July 12, 2012

For the first time since the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams have a tangible reason to be optimistic.

Not this year, of course, because between former GM Billy Devaney and former head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the earth was left scorched for their successors, with the treasures hidden under piles of rubble.

The Rams made two incredibly shrewd hires in head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead, long-time member of the Falcons’ front office.

He helped oversee Atlanta’s renaissance and hopes to bring the same Midas touch to the Gateway City. He has already shown the shrewdness of his mentor, GM Thomas Dimitroff.

Fisher ran the show for the Titans for so long that he actually coached the Oilers, leading the team to the Music City Miracle, to a Mike Jones tackle away from beating the Rams in the Super Bowl, to Chris Johnson’s CJ2K year. Both hires understand stability and long-term success.

But the question of who will put the pieces together for a young defense has been asked since, shortly after being hired, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely for his role in the Bountygate scandal.

Fisher has deemed a committee of himself, defensive backs coach (and former Titans DC under Fisher) Chuck Cecil, and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. McGinnis was an assistant to Buddy Ryan in Chicago (helping to run Ryan’s 46 defense while Fisher played for the Bears), a head coach for the Cardinals and an assistant head coach to Fisher previously in Tennessee.

McGinnis is likely at the point in his career where he prefers a role in oversight of the defense, and Cecil’s stint as a DC was met with mixed reviews. Cecil’s best talent may be focusing on the defensive backfield, as his vicious play as a cornerback is reflected in Tennessee transplant Cortland Finnegan’s on-field work. His greatest accomplishments in his coaching career have been getting the most out of his defensive backfields.

Obviously, this committee approach to the defense is a temporary solution, so what is the end goal? Or is Fisher holding a spot open for Williams’s possible return? In a league where the “N” in NFL often stands for “nepotism,” Williams’s son, Blake, remains as the linebackers coach.

If Fisher truly wanted to cut ties and wash his hands, would he not show Gregg’s son the door? One could say it was just a realization that it was too close to the season to make any major coaching changes for lack of quality candidates on the market. Or one could read more deeply into it.

When the pay-for-performance scandal originally broke and Williams was suspended indefinitely, the immediate thought was that his career was over. Roger Goodell stated, however, that Williams could apply for reinstatement before next season if he complied with the league’s guidelines, including a mandated silence.

Throughout the Bountygate developments of continually discounted evidence, player protests, and even implicated coach Joe Vitt’s denial, Williams has remained quiet. Fisher holds a great deal of weight amongst the NFL ranks, as evidenced by the league allowing him to keep his chair on the competition committee even while he was not currently employed by an NFL team. Surely a man that well-connected and well-respected has some insight into the situation and influence on the reinstatement process.

Although the league has given Williams a gag order against defending himself, as the league's case weakens, the chances are heightened that Williams will be reinstated at his earliest opportunity. The court of public opinion has already swayed dramatically. The Rams, Fisher and Snead could look very savvy in 2013 if Williams returns to become defensive coordinator.

The moves this offseason for the Rams have been primarily focused on success in the future, which invites the organization to keep an open spot for Williams while they wait.

The scheme that Williams runs is identical to Fisher’s playbook: the two developed it together in Tennessee. Even without Williams this season, there would be no new playbook for the players if he were to return in 2013 and the young talent will not have their development impeded.

Williams should be frothing at the mouth to return to a group with this much young talent procured by Snead and, surprisingly, from the previous regime. Robert Quinn, an outrageously quick defensive end, must have Williams thinking about Jevon Kearse during his heyday with the Titans.

Finnegan, rookie Janoris Jenkins and free safety Quintin Mikell have adequate cover skills to balance the blitz-heavy Fisher/Williams defense, and Finnegan can blitz as well as Roman Harper did under Williams in New Orleans.

Chris Long had a breakout season in 2011 with the emergence of Quinn on his bookend. Long should continue his upward arc with the addition of the penetrating big man from LSU, Michael Brockers, collapsing the middle of the pocket.

The return of Williams certainly would be a boon for the investment in the future that the Rams are making, despite the growing pains that they face currently. The instruction that young players could receive from an elite cast of coaches, which the Rams wisely agreed to bankroll as part of Fisher’s hiring, could once again fill up the Edward Jones Dome, provided the Rams are still playing there after 2014.

The NFL is a league full of redemption stories, and next year’s could feature a reformed defensive coordinator.