St. Louis Rams poised to improve
Sports Columnist Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
As the Rams open training camp, I've been looking for reasons to be optimistic about 2009. The franchise is for sale. The team, which was near the top of the NFL in 2000, has tumbled to the bottom of the league at decade's end. The previous football regime virtually destroyed the roster, leaving few impact players in place.
So where's the hope?
It starts (and ends, really) with the offseason purge of the front office and the installation of Billy Devaney as general manager and Steve Spagnuolo as head coach.
The Rams can overcome themselves and the opponents by winning. That's the only cure. The Rams must win. And then they'll get the fans back. They'll give people a reason to care again.
At least with Devaney, Spagnuolo and their lieutenants, the football side of the operation is manned by fresh thinkers, high-energy personalities, and a collective will to succeed.
The working environment is harmonious. Well, at least for now; there is something strange about the NFL that causes egos to expand. But now the Rams have a united football front, and that's a dramatic change from the bickering, back-room power grabs and the insidious dysfunction of the immediate past.
I'm not saying that Devaney is Bill Polian, or that Spagnuolo is Bill Belichick. They have a lot to prove to before becoming certified winners in this league. And that especially is true of Spagnuolo, the first-time head coach. You just never know about the first-timers as leaders until they lose three in a row, and the sniping begins, and the adversity is crackling around them.
But there's no question that Spagnuolo has personal charisma, and that he has learned from some of the best in the business, including the late Jim Johnson, the Philadelphia Eagles' outstanding defensive coordinator.
Johnson died Tuesday. I knew Johnson for the last 20-plus years of his life, and I respected him as much as any coach or person I've encountered in the NFL. Soon after Johnson was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, he returned my call and left a voice message. I had phoned several weeks earlier to get a scouting report on Spagnuolo.
"A talented coach, but even more than that, he's real," Johnson said on the voice mail. "There's nothing phony about him. He's smart and he's a sincere guy and players will follow his lead. And when players need to be challenged, he's tough enough to command respect. He'll win there." MORE BERNIE
I had hoped to have a lengthier conversation with Johnson about "Spags," and write an entire column about it. But frankly I didn't want to bother Johnson as he fought the terminal illness that would claim his life.
If a straight-shooter and man of integrity such as Johnson goes out of his way to call me in the middle of a medical crisis to offer a personal endorsement of Spagnuolo, then I believe what he tells me. Absolutely.
So I have high expectations for the Rams' rookie coach. As for Devaney, he seems to know what must be done here. I liked Devaney's approach in his first two drafts (the second as the team's GM.) Devaney didn't do anything crazy. He played it relatively safe. And that's OK. The Rams reached this point — a glaring talent deficit — by reaching and gambling and doing too many dumb things with their personnel moves.
I may be different than at least some Rams fans who wanted to see the football bosses be more aggressive and daring during their first offseason of planning. I see it another way: The Rams have so much work to do, so many holes to fill, so many areas to tighten up, so many years of utter football stupidity to overcome, that they have no choice but to take it one phase at a time.
It's like refurbishing a dilapidated house — but with a limit on what you can spend, because there's a salary cap. Rams executive VP Kevin Demoff handles the money, and he's there with the GM and the coach in realizing that the Rams must be enhanced methodically, over time. It can't be done through shortcuts.
Since the end of last season, the Rams have removed several of their older players from the roster. It had to be done. The roster had to get younger and fresher. But the Rams also put a heap of "dead" money onto their salary cap by releasing Orlando Pace, Torry Holt, Corey Chavous, etc. And that limited the possibility of a more freewheeling offseason.
Again, I'm OK with that. We've seen the organization pour resources (and draft picks) into the offensive line, the secondary, and, to a lesser extent, the defensive line. Weak spots remain; the team is short on proven receivers, and linebackers, and there's no locked-in No. 2 running back behind Steven Jackson. But the Rams can attack those needs next offseason.
I'm not writing the Rams off for 2009. Yes, there are always surprises in the NFL. Teams come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. It happened with the 1999 Rams. But I don't see a Kurt Warner or a Marshall Faulk falling out of the sky and landing at Rams Park this summer.
I'm just being realistic. And if Devaney, Spagnuolo and Demoff are as good as Rams fans hope they are, then it's acceptable to sit tight as they put their deliberate rebuilding plan in place. If these guys know what they are doing -- and I think they do — then their home improvements will be worth the wait.