Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rams 2008 Preview: Where to start?


Scott Linehan had a black car last year; he has a white one this year.

He had longer hair last year; it became a buzz cut this year.

At home, one of his sons always went downstairs one way; Linehan always went another. This year, they've switched.

"I joked with Jay (Zygmunt) about this," Linehan said. "I said, 'I'm going to find a way to do everything different this year.'"

The Rams went 3-13 last year. So will they go 13-3 this year?

Now that would be a change. But at its most basic level, the Rams' blueprint for success this year is a reverse of the old saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

A lot of things are broken at Rams Park. Much needs to be fixed.

To a large degree, the Rams couldn't score points, couldn't prevent teams from scoring, couldn't stay healthy, couldn't win games, couldn't energize fans.

And the problems go beyond 2007. The Rams haven't been in the playoffs in four years; they haven't had a winning record in five. Over the past three seasons, the Rams are 17-31. Only five teams in the NFL have worse records over that span: Oakland (10-38), Detroit (15-33), Houston (16-32), Miami (16-32) and San Francisco (16-32).

As the core players from the Greatest Show on Turf teams dwindled, the franchise has done a poor job of restocking the shelves. Away from the wins and losses, a messy divorce with Mike Martz in 2005 sapped the organization's energy and focus.

And in January came the death of longtime owner Georgia Frontiere, leading to a whole new layer of issues about the direction of the franchise, the possible sale of the team, and even its future in St. Louis.

No wonder a team official, when told the theme of the Post-Dispatch's 2008 football preview section was "Blueprint for Success," joked: "Could you send us one?"

Actually, backup safety Todd Johnson may have inadvertently planted the seed for one — in Arizona of all places. The Rams were in the process of being shellacked 48-19 by the Cardinals in the season finale last Dec. 30, a crowning blow (to the head) in a 3-13 campaign.

"I remember Todd Johnson walking up, and he said, 'We'll be back,'" Linehan recalled. "'We're going to have a chance to show everybody that this year was not any indication of what kind of people we are. Or what kind of team we are."

But change was needed to make that happen. Lots of change.


"The general theme is things are going to be different, and expect them to be different," Linehan said. "No one's making any promises right now. No one's saying what the record's going to be. No one's saying how many yards we're going to average. But we know what we want to do. We know what our goals are. The expectation is going to be completely different."

So Linehan went well beyond changing his haircut, his car and his "traffic pattern" on the stairs at home. He changed his coaching staff, changed many of his players, changed his approach to training camp, and is attempting to alter his approach to coaching.

In the front office, the response to 3-13 was systematic.

"First of all, we're in a performance business," said Zygmunt, the team's president of football operations-general manager. "And our performance is judged obviously by on-the-field performance.

"We know what we are: a team that won three games last year. We weren't successful. The status quo was not acceptable."

So once the season ended, the evaluation period started.

"You look at everything," Zygmunt said. "I mean, everything. Things that I do. Everybody. You try to start out with what did we do right, and what did we do wrong? And then the question is, well, what is the causation?

"What was wrong about this, and why did we end up doing it wrong? ... Did we just make a mistake? Is this something that's been a trend? Or is this something we really have to fix that requires a longer-term solution?"

After analysis came preparation for the 2008 season. In the NFL, you can't afford to step away from a problem and go into a long, contemplative state. As soon as one season ends, the preparation for the next begins.

Early in the offseason, while Linehan was reshaping his coaching staff, the team hired Billy Devaney as executive vice president of player personnel. In part, it was a concession that hiring Tony Softli to a similar position two years ago wasn't working. (Softli remains with the organization, working under Devaney.) Devaney also brought a strong background in pro personnel, an area in which the Rams had been lacking in recent years.

A strong advocate of building through the draft, Devaney doesn't view free agency as an end-all, cure-all for what ails a franchise.

"You're not going to build a championship team by free agency," Devaney said. "Nobody takes that approach. ... If it works out, you get one or two guys that can start in free agency. I think that's all you can expect."

This has become particularly true in recent years. In part because of significant growth in the salary cap, teams have done a better job of identifying their own core players, re-signing them, and keeping them off the market.

"A few years ago, the pool (of free agents) was much bigger," Devaney said. "Especially now, the number of players involved, it's not a lot to pick from."

The Rams took a measured approach in free agency this offseason. Yes, there was that $36 million splash with guard Jacob Bell. They signed Josh Brown to the biggest contract ever for a place-kicker. There were a couple of more modest purchases in quarterback Trent Green and tight end Anthony Becht, followed by several discount — minimum wage — pickups.

In the draft, the Rams tried to address a glaring need for pass-rush help by selecting Virginia defensive end Chris Long No. 2 overall. They looked for fresh legs in the receiving game in Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton. They looked for depth — and perhaps a future starter or two — at cornerback, on the offensive line, and at linebacker.

The Rams already have lost the corner (Justin King) for the season because of a severe toe injury. But so far, Devaney likes what he has seen from the draft class of '08.

"It is early, but I think the signs are positive," Devaney said. "We're looking for good football players. We think these guys will be. There isn't a guy that we selected in the draft, or that we signed as a free agent, where we've thought, 'Well, we blew it on this guy.'"


But for all the change — with all the new players, new coaches, new approaches — there are no guarantees for 2008. Will doing things differently result in doing things right?

"There's no guarantee with change," Zygmunt said. "You can't guarantee what the performance is going to be. But you can guarantee preparation."

In fact, one of the few guarantees in football is that there will be adversity. It could be in the form of injuries, or illness, or a contract holdout, or a slump.

"The question is, when the adversity comes, you have to plan and be prepared to face the adversity," Zygmunt said. "It's not always easy to have the answers, but it's going to come, and you can't stop it.

"You can never be overwhelmed. You adjust to the situation, you address the adversity as best you can, and move forward. You say, 'OK, we're going to stay focused. We can't stop.'"

As much as anything, Linehan and the Rams got overwhelmed in 2007. But Linehan seems determined — no, make that driven — to avoid a repeat in '08. All of the changes are designed to change the culture at Rams Park. One way or another, the team needs to regain some toughness and confidence and develop a sense of urgency.

"Once you start getting confidence, you start figuring out a way to go on the road and win a tough battle," Linehan said. "Maybe one game, you win it on a defensive score. Next game, you have a shootout offensively. You just figure out ways to win. To me the biggest message is we've got to find that formula, and we've got to do it as a football team."

As to what happens in the future, in terms of ownership and the potential sale of the team, only new owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez — Frontiere's children — know for sure.

"I can only go by this," Zygmunt said. "They have been incredibly supportive, and offered their assistance in whatever way possible. And they've clearly stressed that the most important thing is the team performance."

For better. Or for worse.

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