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 The conservative offensive style that was the signature of the first two Scott Linehan years has been replaced by a bold and beautiful up-tempo Greatest Show on Turf revival.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."

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