Rams have pieces in place to build consistent winner
By Pete Prisco
CBSSports.com Senior Writer
Steven Jackson and James Laurinaitis are two of the core leaders the Rams are building around. (AP)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Sitting at his desk eating a chicken sandwich in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, a NASCAR race on the TV in the background, St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney looks more prepared to use that surfboard leaning against the wall in his office than he is to dive into running a football team.
But despite the laid-back, California way about him, Devaney is serious when it comes to football and especially building the Rams into a contender -- not only in their division, but in the league.
"We're getting better," Devaney said. "We know we've made progress. But there's a lot to do."
In 2009, the Rams were 1-15, the joke of the league, and Devaney was in his first year in charge of turning the Rams around.
"I wouldn't wish that on anybody," Devaney said.
Here were are two years later and the Rams are considered one of the rising teams in the NFL. Under Devaney's watch, and with coach Steve Spagnoulo ably assisting, the Rams are being built for the long run.
We have had countless teams that have popped up over the years to have good seasons, but then fade away. They don't have staying power. If you notice, the really good teams have staying power. They are not the aberration-season teams.
The Colts, Patriots, Steelers have all had staying power. The Rams are working to get that.
If you study the structure of those good organizations, there are five reasons they have had that sustainable success. They are:
• Good general manager
• Sharp coach
• Franchise quarterback
• Good veterans for guidance
• A key group of young, core players
The Rams look to have the same makeup. It's far too early to think that the Rams are back to the glory days of The Greatest Show on Turf, but after going 7-9 last season and pushing for a division title, the needle is pointing up.
"Teams still look at us as the 1-15 Rams of two years ago," veteran running back Steven Jackson.
That would be a mistake. They might not be ready for a Super push this year, but starting in 2012 and beyond they will be in the mix for the Lombardi Trophy.
They have Devaney and Spagnuolo, two sharp men, even if they are opposites in terms of demeanor, running things. They have the franchise passer in Sam Bradford, the veteran leader in Jackson and a nice group of young core players.
Here's a look at each of the Rams five important components in building a sustainable championship contender.
• • •
The laid-back general manager
Can you believe that a guy from New Jersey is actually laid-back?
Devaney was born and raised in the Garden State -- his family is still die-hard Giants fans -- but on his way to running his own team, including stops with five NFL teams, and various jobs that included being a baggage handler, Devaney has morphed into this beach-bum persona.
That comes from his days working with Bobby Beathard, the surfer-GM, when they were in San Diego.
"I'm more of a don't-worry-about-it guy," Devaney said. "I took a lot of that from Bobby."
Beathard was considered a sharp draft man when he was in the league. And so far in his three years running the Rams draft, Devaney has done a heck of a job. He landed Bradford with the first pick in 2010, and he landed five starters in the first three rounds of his first two drafts in 2009 and 2010. One of those, right tackle Jason Smith, was the second player taken in the 2009 draft and hasn't quite lived up to expectations yet, but he is starting.
Building through the draft is the Devaney way.
"We knew we had two years to start showing things were turning around or we weren't going to be around," Devaney said. "We had to show improvement in Year Two. What that was going to be, we didn't know. Was it four wins at the end of the year? Whatever it was, it had to be better. We were hoping for the turnaround in Year Three, but now we're just trying to build on what we did."
Devaney's first duty was hiring a coach. So he reached out to another East Coast guy in Spagnuolo, who is the exact opposite of Devaney.
"He's a live-wire," Devaney said. "But our personalities mesh well."
Devaney makes the football decisions, but he consults with Spagnuolo on most of them.
"Hopefully, it works for a long time," Devaney said.
"He's firm in what he wants and what we want," Spagnuolo said. "It's been a nice transition. Hopefully in Year Three we'll show that on the field from a personnel and coaching standpoint."
• • •
The mile-a-minute head coach
Spagnuolo is like one of those wind-up toys. You pull the string, stand back, and let it go.
If ever there were a coaching candidate for a study on Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, Spagnuolo would be it. He's even joked about it.
That's because his mind always seems to be racing. When I interviewed him in his office, he was distracted by an injury suffered by nickel corner Jerome Murphy earlier in practice.
"Sorry," he said. "I just keep thinking about the kid."
The kid suffered a broken ankle. You could see the hurt on Spagnuolo's face as he talked about it. He cares.
A Spagnuolo conversation has more detours than I-10 during construction. One minute it's football. The next it's about his wedding at the Vatican. Then baseball. Then back to football.
All the while, he is friendly and welcoming.
That's why his players like him. He can be tough and demanding, but they also know he cares.
"He's a tough, old-fashioned coach, but at the same time he has a feel with the players," Devaney said. "He has a great reputation. It's really neat in free agency when you hear from guys on other teams that they really want to play for Spags."
Said Jackson: "Guys respect him. He understands what it takes to be an NFL player."
Spagnuolo came to the Rams after serving as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. He also served on the staff of Andy Reid in Philadelphia. So his style meshes that of both Tom Coughlin and Reid.
He is actively involved with the defense, but leaves the offense to new coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"I still think you win with good quarterback play and good defense," Spagnuolo said.
Spagnuolo still has the Boston accent from his youth, so when he yells at players there's no denying where he was born.
In two years, the Rams have improved by six victories. That has them wanting more. Spagnuolo had a sign put on the wall in the locker room to remind his players what it takes go get it.
It reads: Make Excellence a habit.
"I don't think we'll make the next jump if we don't have enough guys who strive for competitive greatness in all they do," Spagnuolo said. "It's something we talk about. It's just talk. Now guys have to go out and do it."
• • •
The confident and competitive franchise QB
When Spagnuolo was looking to hire a new offensive coordinator after the departure of Pat Shurmur to the Cleveland Browns, he had a conversation with Bradford.
"If I were to hire a coordinator with a different offensive system, what would you think about it?" Spagnuolo asked him.
"I learned last year's offense in one year," Bradford said. "It won't be a problem."
That's Bradford, always up for a challenge.
"He wasn't even fazed by it," Spagnuolo said.
Devaney wanted Bradford the minute he saw him throwing at Oklahoma. He knew Bradford could be the guy to turn the franchise around. After the 1-15 season, giving the Rams the first pick in the 2010 draft, there was little doubt that the quarterback-obsessed Devaney would get his man.
"There seems to be so many great ones now," Devaney said. "You need a great one. In years gone by, you could have a solid quarterback and win a lot of games. It seems now unless you have a truly great one, you are at a big disadvantage now. Getting Sam was huge for us."
As a rookie, Bradford struggled some, but finished with solid numbers. His passion for the game was something his teammates noticed right away.
"He takes his job serious," Jackson said. "He's one of the first guys in the building and he's always here on Tuesday, our day off. He's made great strides this year in being more of a leader, not feeling like he has to prove something to the guys. We saw what he did as a rookie. We believe in his ability and where he can take this team."
Bradford's competitive drive is second to none on the team. Teammates marvel at how he enjoys being challenged, in anything, anywhere, by anybody.
"That spreads throughout the locker room," receiver Danny Amendola said.
Bradford loves the new offense under former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. It will push the ball down the field more, which should play to his strengths more. He's also more in command of the offense.
"When I stepped into the huddle, I was the one talking," Bradford said. "Now I'm more comfortable in the huddle, so if I feel like I might need to say something to a guy about an alignment on a play or say something about a route, I have no problem doing that this year. Last year, I was figuring out what I was going to do most of the time."
Looking into the offensive huddle and seeing a guy like Bradford to build around is the most comforting thing for Devaney and Spagnuolo.
"It's a good feeling," Spagnuolo said. "But it can't be just on that guy."
"Having a quarterback like that to build around is a pretty big piece," Devaney said. "Even he knows that."
• • •
The veteran leader
Jackson has been through a lot of tough times in St. Louis. All the while, he has put up big rushing numbers with little fanfare.
He is the hidden superstar.
"I believe at the end of the day, when everyone is retired, you don't focus on the scoreboard, you focus on performance on plays day in and out," Jackson said. "I built my legacy around here on being a tough, hard-nosed player. It's unfortunate the majority of the carries have come on bad teams. But that doesn't make who you are."
Now entering his eighth season, Jackson has played on teams that have gone 35-77. He's never been on one with a winning record and has played on teams that went 2-14, 3-13 and 1-15. But, even with little help at times on offense, Jackson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past six seasons. He is still a vital part of what the Rams do.
"I've used the Reggie Jackson line before, but Steven is the straw that stirs the drink," Devaney said "He's been through a lot of tough times, but he's the consummate pro. He helps people. He's a great teammate. They respect him. It's great that all the crude he's been though and he can still carry himself the way he does."
Said Spagnuolo: "He loves it. He's like a warrior."
Jackson's per-rush average was 3.8 yards last season, the first time in his career where it has been less than 4.0. That has led to some talk that he's slowing down at age 28. The reality is the interior of the line wasn't very good. They didn't get much push, which hurt the numbers. The passing game also didn't stretch the field, which meant a lot of eight-man fronts.
Jackson wouldn't throw teammates under the bus when asked about his drop in production.
"It is what it is," Jackson said. "I know I can still play."
• • •
If you look at any of the recent Super Bowl champions, including the Packers last season, the rosters are dotted with good, young, building-block players.
These might not be the stars, but they are vital to the success of building to win a title.
The strategy is simple: Draft them. Play them early. Go through growing pains and then watch them blossom in the third, fourth and fifth seasons.
The Rams have several of those kinds of players who are essential if they are to build something special.
There are middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive end Chris Long, cornerback Bradley Fletcher and left tackle Rodger Saffold.
All four are 26 or younger. All four will be counted on for big things in 2011.
"Look at the two teams in the Super Bowl," Devaney said. "That's the way you want to build your team. They had a sprinkling of free agents, but most of their kids are from the organization. They draft well, earmark the guys they want to keep around, and then win with them. We want to copycat those guys."
When Long arrived as the second player drafted overall in 2008, he came with big expectations. It took time, but he had his best season in 2010. Now he, and the team, appear ready for more.
"I had this misconception coming out that all NFL teams are equal in terms of talent," Long said. "I found out that wasn't the case. We had some holes in some areas that needed to be worked on. I think Coach Spags and Billy Devaney have done an awesome job of bringing in all kinds of players and the right kind of players."
• • •
So now the pieces seem to be in place. Now comes the hard part for the Rams, taking a step forward.
"We learned a lot about what it takes to win in this league," Jackson said. "We blew some games in the fourth quarter that will help us this year. Now we know what to expect. We can build on it."
Jackson was asked what it would be like to be on a winner, a playoff winner, a Super Bowl winner.
"It would take some time getting used to," he said.
He might want to get ready. The Rams should be competitive for the next 5-7 years -- thanks to having the key components in building a successful team.
Re: Rams have pieces in place to build consistent winner
I LOVE THE SOUND OF THIS, BUT CANT WAIT FOR SEPTEMBER 11th ( season starts the 8th though)
Thats all I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear from the leaders that this team WILL be competitive again, and I always wanted to know what caused the collapse in the first darn place. That is the way it should be, always and forever, competitive YIYO with a chance to go far each year.