Ridin' Road to No. 1 With Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo
(Edit: the source was fanhouse.com not nfl.fanhouse.com)
by: Anthony L. Gargano
found on fanshouse.com
ST. LOUIS -- The day that would shape the man's future moved mercifully toward finality as he dashed from the darkened team headquarters through the steady spring rain to his SUV in the parking spot labeled "Head Coach". Following months of torturous deliberation that sent him and the staff cross country and back, sifting through endless possibilities in the name of due diligence, they had made their decision.
Nothing left to do now but embrace hope and kiss it up to the fates.
Entranced by a lonely, wet highway and the rhythmic movement and hum of overworking windshield wipers, the man momentarily slipped into reflective thought midway into his 40-minute drive home to the city. He didn't appear to notice the muffled radio program in the background that talked of the night's events -- quite enthusiastically, by the way. He figured the town would happily comply with their selection, and that was always welcome, given the importance of public opinion to the industry.
Still, though, the fickle nature of it meant that if somehow the 22-year-old quarterback who played two games and change last year didn't become the franchise as planned for the St. Louis Rams, everyone would forget how they felt at this moment and call ingloriously for his hide.
The man could handle the torchbearers. The notion of failure, he couldn't stomach that. He didn't sacrifice his life for the coaching calling to lose. Without kin in the game, he landed his own sprawling office with the two desks -- one for the many business details of coaching football in the NFL, the other stationed in front of a large flat screen for the "fun stuff," the actual football element, film study and game-planning -- on the second floor of Rams Park by working rungs, beginning way back in 1983.
Graduate assistant at Massachusetts. Intern with the Redskins. Defensive line and special teams coach at Lafayette. Defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator at Connecticut, before the Huskie ascent to the Big East. Special teams and defensive line coach for the Barcelona Dragons. Scout for the Chargers. Defensive backs and linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Maine. Defensive backs coach at Rutgers. Defensive backs coach at Bowling Green. Linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Frankfurt Galaxy. Defensive assistant for the Eagles.
In 2001, he rose to defensive backs coach for the Eagles. Then linebackers coach in 2004. Then defensive coordinator for the Giants in 2007. Buoyed by his unit, the Giants won the Super Bowl that year. He rebuffed head-coaching offers that offseason, and stuck around one more season, out of loyalty and the handsome raise that amounted into the first real money he earned in 25 years in the business.
He looks like a football coach, the way Tony La Russa looks like a baseball manager, square-jawed and athletically fit, built to lead larger men. From central Massachusetts, New England intransigence led him right here, with midnight closing on Missouri. Just then, the man's cell phone that lay on the armrest sprung to life and lit up the interior of the truck. The name of the caller read clearly in all caps on the small screen.
"Sam!" he answered, warmly. "How you feeling buddy?"
The man held a half-smile, the kind worn by a proud elder, and nodded steadily at the caller's response.
"Good, good. You're with the family celebrating? Good, good. Good to hear."
"About time you called your coach back."
The man grinned.
(Upon saying goodbye, he explained that he had texted Bradford three hours prior and Bradford was just getting back to him now, and thus, the subtle dig. It's never too early, you see, to establish parameters.)
"Ok buddy, we'll see you tomorrow (Friday)," the man said. "Everything set with your flight? Let's get you out of here Saturday and back home with your family. I want you to relax. I want a well-rested quarterback for when you come back Thursday."
Thursday, exactly one week from this night and the first round of the NFL's first prime-time draft, will mark the Rams' first mini-camp of the offseason. The first football of 2010.
And when Steve Spagnuolo's future will begin.
He'll be, he says, on the clock. Nobody much counted last season. It seemed a miracle they won the one game in Detroit. They were seriously outmanned, as expected. The Rams fell hard after those two Super Bowl appearances around the turn of the century. They haven't had a winning season since 2003. The team Spagnuolo inherited won five games total in two years, and incredibly, was aging in all the wrong places.
Billy Devaney, a Jersey Shore guy, who established a good football name on the opposite coast with the famed Bobby Beathard and the San Diego Chargers, became the Rams general manager in December 2008, and the first business he did a month later was sell the highly coveted Spagnuolo on St. Louis. They knew they had a complete tear-down on their hands. Still do. The league cycle says it takes at least two years to completely gut a roster from a team in that kind of disrepair.
And this brings us to the story of how the Rams settled on Sam Bradford.
On January 3, 2010, at a desultory, three-quarter-filled Edward Jones Dome, which resulted in the third consecutive home television blackout in St. Louis, the young, nameless Rams played their season finale against the San Francisco ***** without self-pity. They even led at halftime, 3-0, and trailed only 7-6 in the fourth quarter, before falling 28-6, thankfully, mind you, for the greater good of the franchise.
The game that signaled just how dated now was the Greatest Show on Turf, in which Rams quarterbacks -- one by the name of Keith Null -- managed 22 net yards passing, and Isaac Bruce received the largest ovation because of his ceremonial start for the Niners. The loss secured the top pick in the draft for St. Louis.
Only once, usually, does a regime pocket such offseason gold without consequence, and so, rich with hope, Devaney and Spagnuolo immediately began plotting the strategy. By this point, the candidates for No. 1 had already materialized.
Everyone knew how dominant Ndamukong Suh was, the beast in the middle of the Nebraska defensive line and perhaps surest thing of all the prospects. Then there were wo Sooners, including the second-best defensive player: Gerald McCoy, also a tackle, seemed almost as sure a bet as Warren Sapp; and Trent Williams, the seriously athletic blindside tackle for Bradford, deemed consideration. So, too, did Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung.
But the clear aim of this offseason for the Rams was finding a quarterback to replace Marc Bulger, whether through the draft or free agency -- and preferably The One. That's what franchise quarterbacks are called nowadays in the league, and the romantic sense applies if you want to hug that trophy.
Even Spagnuolo, the one responsible for grounding the Patriots' super offense in 2007, a coach who reveres the bedrock principles of this game, however five-wide-less boring, built on defense and running the football, deems quarterback the first get in a franchise makeover.
"It's a quarterback league," he said.
Enter the crop of 2010: Bradford, Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame, Tim Tebow of Florida and Colt McCoy of Texas.
"We really had to look at those quarterbacks way early, before free agency," Spagnuolo said. "We had to decide whether any of them could be a franchise quarterback. If we decided they couldn't, we probably would have been more aggressive in free agency."
The Rams had plenty of options. Jake Delhomme, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman and Charlie Whitehurst were all available at some point.
"At the time, we liked both Bradford and Clausen, with Colt hanging in there," Spagnuolo said. "So we didn't have to necessarily jump out and get a quarterback. The deeper we got into the process, the more it seemed like Sam could be a viable option."
Away from Lucas Oil Stadium and all of the drills and Under Armour, the NFL Combine in Indianapolis feels like any other recruiting conference, especially in the evening at the nearby Holiday Inn Express on South Missouri Street. It's here that the top talent eligible for the draft stay on the second, third and fourth floors and meet potential suitors for the first time, barring a brief encounter at the Senior Bowl. Each team in the league takes a room on the first floor of the hotel and conducts rounds of nightly interview sessions with players that last from 6 p.m. to sometime after 10.
At the beginning of the combine, each player receives a schedule card marking team, time and day. Teams are allowed to interview a maximum of 60 players for the entire Combine, and the sessions are tightly orchestrated. The interviews last exactly 15 minutes, with a practice horn used to designate a "two-minute warning." By a second practice horn, players must be out of the designated room.
The league moved to structure the interview process because it used to be a free-for-all in the atrium, with agents, team officials and players milling about, and scouts pulling various players inside a team room for an interview that often lasted close to 30 minutes.
The sessions provide the first peek into a player's character, as well as his level of understanding from a technical standpoint. Most teams begin with a generic line of questioning before becoming more specific.
What is your goal?
"Just to be drafted in the NFL," a player may respond.
Then what? After you get drafted, what motivates you?
Some might answer, "To become starter, make the Pro Bowl, then the Hall of Fame."
That's nice. But what about the team?
One personnel man recalled that Suh talked at length about creating his own engineering firm.
"Suh was very bright," he said. "He had a lot of stuff going on outside football. It sounds strange but sometimes that's a negative."
That's a positive-negative. If a player has a blight on his record, teams will question him as though he's on the witness stand.
Did you ever get in trouble? No? Well, it says right here that you did. What happened? Why did you do that? What were you thinking right then and there? Tell me what happened again?
"It's a mind-boggling process," remarked quarterback Kevin Kolb (right), the new Eagles starting quarterback who was drafted with the 36th overall pick in 2007. "One night, I had 11 meetings in a row with different teams. Forty-five seconds between each one.
"Man, it's pretty ruthless. GM. Coach. Offensive coordinator. Sometimes the owner. They're firing questions at you. Say you're a guy who transferred, they'll poke at those points. Why did you transfer? Why did you give up? Why did you let that other guy get beat you?"
Kolb recalled his session with the Lions. One of the coaches said to him, "You've been a Texas boy your whole life, how would you adjust to the cold weather in Detroit?"
"Not to be a smart ass or anything, sir," he said, "but don't y'all play in a dome?"
On February 27, with a video camera recording each session, the Rams began the interview process for No. 1 (and the rest of their draft), paying special attention to the quarterbacks, Bradford, Clausen, McCoy and Tebow.
They showed each player five or six plays of varying success, each of the plays involving the players themselves, and asked them to dissect the tape.
"All four of those kids knew what they were doing," Spagnuolo said. "Tebow took the lead [during the session]. He grabbed the remote, sat up in the seat, elbows on his knees, and could tell you everyone on the field. What they were doing. What their responsibility. He really has a special aura about him. He could have stayed there all night."
McCoy, meanwhile, came across as a gentleman. He texted back Spagnuolo following his meeting, "Thanks for the opportunity to meet with you, coach. We can win a lot of games together."
McCoy was a winner, Spagnuolo thought. He could see him in the league, a game manager, steady, making the right decisions.
However, one player took the early lead in the process. But St. Louis still had to watch him throw. How was that player's injured shoulder? Was it fully healed? Did it affect his motion?
From Heisman to Hurtin' and Back
On a chilly day in the middle of March, Sam Bradford was down in Pensacola, Fla., throwing the football, trying to overcome the injury that cut short his senior season at Oklahoma and summoned all of the second-guessers who said he should have entered the draft the previous year.
He threw effortlessly, with zip and accuracy, the way he did before he sprained the AC joint in his shoulder that night against BYU.
"The ball was coming out quick," he said. "My arm strength felt good. After I went through that workout, I called one of my friends and I was like, 'I think I'm back.' It felt like a normal shoulder."
Nearly two weeks later, on March 29, representatives from teams across the NFL, including Devaney and Spagnuolo, trekked to Norman, Okla., to watch Bradford complete all 65 passes he attempted during a pro-day workout. Working with skill players who were once his Sooner teammates, under the guidance of Terry Shea, the consultant to draftees who will build pro days, Bradford threw short slants, medium outs, long balls, flare-outs to the backs, from under center and out of the shotgun, all on air (no defenders).
"We all wanted to see if he was healthy and he threw the hell out of it," Spagnuolo said. "That got the ball rolling."
The Rams' coach was in great demand that day from reporters in attendance. Everyone wanted to know what he thought of Bradford. At the end of the workout, Spagnuolo slid out a back entrance and stumbled into Bradford's coach at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, Bob Wilson.
"How proud he was," Spagnuolo said, "watching his former student in front all those cameras. We talked about Sam. I learned some more about him."
Devaney and Spagnuolo also attended the pro days for Clausen, Suh, McCoy and Williams during the month of March, mostly out of design. Smokescreen. While they had focused on Bradford, they wanted to keep trade possibilities open for No. 1, especially if Detroit or Tampa coveted the tackles enough to make a deal and they could still land their man.
"Every workout we went to," Devaney said then, "it's like a beauty contest. You go out to see Suh -- 'Oh, my, I love this guy.' McCoy's workout, same thing. And Bradford was no different. We spent a lot of time with him and we asked him a lot of questions. But we did so with those other kids, too. We've been saying we're open [to a trade] and we remain open. There isn't anything close to being done. We have a little time. We're going to keep on talking and see what happens."
Devaney explained coolly that you attend each pro day "because it's the first pick in the draft; it's a lot of money. You want to make sure it's the right guy. You want to be sure that the person you see now will be the same person four of five months from now."
"Maybe we're just screwed up," he said. "But we feel excited about [having the choice]. We know whichever way we go, we're gonna get a great player. I think we're on top of this. I see our team getting better and that excites me. I don't know. Maybe I should feel more pressure but I don't."
It is during this time, when March bleeds into April, that the poker game begins before every draft. Everyone is talking. Coaches and general managers and agents all work each other and the media to pass their agenda in what feels like international politics.
The days leading up to the 2010 NFL Draft were filled with hot rumors and news stories of imminent trades that mysteriously never materialized. One report out of Philadelphia had the Rams trading for McNabb by the end of that work day, exploiting the relationship between Spagnuolo, Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the Eagles.
Was the story a plant? Were the Eagles using the Rams to show their willingness to move their own franchise quarterback and thus increase his trade value?
The Rams, in fact, denied even entertaining the idea of acquiring McNabb, especially in the rumored trade that involved the first pick of the second round and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, a player whom the Rams deem a secondary cornerstone. Thinking back, why would they? A quarterback in the back end of his prime certainly does not intersect with a team in the middle of rebuilding.
The tip that the Rams were plucking their quarterback from the draft should have came when they signed veteran backup A.J. Feeley -- a nod to Andy Reid's model in Philadelphia that worked well. He tabbed veteran Doug Pederson to help usher McNabb into the NFL during his rookie season in 1999.
Meanwhile, a handful of other teams lusted after Bradford. One NFC team, in fact, in an attempt to scare the Rams off him, tried to float a false rumor that Bradford didn't really want to play in St. Louis, and also added that he might have bad knees.
The Rams let it be known that they were unafraid to take Bradford, a truthful notion, especially after his visit to St. Louis the Friday before the draft. One last check to make sure the shoulder hadn't flared up.
The Browns were one team that made no secret of their interest in Bradford.
"He's the best quarterback to come out since Peyton [Manning]," general manager Tom Heckert said via text.
Browns president Mike Holmgren openly spoke about Bradford and the possibility of dealing for him. But in the end, talks never progressed to the point where Cleveland made a concrete offer. Mostly, it was a trade dance, with the Browns asking the Rams what they would want in exchange for the pick and the Rams shrugging, "What do you want to give up?"
In the end, Devaney said the Rams received no real offers.
Fifteen minutes before the draft, Holmgren called Devaney and asked, "Anything change?"
"Nah," Devaney told him.
And the decision is...
In New York City, Bradford wished away the day in Central Park, knowing for sure now that he had not made a mistake by going to back to Oklahoma. He said all the right things later that night in a conference call with reporters from his new city, about how the injury was a backwards blessing, presenting him a new vantage point to the game, allowing him to become a cerebral quarterback. How he ultimately matured from the ordeal.
But he knew, deep down, where he was going when he stepped on to that red carpet at Radio City Music Hall and stood among the greats of the game, before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced, "The Rams are on the clock."
At the very same time at The Pageant in St. Louis, Kurt Warner and legendary coach Dick Vermeil gathered in their town of glory at an event entitled, "A Night with Champions."
The past crept into the night that will define the man's future.
Back in the SUV, late that night, Steve Spagnuolo said above the wheeze of windshield wipers, "I'm excited. I just hope 12 months from now, we hit it right and got the right guy. I told Sam today, 'You realize from now on, you and I are tied at the hip?' "
And Sam Bradford replied, "Yes, coach, absolutely."
Read More: Rams NFL Draft Billy+Devaney, Sam+Bradford, Steve+Spagnuolo
Re: Ridin' Road to No. 1 With Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo
Awesome article. Confirmed a lot of what i thought the guys were thinking including the Feeley deal.
'You realize from now on, you and I are tied at the hip?'
"Yes, coach, absolutely."
Re: Ridin' Road to No. 1 With Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo
Great article. Gets me pumped for the fall!
Re: Ridin' Road to No. 1 With Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo
wow, that sounds like it came straight out of a story book!