By Nick Wagoner
By his own admission Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo can often have the sound of a broken record.
Each week, win or lose, rain or snow, no matter the circumstance, Spagnuolo squares his jaw, focuses on the task at hand and approaches every game the same way.
More than halfway into his rookie season as a head coach, Spagnuolo has never strayed from the team-first ethos he installed from the day he arrived in St. Louis way back in January.
In the face of plenty of adversity, Spagnuolo has uttered nary a discouraging word and anyone looking for a full-throated, raging outburst should look elsewhere. And a little prosperity hasn’t had the opposite effect, either as Spagnuolo hasn’t come close to any type of braggadocio.
“I have had my moments (of frustration),” Spagnuolo said. “But I think there’s a professional way to do it. I think everybody in this business should be respected for the jobs they have. I think any business is about respecting each other. I don’t see any reason to go off the cuff. I keep that to myself. Part of what we talk about as a team is being a poised team. You can’t be a poised team if the head coach isn’t poised.”
Regardless of the record, if there’s one thing that has remained constant in this first year under Spagnuolo’s guidance it’s his and his team’s uncanny knack to remain unfazed by any possible distractions.
Spagnuolo’s message reaches to the team, too. There have been no locker room or sideline blowups, only players staying relentlessly positive and focusing on the single goal of coming together as a team with the sole focus of finding ways to win football games.
“Being a guy who has been here with the Rams now going for five years,” safety Oshiomogho Atogwe said. “Some of the younger guys and some of the vets need to see loyalty and faithfulness from the guys that have already been here and that’s going to carry over throughout the locker room so you just build a team that is really focused on one goal and one purpose and being one.”
At Spagnuolo’s initial news conference when he was introduced as the head coach, he made it clear the way he and general manager Billy Devaney wanted to build the team back into a winner.
Topping the list was finding a way to build a team that was all about team. A team that would fill the locker room with players that care as much about the guy next to them as they do themselves.
Spagnuolo put the Rams through a rigorous training camp that had them tackling in full pads from day one and continued to put the emphasis on building the team concept every day.
It was easy enough for the players to buy into the system then because they knew Spagnuolo’s impressive resume coming from winning programs in Philadelphia and New York.
“I think that he would even admit that we bought into his system,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “We know it’s going to be successful it’s just a matter of bearing with it. Once we start getting those wins, it will start to pay off. It’s a winning formula. He’s been with the (New York) Giants and Philadelphia. It’s not always easy but I think that the older guys around here know that it is a winning formula. We’ve all bought into it.”
The more difficult task for Spagnuolo and the Rams is continuing to believe in the system even when adversity strikes.
After starting the season 0-7, it would have been simple for somebody to start freestyling, whether it be a press conference blowup or some sort of a sideline argument. Frustration alone would serve as a reasonable excuse for such an act.
But there hasn’t even been so much as something resembling a close call.
“To me, that’s a credit to the players,” Spagnuolo said. “It is easy in this business to venture somewhere else, especially when you don’t have a lot of success. That’s why I keep going back to and keep saying that I love the group down there, the character, the commitment, the loyalty because if you have those things, eventually that will be the reason why you win. It won’t be about coaches or trick plays. It will be because what your core of players is made of. That will be the reason why we win.”
Buying into the core values and beliefs being instilled by Spagnuolo is one thing, though it’s no small thing. The other part of that building process is diving into new offensive and defensive systems.
Defensively, the Rams have made strides under the guidance of Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole.
Rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has emerged as a force as the quarterback of the defense, end Leonard Little is racking up sacks with youthful zest, end James Hall is dominating from spots all across the line and the secondary is developing plenty of its young talent.
“I think we are close,” Flajole said. “Now again, every week we come out here, we are not where we want to be yet. That is obvious, but I think from a mental standpoint when you see our guys do certain things, you kind of say, ‘Well we didn’t quite get that right last week or the weeks before but we got it right now.’ I see a natural progression which is encouraging. We’ve just got to continue to keep on that track and keep improving as the weeks go along.”
On the other side of the ball, the Rams have been as advertised in their approach to the game.
Running back Steven Jackson is having an MVP-caliber season against teams that have game planned entirely with the idea of stopping him on Sundays. A revamped offensive line has continued to grow together and a few young receivers including Laurent Robinson and tight end Daniel Fells have flashed glimpses of potential.
That hasn’t necessarily translated into a lot of points but offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur believes the Rams are on the path to a breakthrough.
“We need to score points and that is the focus,” Shurmur said. “We found a way to drive the football. We are eliminating some of the mistakes we made earlier in the year and now we just have to find a way to get the ball in the end zone. There is no magic formula other than we just have to be better at what we do.”
LEANING ON LEADERS
One of the weekly initiatives that has been installed by Spagnuolo since he arrived is the idea of going with captains on a game by game basis. There are no players wearing the ‘C’ on the jersey.
Spagnuolo didn’t want to separate any players from the pack and he also wanted a chance to get to know his players before he would declare anyone a leader.
In other words, instead of Spagnuolo trying to identify leaders, he opted to let those leaders identify themselves through work habits and setting an example.
“There’s leaders in there surfacing,” Spagnuolo said. “I think people recognize who they are. Those guys I credit as much as anybody with keeping it together because it’s the leaders in the locker room that do it. As coaches, we are not in there all the time. So when a young guy ventures the wrong way, a leader can pull him back in, that’s huge. That’s why you have to have the right people in the locker room and I think we have that.”
Players like Jackson, Atogwe and center Jason Brown are among the many players who have stepped forward into a leadership role this season.
Because Spagnuolo and the coaching staff has to spend so much time focusing on opponents and game planning, the emergence of those leaders has eased his work load a bit.
“It makes it a lot tougher if you don’t,” Spagnuolo said. “I respect those guys a lot. The business they are in and what they do is not easy. It’s probably a lot easier for the coaches because we are in this building all the time. We don’t really feel the pressures of the outside. Our players leave this building every day and have Tuesdays off; they are around it all the time. Yet, they still find a way to keep the distractions outside. That’s a credit to them.”
THE NEXT STEP
The process of building a team isn’t easy. It takes a lot of care and consideration. And because team-building isn’t something that is tangible or that can be quantified, it’s hard to know how far along you are in the process.
Spagnuolo relies on little keys he can pick up on in determining just how far his team has come so far in his first season.
“I usually gauge it off of the feel of practice,” Spagnuolo said. “Is the effort still there? Are we still practicing fast? Are guys on time? The little things that people would probably overlook, I look at them all the time. This team hasn’t cut corners, hasn’t looked for easy ways out. When you do that, it tells me they are still hungry to get things done and as long as we stay hungry, we have a chance.”
So far, there have been no signs of that hunger going away. If anything, after getting the first win of the Spagnuolo era against Detroit, the Rams’ desire for more wins will likely only increase.
“The thing is that every organization, every team, everything is a season,” Brown said. “Everything goes through a season. Right now, it’s a tough season but all seasons must come to an end. This storm that we are going through right now is not going to define us. We are busting our butts, we are working are hardest to make sure our ship gets going in the right direction and we stay headed that way.”
Spagnuolo and his staff are constantly evaluating the things they are doing moving forward. There are lessons to take from losses just as there are from the wins. The bye week allowed for an opportunity to self-scout or study themselves.
Each week provides another opportunity to develop whether it’s improved clock management for the coaching staff or fundamental tweaks for the players.
While some of that stuff might change, the message and the tasks certainly won’t.
“Well, I think that’s hats off to our coach,” Jackson said. “He’s a great leader. He’s making sure that no one drifts away from what we’re trying to turn around here. We knew going into the season that we were going to have our hands full. It’s a new scheme on both sides of the ball. It’s a lot of new faces in the locker room. Coach has really done a great job of making sure that we are all on the same page that’s first thing. He’s giving everyone a vision, getting everyone going in the right direction. I think we have that.”