Wednesday, March 11, 2009

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

As timing goes, what happened to Mike Karney in the past week couldn’t have been worse. But from where the Rams are sitting, time was most certainly on their side.

Karney was waiting for his fiancée Kim to pick him up for their rehearsal dinner last Thursday when suddenly his phone rang. On the other end was Karney’s employer, the New Orleans Saints, letting him know that they were now his former employer.

The call wasn’t completely unexpected but the timing wasn’t exactly exciting, either. The apparently unflappable fullback informed Kim that he was out of work and the couple went about enjoying their wedding festivities.

“We have the belief through everything we do in life that whatever happens, happens for a reason and one door closes and the next opens,” Kim Karney said. “That’s just how we took the situation. He wasn’t moody; he wasn’t anything at the rehearsal dinner. He just focused on the rehearsal dinner and the wedding and that kind of thing rather than what happened.”

While Karney managed to stay focused on his bride and his Friday night wedding, he couldn’t help but think where his future in the NFL might be. For a proven five-year veteran, landing another gig in the NFL isn’t usually much of an issue.

But it’s a bit different when you are an old school, lead blocking fullback, a position that is going the way of leather helmets and dinosaurs.

At any given time, Karney and any other true fullback in the league can rattle off the ever-shortening list of teams that still use players like him in their offense. In other words, Karney knows exactly how limited his job options are.

Given that knowledge, Karney had already has a clairvoyant moment earlier in the preseason when the Rams named Steve Spagnuolo head coach.

“The game is changing, I remember telling my wife when I was still in New Orleans and I hadn’t been released yet, when coach got the job here, there is going to be a fullback there,” Karney said. “I know his track record, I know where he’s been, I know what he wants.”

Little did Karney know at the time that he would be out of work and he would end up playing for Spagnuolo but that’s exactly what came to fruition when Karney inked a three-year contract would about $3.6 million on Wednesday morning, just four days after the Rams first called.

While Karney was figuring out his next move while managing the biggest day of his life, the Rams were openly in the market for a lead blocking fullback.

Since the team parted ways with Madison Hedgecock in 2007, it has been without a legitimate lead blocking fullback capable of opening holes for running back Steven Jackson.

For his part, Jackson made it known late in the 2008 season that he would like to have a personal fullback escort again. And with good reason, considering Jackson had his best season in 2006 with Hedgecock opening holes.

And while Jackson has suffered from some injury issues in the past two seasons, he also hasn’t enjoyed that immense success since Hedgecock’s departure as the Rams have trotted out the likes of Richard Owens and Dan Kreider at the position.

“It’s difficult,” Jackson said. “So far in my career my best season was with a big time fullback. And not having that guy the last two years really showed to me and I think to a lot of people in the organization how important a fullback is. I know a lot of coaches and offensive coordinators feel like that’s a dying position but the teams that flourish on offense always have that key guy that opens up lanes for the running backs.”

Indeed, as Karney is quick to point out, the top five rushing teams in the NFL (New York Giants, Atlanta, Carolina, Baltimore and Minnesota) all employ a fullback whose primary purpose is to lead block.

Of course, Jackson’s lobbying wasn’t the only reason Karney ended up a Ram as Karney’s instincts on what type of offense Spagnuolo wanted to employ was dead on.

Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney have made it clear repeatedly that their offense is going to center on being an aggressive, physical running team.

As part of that plan, Devaney, Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur came to the consensus that finding a hammer for a fullback would be a necessity.

“(We) all talked about it and in order to be effective offensively, we feel initially you have got to be able to run the football,” Spagnuolo said. “It doesn’t mean you run it every play but you have got to be able to do it and quite honestly when you want to line up and knock somebody back it’s good to have a fullback that can do that. We think with all of the tailbacks we have, Mike will make them that much better.”

Karney’s track record would indicate that he is precisely the type of fullback the Rams have been hunting for since Hedgecock’s departure.

At 5’11, 255 pounds, Karney is built like a brick house with the speed to get through the holes and the desire to blow up linebackers. And though his position requires plenty of collisions, Karney has been durable, missing just four games because of injury in his five seasons.

Although Karney is primarily a lead blocker, he is an able pass catcher who has 53 career receptions for 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also can be an effective goal line and short yardage runner as he once scored three touchdowns in a game against Dallas.

Mostly, though, Karney helped pave the way for the power rushing attack of the Saints that featured Deuce McAllister, a back with traits and style similar to Jackson.

“I feel I have the experience in knowing how to block for a big back, talented back,” Karney said. “I am looking forward to getting with him this offseason and seeing what his mindset is, his approach and getting us on the same page.”

Karney will stay in St. Louis for the start of the offseason conditioning program, meaning he and Kim will have to postpone the honeymoon they originally had planned to begin Friday.

The emergence of quarterback Drew Brees in New Orleans might have made Karney expendable but their loss is the Rams’ gain. For St. Louis, the timing couldn’t have worked out any better.

“It just fell into place,” Spagnuolo said. “It was one of those things that was the right time, the right place, good timing and it worked out for us.”