Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rams' offense returns to a fast and furious era



After only two days and three practices, this Rams camp has a distinctive retro feel to it. When the ball kept leaving Marc Bulger's right hand, it snapped like cattails on the tip of a whip. Everything he threw zipped across the field in perfect tight spirals. Every pass play he called was executed with that familiar urgency that not so long ago was the offensive signature of the fast and furious Rams.

Wide receivers were flying down the sidelines, tight ends were flashing up the seam, running backs were darting into creases, and everything was happening at warp speeds. "We're not going to be doing any (throwing to the) back shoulder stuff," Bugler said. "We have to run and our receivers have to know that we are going to make them go get the ball. It's not going to be a guessing game. They're going to have to go get the ball, don't slow down. … We go 100 miles an hour every play, it's as simple as that."

Funny how things work out, huh? The conservative offensive style that was the signature of the first two Scott Linehan years has been replaced by a bold and beautiful up-tempo Greatest Show on Turf revival. Linehan and his more deliberate offensive approach were supposed to be the perfect tonic for the "Mad Mike" Martz hangover, and for a while they were.

Two years ago, Linehan's offense was good enough to help Bulger and Steven Jackson produce career seasons. Yet one year later, in the midst of a 3-13 season, and with his veteran stars publicly and privately grumbling about it, Linehan's approach became obsolete. So Al Saunders, who like Martz comes off the flamboyant Air Coryell coaching tree, was hired as offensive coordinator to reinstall the Greatest Show, help reignite the energy in the Edward Jones Dome and make the Rams a dazzling offensive threat again.

"It feels good," said Torry Holt, one of the last remaining holdovers from the original Greatest Show era. "Al's a terrific teacher. He is a tremendous motivator and demands excellence. (Saunders' style is) a vertical game, it's fast. The tempo is good and it is exciting. I think everybody on the offensive side is enjoying it right now."

Good or bad, whatever course the 2008 season takes, it will be the Rams' offense that will blaze the trail. If all the parts are in play — and that means a healthy offensive line, a fully recovered Holt (knee), a well-protected Bulger and a financially flush Jackson — Saunders will not only re-create the fast and furious style that Mad Mike made famous, it's a guarantee that he'll add a few wrinkles of his own.

"I've been lucky to be in the same system with different coordinators and everyone puts their own spin on it," said No. 2 quarterback Trent Green. "When (Martz) and I came from Washington, his coaching personality was vastly different from the way Norv (Turner) did it, and with Al in Kansas City, it was different from Mike and Norv, and with all of them, those changes were facilitated by the talent we had. When Al and I went to KC, he had the Tony Gonzalez factor, a Pro Bowl tight end who could get deep, and he immediately tweaked his offense to take advantage of that. And now here in St. Louis, we have all sorts of interesting talents that Al will be able to utilize that will make this offense different from the one in KC and even the one we used in St. Louis originally."

What will this version of the Air Coryell offense look like? That depends on how quickly the speedy rookie receivers Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton develop, how much pass-catching tight end Randy McMichael can absorb, how much a clever veteran Pro Bowl pass catcher like Holt still has left after an injury-plagued '07 season, and whether Bulger can recapture his Pro Bowl form from '06.

The fun at this training camp will be watching as Saunders learns how best to utilize everyone. "Al wants to see what we can do well," Bulger said. "If we are not hitting on something, he's not going to call it. It's up to us to prove what we can hit."

But the bulk of this offense's success will ride on the broad shoulders of Jackson, who remained a camp holdout after two days at Concordia University. All was quiet on the holdout front Saturday, and even if he misses a week of training camp, veteran running backs with his talent can usually jump right in without a hitch. The only thing that his holdout is hurting right now is his pocketbook with those hefty $15,000-a-day fines.

"Getting 39 in here and getting healthy is going to be big," Holt said. "Steven is the guy. He's our horse. And like I told him, we will go as far as he takes us. I'm sure that I'm going to jump on his shoulders and ride him for a bit. I know business is business, so I wish him well and hope to see him soon, because once he gets back in, it's on."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Summer of Giving

Area NFL products Evans and Brown give back through camps

By Roy Lang III • • July 6, 2008

Yet as the temperature climbs toward triple digits and steam rises off the area's brittle football fields, local NFL stars see summer as the true season for giving.

Full of modest-sized communities, the Ark-La-Tex has seen its fair share of NFL players. However, former Haynesville High star Demetric Evans is disappointed with how many of them spend their free time. And he decided to do something about it.

"There aren't enough black athletes in the NFL giving back to the community in this area," said Evans, who moved on to the University of Georgia and then a career in the NFL after his stint with the Golden Tors. "In this area, the guys in the NFL haven't done anything to market themselves in the community."

The 28-year-old defensive end, on the verge of his eighth professional season, recently held a pair of football camps. One was exclusively for his prep alma mater. The other, held in Shreveport, gave talented football players an opportunity to land a college education.

Mansfield's Fakhir Brown is an NFL veteran. The cornerback turned pro more than a decade ago and now represents the St. Louis Rams. He admits he used to be a cocky young professional athlete who made bad decisions. Now, after a maturation process has opened his eyes, he feels the need to join the growing number of athletes who give back.

"There's not much to do for the kids in Mansfield," said Brown, a Grambling State product and member of the Rams since 2006. "When I was growing up, the kids I went to school with, we wished some of the guys that made it to the NFL would come back and visit. So we said we'd make sure we'd come back."

It didn't happen for Brown immediately, however.

"When I (turned pro), I was just a young football player who was excited to play," he said. "But it's more than just playing football, because you're a role model to kids. My career is something that can open a whole bunch of doors. I finally started seeing that once I got a little older."

Evans' camp in Haynesville was free of charge to participants. It was subsidized by the NFL's "Youth Football Fund" program. Current and former NFL players who organize free youth football camps can apply for YFF grants of up to $5,000.

"So many of these kids can't afford to pay for a camp," said Evans, who will enter his fifth season with the Washington Redskins.

Evans' other camp has a completely different purpose. There is a charge, but also plenty of first-class instruction and guidance. The former Louisiana Class 2A Defensive Player of the Year partnered with Byron Dawson, a coach at Evangel, for the "Real Deal" camp, held last week at Independence Stadium.

"Kids get some times and some drills," Evans said. "We'll put them in the Louisiana (Football) magazine and give them a chance to get recruited. A kid that can't go to a Florida or an LSU, maybe they can go to La. Tech; but La. Tech doesn't know about the kid because he doesn't have any times or any information out there."

The camps definitely help Evans feel right about giving back to his home state, but they also fuel his competitive side.

"It's not just on the field. In the NFL guys compete off the field, too," Evans said. "I'm sick and tired of guys saying, 'Florida has the best athletes,' 'Texas has the best athletes.' There are a lot of good athletes in Louisiana. We just don't have the exposure."

Evans' cut of the Real Deal camp benefits his foundation, 92 Blessings — a name stemming from his playing number and an idea inspired by his mother.

"It's a tribute to my mom, who did the best she could as a single parent and didn't make any excuses," Evans said. "She went to work every day. I want to assist a parent who was in my mom's situation; they worked every day, but didn't bring in enough to take care of three kids."

In the end, Evans wants to help 92 different families.

"When (the holidays) come; Thanksgiving, Christmas, my mom — I'll be in D.C. — will do a raffle or figure out a way to put it toward a family for the holidays," Evans said.

Money raised by Brown's camp and an accompanying celebrity basketball game will go towards a college scholarship. The activities aren't just about Xs and Os, trophies and plaques and slam dunks from heroes, though. Brown and Mansfield coach Chris Thomas make a point to try and connect with the kids.

"We sit them down and try to convince them to try to do the right thing," Brown said. "I'll tell them the mistakes I made in my life and tell them not to go down that path or else. I could have messed up my whole career. They listen to us very well and respect us a lot."

Brown and Evans plan on maintaining their camps, even when their playing days are complete. If the example these players are setting catches on, it won't be long before Evans has no reason to be disappointed.