Scott Linehan in command
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Rams coach Scott Linehan shows the intensity of a man watcing his team play for the first time, even it it was only an exhibition game.
(By Chris Lee/P-D)
Veteran defensive tackle La'Roi Glover once worked for old-schoolers Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells.
"Parcells' camps were tough, but the weather wasn't as hot," Glover said. "Ditka's camps were hot and tough."
How does Camp Linehan compare?
"This is one of the more physical camps that I've been part of," said Glover, entering his 11th NFL season. "We've basically been in shoulder pads and shorts, or full pads, every single day. It's been a grind. It's been tough. It's been physical."
But it's been necessary.
"You're going to be sore," Glover continued. "You're going to be fatigued. You're going to have headaches. You're going to be beat up. But you have to adapt to it.
"I think one of the coaches used to have a saying for that: battle-hardened. You've got to have yourself and your team battle-hardened. So when something happens in the game, you've seen it before 100 times in practice, so you're not surprised by it."
And when you're sore, fatigued, and beat up in the fourth quarter of a close game, you'll have been through that before.
If there's one thing Scott Linehan wanted to get out of his first training camp with the Rams -- his first training camp as a head coach -- that's it. He wanted a tougher, more physical Rams team.
"I think we've hardened ourselves and toughened ourselves to be game ready -- both physically and mentally," Linehan said. "We've got a lot of conditioning in. I thought we were in great shape to start camp, but we conditioned during this camp while we practiced. And I think our players embraced that."
Actually, "embraced" might be a strong word. But even those Rams around long enough to have endured Dick Vermeil's brutal training camps of the late '90s realize that Camp Linehan was a necessary evil.
"It was tough, but we needed it," defensive end Leonard Little said. "Last year we weren't in pads as much. But we lacked a little bit of toughness. ... We were probably dead last against the run last year as a defense."
For the record, the Rams ranked 28th, or just four spots removed from dead last. Linehan is doing everything in his power to make sure that doesn't happen again.
Similarly unacceptable is the Rams' ranking as 22nd in rushing offense a year ago. In four seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator in Minnesota, and then Miami, Linehan never had a team finish lower than 18th in rushing offense. His 2002 Vikings led the league in rushing; his '03 Vikings ranked fourth.
So the Rams will run the ball better. And they will defend the run better. They will tackle. They will take care of the football. They will get lined up right. They will avoid silly penalties. They will play smart, disciplined, aggressive football. Or else.
Or else what?
Well, Linehan gets on players -- veterans and rookies alike. But not nearly to the extent of his predecessor, Mike Martz. (For one, Linehan doesn't know nearly as many cuss words.)
But Linehan has his methods.
"Sometimes you've just got to remind yourself that if you don't pay attention to the little things, big things can happen," Linehan said.
A frequent Linehan "reminder" comes in the form of sprints after practice. Dropped passes, botched snap counts and misalignments -- really, the whole gamut of what might be termed unforced errors -- clearly irritate Linehan. The fourth head coach in the history of the "St. Louis" Rams constantly harps on the importance of these little things.
"He's very detail-oriented," wide receiver Dane Looker said. "That's one thing I've definitely noticed about him. We've gone over all kinds of different situations that could come up in a game -- that may come up once every few years. We've covered every detail in our night meetings.
"He'll call out a player and say, 'Now tell me about if this situation happens.' It'll be a situation that probably won't even happen in a year. But you've got to be ready and prepared for every situation. And he's really good about that."
Looker has a unique perspective on Linehan among Rams players, because he was at the University of Washington for two seasons (1997 and '98) when Linehan was Huskies offensive coordinator.
"He's not a lot different than he was when I knew him back then," Looker said. "He's got a confidence to him that I think players are drawn to right away. I don't think he was ever intimidated by the position he's in, even though he's a new head coach. It's a quiet confidence that I think these players will feed off of."
Granted, the Rams have yet to play a game that counts. But so far, Linehan's approach seems to be working. He's a people person, but not a pushover. After a tumultuous 2005 season, Rams Park has been a more relaxed, less stressed-out place to work. If nothing else, Linehan has restored a sense of normality.
"Of course, we're not sure what normal is," offensive guard Adam Timmerman joked. "But yeah, it seems about as normal as can be."
How normal? Well, during the second week of camp, Linehan took the team to a local water park for fun in the sun. Picture the Donut Bros., Andy McCollum and Adam Timmerman, barreling down a water slide in their shorts. On second thought, maybe that's not a good picture.
"There were some sights out there that might not have been legal," quarterback Marc Bulger quipped.
On the last official day of training camp, a couple of days before the Houston preseason game, the players boarded buses and headed to a St. Charles movie theater to watch a screening of Invincible, the story of a walk-on who made Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles squad.
Earlier that same night, Linehan re-instituted the rookie show, in which rookies sing, joke and make fun of the coaching staff. Such bonding activities rarely took place among past Rams teams.
"In the past, when we went to a couple Super Bowls, we did stuff," Little said. "We went out to eat. We went to the movies and stuff like that. It really does bond you much closer and it does help you out there on the field."
But don't mistake Linehan for a touchy-feely coach. He often holds a stick behind the carrot. For example, on the same day of the swimming outing, Linehan made the offensive players run sprints after a particularly sloppy practice.
A few days before the Houston game, Linehan told the players he would cancel night meetings if everyone was on time that day for meetings, etc. Well, tight end Jerome Collins was late for something -- by only a couple of minutes. His teammates were steamed, thinking they had lost a few hours of precious free time amidst the non-stop football cram session that is training camp.
Linehan eventually relented, but for a price. He canceled the night meetings anyway, but only after subjecting the team to -- you guessed it -- another round of post-practice sprints.
And so it goes. The new head coach gets to know his players; the players get to know their new head coach.
"Every day we're learning something new about him or he's learning something new about us," wide receiver Torry Holt said.
Linehan, who turns 43 next month, is the first to admit that he doesn't have all the answers.
"I've alluded to this several times," Linehan said. "The reason I feel confident is because of the people that I've surrounded myself with. Everybody in this organization has helped me through every step of the way.
"I also know that I'm no genius. ... But I've watched a lot of great head coaches. I've watched how they do things, and hopefully have taken a lot of those things and will apply them to our philosophy.
"I lean very heavily on assistant coaches. I think if I have a trait that's worth a darn, it's that I let people do the job they were hired to do. If you don't do that, I think you're just going to drive yourself into a panic or a frenzy."
Linehan seems incapable of panic or frenzy. If there's one phrase to describe his personality, or at least his approach to football, it's even-keeled.
"That's how he is," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "He gets a little upset when the offense is not doing very well. But he's about as even as you're going to get."
In other words, no one will ever refer to him as "Mad Scott." But in the NFL, you don't get style points for personality. It's all about the W's -- the wins and losses in the pressure-cooker that is NFL coaching.
As one Rams official put it, in discussing Linehan: "He's a genuine person. He's upbeat. But can he handle the pressure?"
We're about to find out.