.”

There’s a reason the Rams made the rookies wait a month before signing their contracts. Fisher has seen too many players burn quickly through their NFL money, and wants to give his rookies a financial education.

Last year, Fisher presented to his rookies a briefcase filled with $1 million in cash. He took away half of it for taxes, a portion for the agent, a portion for union dues, and so on. The players were shocked to see how little was left for themselves.

It’s just one part of the month-long orientation process.


“We give them financial literacy courses, we bring their families in to see St. Louis, to meet the training staff, meet the coaches and front office, get a sense of St. Louis,” Demoff said. “Any time you graduate from college and you take your first job, your parents want to help you get situated and get you started in the real world. We want to get them some of that training and some of that experience before we hand them that first check.”

The Rams also aren’t afraid to do their rookie contracts differently from everyone else. The Rams and Jaguars were the only teams in the top 15 not to insist on including offset language for their first-round picks, opting not to quibble over something relatively minor. And the Rams like to have a little fun with their rookie contracts, too. Since Demoff got to St. Louis five years ago, he’s been sneaking palindromes into the deals. The base salaries for this year’s third-round pick, Tre Mason — $530,035 in 2015, $641,146 in 2016, and $752,257 in 2017.

“That was completely on a whim to have some fun,” Demoff said. “The salary cap is $133 million. What’s an extra five dollars?”

As for canceling minicamp, it was a reward for having 99 percent attendance at the voluntary organized team activities. And of course, the Rams fully embraced Sam and everything that comes with drafting the first openly gay player in the NFL.

“The chance to draft the SEC co-defensive player of the year in the seventh round and what that can add to the depth on the defensive line was a great opportunity. Everything else was secondary,” Demoff said. “The circus was in town the first week, but since then it’s been about Michael Sam the football player.”

None of these initiatives will matter much if the Rams don’t start winning soon. They are 14-17-1 in two seasons under Fisher, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. But the Rams have been the league’s youngest team the past two years — averaging 24.98 years old last season — and hope that the young core of players heading into Year 3 with Fisher can take the Rams to the next level.

And there is reason for optimism in St. Louis. The Rams have a nasty defense under Fisher and coordinator Gregg Williams, and have gone 5-2-1 against the NFC West, arguably the best division in the NFL, with Sam Bradford in the lineup the last two seasons (he tore his ACL in the Rams’ seventh game last year).

The Rams are going to be young again this year. They currently have 60 players under age 25, compared with 51 for the Patriots, but hope that all of their unique team-building initiatives will pay off with a playoff appearance.

“If you’re going to be the youngest team, it only works if those players develop into high-caliber players,” Demoff said. “We feel like we can be extremely competitive. The division can’t be used as an excuse. The youth can’t be used as an excuse. But when I look at our third-year guys, especially guys like Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, you see the process really working.”