Success in the Details for Laurinaitis
By Nick Wagoner/Senior Writer

Posted 2 hours ago

As the focal point of the Ohio State defense in his four years as a Buckeye, linebacker James Laurinaitis made plenty of big plays that would be cause for celebration.

But in Columbus, any type of signature move was frowned upon by the coaching staff.

“In college, the whole celebrating thing was kind of frowned upon,” Laurinaitis said. “Our linebacker coach wanted you to act like you had been there before.”

So Laurinaitis did just that, acting like he had been there before because in most cases, he had. That approach carried into his rookie season with the Rams where he led the team in tackles and made his share of big plays.

Never did Laurinaitis pound his chest or go off into a wild celebration. But before this season, cornerback Ron Bartell let Laurinaitis know that it’s OK to cut it loose after a big play.

As if Bartell’s encouragement wasn’t enough, Laurinaitis also took exception to a perceived slight in the Madden ’11 video game.

That game added a “swagger” rating feature this year where players are rated for the way they carry themselves. While the ratings seemed to be pretty arbitrary (former Rams safety David Roach was a 90), Laurinaitis was none too pleased to see that his rating matched his jersey number.

With that, Laurinaitis set about finding ways to get his swagger rating up and decided that incorporating pieces of his wrestling lineage into it would be a good way to do it.

“You realize in the NFL that it’s not really frowned upon,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s encouraged to get kind of creative with things. I really have to give credit to Ron Bartell as far as the sack celebrations. He told me a while ago I needed to step that up and recommended with the family lineage to do a lot of wrestling celebrations hence the Hulk Hogan, the Ric Flair, some of the things I have thrown in there.”

Now in his second season in the NFL, Laurinaitis has had plenty of opportunities to break out some of his new moves.

For the second consecutive year, Laurinaitis leads the team in tackles and is piecing together a Pro Bowl caliber season.

In 14 games, Laurinaitis has racked up 112 tackles, making him the first Ram since Pisa Tinoisamoa to reach the century mark in his first two seasons in the league. In addition to his tackling prowess, he’s added six passes defended, one interception and three sacks.

Being the perfectionist that he is, Laurinaitis is never satisfied with his performance but does acknowledge that he’s made a lot of progress from year 1 to year 2.

“I think I’m more accountable,” Laurinaitis said. “I’m better in the decision making on the field, getting guys lined up, knowing the game plan, know the details. It’s just part of growing up, part of being part of the defense one more year and just challenging yourself to get better, to know more. I am still learning a lot. I am still not where I want to be ultimately. I am a perfectionist so until I play that perfect game, which probably will never happen, but until I play that game I won’t be satisfied. There’s a fine line between trying to be too perfect and just playing football so you have got to find an equal balance but I am feeling definitely more comfortable, a better feel for the game in there this year.”

One area where Laurinaitis is clearly more comfortable is in his expanded leadership role. The simple nature of his position as middle linebacker requires plenty of leadership tasks such as making the calls and getting everyone lined up correctly but as a rookie, Laurinaitis acknowledged it can be hard to assert yourself in a leadership role.

In his rookie season, Laurinaitis quietly went about his business but did what had to be done. This year, he’s embraced the leadership aspects of the job because he built up enough equity through performance to be a more commanding presence in the locker room.

“Coach (Jim) Tressel told me in college that the way you become a leader on a team is you have to prove yourself on the field first,” Laurinaitis said. “When you are a rookie it’s harder. You kind of earn it. Hopefully I did. I think the guys listen when I ask them stuff and when I tell them how we are going to do some things. But it’s a collective effort. There’s not one leader to an offense or defense but naturally the MIC ‘backer has to be. If we need something done, I try to make that vocal.”

Laurinaitis’ value in terms of leadership and production are what makes him a key building block in what the Rams are doing. But it’s all of the little things that really have earned him the respect of his coaches and teammates in such a short period of time.

The extra work Laurinaitis puts in and his football intelligence have allowed him to handle a lot more than many others in his position could in just their second year in the league.

“(He’s) tremendously important, and really a lot of those things are unseen,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “(Defensive Coordinator) Ken (Flajole), myself, and all the defensive coaches get together at times and say, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’ and usually we say, ‘Well, he can handle it.’ It usually comes back to he can handle it, and we all know who ‘he’ is, because he’ll get us in and out of the right defenses. So he’s very valuable to have.”

Flajole concurs.
“I think so, and I think a lot of it has to do with what he’s done for us behind the scenes,” Flajole said. “We put a lot of management skills on him, a lot of things where we ask him to check and get us into the right front and maybe get us out of a pressure when the offense audibles and gets into a protection look. I think he’s just much more comfortable doing that. I think he’s much more vocal and he’s confident doing so. He gives us a lot of things at his position and it’s a lot of things that maybe the average fan wouldn’t recognize.”

Should Laurinaitis continue to develop at his current rate, there will be plenty of things for the average fan to recognize.

In last week’s game, Laurinaitis brought out a special introduction in which he timed up his stomp with the flames and then spit water in conjunction with it to mimic the introduction of wrestler Triple H.

“I’ll probably keep that going forward,” Laurinaitis said. “I’m trying to find something that can be my signature move and obviously the wrestling lineage kind of helps that out.”

So long as the Pro Bowl type of performance continues, consider Laurinaitis’ newfound swagger just another in the long line of things he’s trying to perfect.