Monday, March 2, 2009

Brown Ready to Work

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It would have been easy to mistake Jason Brown’s mostly stoic, focused expression for indifference or apathy as he was introduced as the newest St. Louis Ram on Saturday afternoon.

Brown wasn’t sporting the wide smile of a guy who had just cashed in a five-year contract worth upwards of $37 million except when the cameras were on him.

Make no mistake; Brown is excited about becoming the literal and figurative center of what figures to be a new look offensive line. He just doesn’t show it because he knows the task that awaits him and his new teammates.

“I want to be able to put on a show and smile for the cameras right now and act as though I am excited,” Brown said. “But to tell you the truth, the excitement factor is over. Right now - and the coaching staff understands - me coming from a team last year on the rebound, with a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, you had a brand new offensive scheme, all of those things you have to overcome…I am thinking about working right now because I know the challenges that we are going to have to overcome in order to be a great team this year.”

It’s that focus and passion that has landed Brown here in St. Louis, the top priority and the first major step of what figures to be a dramatic overhaul of the team’s roster for 2009.

It’s that heart and drive that has taken Brown from fourth-round draft pick in 2005 to one of the league’s highest paid centers. It’s that total package that will almost certainly make Brown a fast favorite for fans, teammates and coaches alike.

“He was kind of joking a little bit about people saying how come you are not more excited,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He has a very serious attitude. He is very, very serious about his job and I could see that immediately when I met him. I think he is mature beyond his age. He’s only 25. He seemed a lot more mature than 25 to me.”

For the record, Brown will turn 26 on May 5 but there’s plenty of merit to Spagnuolo’s theory that Brown is wise beyond his years.

Late last week, the Ravens broke off talks with Harold Lewis and Kevin Omell, Brown’s St. Louis-based agents. When it became clear that Brown would not be able to continue his career with the team that used the 124th selection in the 2005 NFL Draft on him, the suitors began lining up.

When the clock hit 12:01 on the east coast or 11:01 p.m. in the central time zone, the Rams wasted little time placing a call to Brown and letting him know of their interest. In addition, the team put in a call to Lewis and let him know that they had made Brown their top free agent priority.

“After the bell rings, you get a lot of phone calls from a lot of different places,” Lewis said. “You put together teams of interest and I told Jason that in this market you have got to hit it fast and hit it hard. I don’t think you need to make a tour around the world.”

Indeed, Lewis and Omell encouraged Brown to narrow his focus to places where he could become a fixture and raise a family. Much like Spagnuolo suspected, Brown’s maturity and family situation made Lewis believe his client fit better in a place like St. Louis than say Philadelphia or Washington.

Brown’s wife, Tay, is about to become a dentist and the couple had son Jason Jr. just 16 months ago.

“My feelings were that with having a young family and being the type of person he is, this would be the perfect place,” Lewis said.

The Rams moved quickly to set up a visit and only hours after that initial phone call, Brown was on a 6:15 a.m. flight to St. Louis via a small, regional jet. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Brown wasted no time making an impression on Spagnuolo, general manager Billy Devaney and just about everyone else he came into contact with.

After long negotiations and a Friday night dinner, a deal had been struck and Brown put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon.

For Brown, the hardest part of the process was coming to terms with the fact that he’d be leaving the team that gave him his first chance.

“”Many players would like to stay with the team that drafted them and would like to finish their careers there,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, there’s a separation between business and the personal side of football and they had to make a business decision. Right now, in my career, I have to make a business decision as well and that is to take care of my family to the fullest of its extent. I’m just so glad and fortunate that I am welcomed into another family here with the Rams.”

Brown’s warm welcome to the Rams should come as no surprise for a variety of reasons. Aside from the aforementioned leadership and personal traits that made Brown appealing, his fit as a football player makes him all the more appealing.

At 6’3, 320 pounds, Brown represents an upgrade of about 3 inches and 30 pounds over any of the centers the Rams used in 2008.

Brown was a three-year starter in the middle at North Carolina before moving to guard when the Ravens first plugged him there in 2006. Brown grew accustomed to the guard spot, starting 28 games there in 2006 and 2007.
When Mike Flynn vacated that spot, Baltimore moved Brown back to his more natural center position. The transition wasn’t too difficult for Brown, who had made his name at that spot for the Tar Heels.

Brown’s steady hand in the middle of the Ravens line helped Baltimore rush for an AFC best 2,376 yards in 2008 and made him one of the most coveted names on the free agent market.

Brown’s professional approach and even keeled demeanor help him stay poised under pressure.

“There’s not another position on the team where you are going to have a Shaun Rogers – 380 and I’m being generous pound – pretty solid guy lined up on you,” Brown said. “And then you have the rules from the officials that they are allowed to encroach on the ball until half of the ball so their helmets can be halfway across what they call the line of scrimmage. So they can encroach the ball that much so we are pretty much touching noses. They are breathing down my neck.

“Now, imagine this…it’s a third down situation, third and long, the guy is on your guard, put your head in between your legs, you come back up and he’s right on you. That’s a dilemma. What was the movie, Speed, with Keanu Reeves? What do you do? That’s what it is. But you know what, you stay calm, focus on the fundamentals, techniques, all those things and you will be fine.”

Oddly enough, the Ravens viewed Brown’s switch back to center as a means to lower his value on the free agent market. While the dollars going to guards has been steadily on the rise in recent years, Brown believes he helped re-establish the market for centers with the help of his agents.

Brown couldn’t help but thank Lewis and Omell with another film reference.

“I have an extended family out here as well,” Brown said. “My agents Kevin Omell and Harold Lewis are out here. They set up office right below our facilities here in Maryland Heights. It’s funny. I was just thinking about Jerry Maguire, because they are my ambassadors of ‘quan.’ They truly are.”

Now that Brown has been shown the money and the business part of his offseason is complete, he’s ready to get right back to work and do whatever it takes to help the Rams enjoy a turnaround season similar to what happened in Baltimore in 2008.

“I’m excited but like I said before, I have the vision of knowing right now, ‘What’s it going to take?’” Brown said. “There’s an X factor. And the X factor is heart. When I come back here on March 16 on the first day of offseason workouts, I’m going to be very observant to see everyone’s reactions, everyone’s attitude because it’s going to take nothing short of a miracle in order for everyone to get on that right page. It takes something special, something extremely special.

“I definitely want to bring my work ethic to this team. I’ve heard that there are some areas lacking leadership-wise. I can be vocal, but I choose to be a servant-leader first and to lead through example. I will be the first person in these facilities in the morning and I will be the last person to leave.”

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