Rams starting from a far different place
• Joe Strauss
Two days of rookie minicamp at Rams Park concluded Saturday afternoon. The closed-to-public sessions led to heightened media arousal over assigned numbers and assorted college tales.
No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin wore No. 11 (blue jersey), looked really fast and really isn’t taller than 5 feet 7. The turf was slick on Friday but offered more bite Saturday. Those lads who remain are set to attend today’s Cardinals-Rockies game — and hopefully no one will pull a Jason Smith and try to make off with the star first baseman’s game hat. (Smith was intercepted at the clubhouse door.)
Few words of wisdom are gleaned in the time between the draft and organized team activities that begin May 21. Clichés abound. Everyone is excited to be living a dream come true. And that’s how it should be. But, employing the ultimate litmus test, these workouts weren’t even significant enough for Pappy’s to cater the media spread.
That said, Rams Park no longer is the NFL’s last-chance saloon. Every indicator from the team’s approach to free agency, its aggressiveness in the draft and its coach’s nod to a more energized offense suggests a franchise operating from a higher baseline.
Able to carve a fresh-faced counter-puncher’s 7-8-1 record out of coach Jeff Fisher’s first year in town, the Rams now suggest more of a quick-strike posture from fourth-year quarterback Sam Bradford and his friends on offense.
The Rams negotiated two of this year’s seven free-agent contracts averaging more than $8 million per season with left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook.
To industry applause, they famously moved up eight spots to pluck Austin, the draft’s most unique offensive player.
The era of trawling dumpster-dive free agents is over, replaced by a nod toward premium talent that challenges the salary cap.
The look remains open to interpretation, as evidenced by the ultimate arbiters. Two gambling entities released their projected win totals for each NFL team last week. The first set the Rams at eight; the second teased handicappers with a total of 6½ that ranked higher than only four other teams.
The Rams became known as a plodding, ball-control offense last season that exposed itself to turnovers and drive-killing penalties because of its inability to consume chunks of yardage on one snap. The franchise’s willingness to let signature running back Stephen Jackson walk suggested discomfort with having to regularly feed Jackson carries. Breaking from the past typically leads to wide-ranging perceptions.
“We still want to be able to grind it, but we also want to become more explosive downfield. I’ve been through that before with a veteran team,” Fisher reminded.
His 2000 Tennessee Titans threw 462 passes and rushed it 547 times. The pass accounted for 18 touchdowns compared to 14 on the ground.
Three seasons later, with the same quarterback, the Titans ranked fifth in the league in scoring, throwing more often (502) than they ran (486). Thirty of their 41 touchdowns were thrown.
Fisher cautions about knee-jerk comparisons, calling now and then “two different situations” with “too many variables” in play.
To say the Rams advanced eight spots for Austin because he is all that separates them from the postseason is overly simplistic, Fisher maintains.
More accurately, in a linemen-heavy draft Austin represented a singular talent who addressed this team’s greatest need.
“People can look at it how they want,” Fisher said. “You have to look at the draft board. For example, the offensive tackles. We feel pretty good about our tackle position. But there were teams that drafted tackles that didn’t have one. We just felt like this was a dynamic playmaker. We got that guy.”
Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer are better known as ground-and-pound offensive minds.
The New York Jets led the NFL in rushing under Schottenheimer. That team’s quarterback, Mark Sanchez, since has been exposed as fragile. The Rams do not judge Bradford similarly.
Fisher adapted to running back Eddie George’s abrupt decline in Nashville by putting more on quarterback Steve McNair. One comparison to the Rams’ situation becomes obvious post-SJ39. Bradford unquestionably becomes the scheme’s focal point.
Austin is the new toy in the room. However, any offensive retooling will fail without Brian Quick and Chris Givens maturing into impact receivers.
A product of smallish Appalachian State, Quick was a highlight reel in Wednesday practice as a rookie but struggled to master a more complex playbook. Givens made advances as the season progressed and is the team’s top returning receiver in only his second year. Fisher is counting on the cliché that receivers achieve their greatest growth from their rookie to second year in the league.
“We feel momentum. We want to create some match-up problems on the offensive side of the ball. I think we’ve done that,” Fisher said. “We’ve created depth at running back. We’ve added to our core guys on special teams. Sam is off to a great start. Guys are having fun in the program. They’re all here.”
The Rams still skew very young. Indeed, they project as the league’s youngest team for a second straight season and are particularly young at offensive skill positions. However, they also have a strong defensive foundation that compensated for many of the offense’s struggles.
The Rams enjoy the luxury of having eight returning defensive linemen. They are less robust at linebacker, with only five at the position under control prior to the draft. The secondary also skews young.
Last season represented excavation for a rebuild. The Rams surprised with a two-sided season that saw them produce a remarkable 4-1-1 record within the rugged NFC West but drift to 3-7 against outside competition that included unsightly home losses to the Jets and Minnesota Vikings.
Division foes San Francisco and Seattle appear only stronger. The Rams could conceivably be improved relative to the conference while standing in place among rivals.
The last two days were only a start that offered fleeting glimpses of new, excited faces.
Yet Fisher, rarely given to hyperbole, succinctly frames the exercise: “We’re starting from a different place this time.”