By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The role the St. Louis Rams are asking head coach Jeff Fisher to play reminds me a lot of Winston Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction. A fixer, adept at making quick and logical decisions in a less-than-desirable situation. While the images may not be as gory as those “the Wolf” faced, the situation in St. Louis is a mess, and will require a proven NFL problem-solver like Fisher.
Over the past five seasons, the Rams have compiled an embarrassing 15-65 record. That record is bad enough to qualify as the worst five-year stretch since the AFL and NFL merged. They’ve gone through four head coaches over that span, none of which could even get the team to .500. It’s interesting that the Rams gave Fisher a five-year contract, as it was his fifth year in Tennessee when things really fell into place.
After pragmatically putting together productive pieces to the puzzle via the draft, Fisher’s 1999 Titans came within one-yard of a Super Bowl victory. They subsequently embarked on a decade of tremendous success, compiling a 96-64 record and three division titles. This is exactly what Rams fans are hoping for.
Fisher and new general manager Les Snead parlayed the second-pick in the 2012 draft into three first-round and one second-round pick, they then traded down again, netting a total of five selections in the top 96. For a team severely lacking blue-chip talent, having four first-round picks over the next two seasons puts the Rams in one of the most envious positions league-wide.
If they hit on just half of those picks – which should be high picks – they’ll have a solid nucleus for the future. The Rams have needs on both sides of the ball, but getting more protection and weapons for Sam Bradford is essential.
Sam Bradford’s integration into the NFL has been a mixed-bag. Business-wise, he completely cashed in, entering the draft in 2010 – a year before the new CBA – and inking a mammoth $78 million contract with a staggering $50 million guaranteed. So far, that’s worked out to $1.72 million per touchdown. On the field, Bradford has had to deal with three coordinators in three years, which will steepen the learning curve of any young quarterback.
After a promising rookie season, Bradford struggled through an injury-riddled and ineffective sophomore season. There’s no doubt the decision to bring in Josh McDaniels and his voluminous playbook in a shortened off-season was regrettable. This year, the Rams brought in Brian Schottenheimer, an offensive coordinator known for running the football and a controlled mid-range passing game, which will suit Bradford well.
Bradford lacks targets in the passing game. Watching Danny Amendola tie the NFL-record for first-half receptions (12) last week against the Redskins was a nice story, but it was also indicative of how little Bradford has to work with. Amendola is flanked by Brandon Gibson and Steve Smith. Gibson’s upside is average at best, and Smith’s once promising career has been derailed by a knee injury, which required microfracture surgery in 2010.
Second-year wide receiver Austin Pettis returns this weekend after serving a four-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug (PED) test, giving Bradford another option in the passing game. Rookie Brian Quick has yet to register a catch, which is troubling when you look at the success of receivers drafted after him, like Stephen Hill and Alshon Jeffery.
I feel for running back Steven Jackson. Jackson has been a model of consistency and reliability, plowing his way to seven-straight 1,000-yard seasons, yet, he’s only been to the playoffs once in his nine-year career. Chances are, when the Rams turn the corner, Jackson will be past his prime and the torch will have been passed.
The Rams doubled up in the draft at running back, snagging Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati) in the second-round, and Daryl Richardson (Abeline Christian) in the seventh-round. Pead has speed-to-burn, but like Quick, has yet to touch the ball this season. Instead, it’s been Richardson who has made an earlier impact, stepping up last weekend when Jackson went down with a reported groin injury.
The Rams offensive line has been a sore spot for years, and can’t seem to catch a break in 2012. After surrendering a league-high 55 sacks in 2011, the Rams turned to free agency for a few quick fixes. Pro Bowl center Scott Wells was brought over from Green Bay to anchor the line, but has since been lost for the season after suffering a foot injury in Week 1. Serviceable right tackle Barry Richardson (Chiefs) was also signed as a starter.
Left tackle Rodger Saffold has suffered back-to-back injuries to start the season, most recently an MCL sprain against the Redskins that will shelve him against the Bears. Recently acquired Wayne Hunter will fill in at left tackle. Given the performance of the Bears defensive line so far this season, it’s safe to assume the Rams will keep in tight ends and running backs to help chip, giving Bradford more protection, but one less option in the passing game.
Overall, the Rams offense is a work in progress. Limited playmakers in the passing game and a shaky offensive line make it difficult to evaluate exactly how good Bradford is as a quarterback.
Defensively, the Rams have an elite playmaker at every level of their defense, but overall, they lack depth. Defensive end Chris Long is the centerpiece. Long had a monster season in 2011, registering 13 sacks, 15 quarterback pressures, and 16 quarterback hits. The reward for that production was a contract extension this past summer.
Robert Quinn – the Rams 2011 first-round pick – is the starter opposite Long. Quinn registered five sacks as a rookie, giving the Rams a formidable pair of young pass rushers. Once 2012 first-round draft pick Michael Brockers returns from his ankle injury it will be fun to watch this talented, young group grow together.
Linebacker James Laurinaitis is another building block on the Rams defense, who recently signed an extension of his own. Laurinaitis is not only a sideline-to-sideline run defender, but he has the quickness and fluidity to contribute in pass support. Outside of Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar plays with grit, but he and Rocky McIntosh form a very ordinary pair of outside linebackers.
The Rams made a concerted effort this offseason to improve their secondary. Big ticket free-agent Cortland Finnegan signed a 5-year $50 M contract ($24 M guaranteed) to be the team’s top-cornerback. Finnegan is a feisty competitor – best known for some epic matchups with Houston’s Andre Johnson – who will draw an opponent’s top receiver each weekend.
The Rams added the ultra-talented yet equally troubled Janoris Jenkins in the second-round of the draft. Talent-wise Jenkins was the top corner available, but his off-the-field issues led to his precipitous slide.
As Fisher proved in Tennessee by drafting Adam “Pac Man” Jones, he’s not averse to character issues. Jenkins is a gambler on the field, who can make a quick break on the ball for an interception, just as easily as he can be burned by a double move. With proper support and seasoning, Jenkins could flourish in St. Louis.
The Rams have more promising prospects on defense than they do on offense. But they’re weak on the outside at the second-level, and have a questionable set of safeties. Not having a reliable offense leaves the defense with a small margin for error. Fisher brought a cadre of coaches he worked with in Tennessee along – including the currently banned Gregg Williams – so his system will be taught properly.
With 16 rookies on their roster, the Rams are the youngest team in the NFL. With youth comes mistakes, with mistakes come losses. Fortunately for the Rams, they have a proven coach who can bring some stability to an organization that desperately needs it.
But like “the Wolf,” Fisher isn’t there to say please, he’s there to tell players what to do, and if self-preservation is an instinct this young bunch possesses, they’ll do it quickly. If his help isn’t appreciated, lots of luck, gentlemen.
When the Bears have the ball: Aside from the Finnegan-Marshall matchup, keep an eye on the new starting left guard, Chilo Rachal. Rachal has always been stronger as a run blocker, so I expect the Rams to blitz his gaps frequently in passing situations.
When the Rams have the ball: Keep an eye on how the Bears attack the Rams new starter at left tackle, Wayne Hunter. Hunter was acquired via trade with the Jets and has typically been a right tackle in his career. Julius Peppers likes to alternate sides for the best matchup, but I think he’s going to work on Hunter a lot this Sunday.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.