Sunday, August 9, 2009

Atogwe Sets the Tone

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

During the offseason, Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe participated in the league’s offseason going back to school program that allows players to take business courses at various prestigious schools around the country.

But by the end of the summer, Atogwe might as well have been teaching a class of his own. Call it “How to handle being given the franchise tag 101.”

In an era where many players who are slapped with the tag are quick to opt for a holdout or demand a trade or both, Atogwe opted for choice D, none of the above.

If you didn’t know any better, one would think Atogwe was never even tagged at all. Instead of going the usual route, he simply kept his head down, kept showing up at the Russell Training Center for the offseason program and provided a glowing example of what it takes to be a teammate under new coach Steve Spagnuolo.

“I have told him a number of times how classy I think he’s handled everything,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s a quality person right there, forget about the football talent. In that sense that when I met him the first time when I got here I visited with him in my office and you could see that right away.”

Atogwe was the Rams’ Most Valuable Player in 2008, bolstering his reputation as a ball hawk by coming up with five interceptions, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

By all accounts, Atogwe is the very definition of an “ascending player,” the term used by General Manager Billy Devaney to describe the type of players the team wants to build around in the future.

So it was that Atogwe would have been one of the most coveted players on the free agent market had the Rams not moved to put the franchise tag on him.

The franchise tag designation often comes with the stigma that the team is not allowing the player to explore his right to free agency. With it comes a one-year offer which is equivalent to the average of the five highest-paid players at the position.

Atogwe didn’t see things the way most franchise players do, though.

“I believe as I have been taught that having a reputation and good character is more than your wealth and your riches and chasing after money,” Atogwe said. “I feel like if I was going to be a part of this team this year, it was important and imperative that I was here through the offseason just to show my teammates I am committed to them and I am committed to what we have going on regardless of my contract situation. That’s personal. I am committed to what the team is doing and what Coach Spags has us building.”
From the start of the offseason conditioning program to organized team activities to the team’s minicamps, Atogwe missed nary a day. It would have been easy for him to grant himself some down time or time off.

Instead, Atogwe kept his head down and participated in everything. When the Rams lifted weights, Atogwe lifted weights. When they ran gassers, Atogwe ran gassers. When they gathered to discuss the new defensive scheme, Atogwe was right up front with questions at the ready.

There wasn’t anything special about it to Atogwe, who says he was simply doing what he was supposed to be doing. At the time, Atogwe even went so far as to call being given the franchise tag an honor because he was being considered among the top five players at his position.

Of course, it didn’t hurt the cause that Atogwe was hoping to buy in to what Spagnuolo was preaching as far as putting team goals ahead of any individual ones.

“Being a guy who has been here with the Rams now going on five years,” Atogwe said. “Some of the younger guys and some of the vets need to see loyalty and faithfulness from the guys that have already been here and that’s going to carry over throughout the locker room so you just build a team that is really focused on one goal and one purpose and being one and letting coach Spags lead us.”

That commitment to the team and leadership has been readily apparent in the opening week of training camp. Anyone who has paid a visit to a Rams practice has been able to see – and more easily – hear Atogwe’s presence on the field.

Whether it’s a team drill in which the first team defense is on the field or if it’s the guys at the bottom of the roster, Atogwe can regularly be heard shouting out defensive calls or giving simple words of encouragement. And don’t let him catch you loafing from one drill or one play to the next.

“One thing about playing defense is a lot of it has to do with your attitude and demeanor and how you approach the game,” Atogwe said. “I think jogging in and out of the huddle, getting lined up quickly, it sets a tempo and tone within yourself before the ball is even snapped, even before you play a down that gives you a sense of urgency like let’s get after somebody. I think we are developing that right now and I feel pretty good about it.”

Atogwe is one of, if not the, biggest part of that developing process. Following the departure of longtime leader Corey Chavous, the Rams secondary and defense has been in need of a new leader.

While Spagnuolo wants to wait and see what he has before declaring anyone a leader, there’s little doubt that Atogwe will be one of the first names mentioned among teammates and the coaching staff when that time comes.

It’s a process that started back when he was given the franchise tag and continued when he quietly came to Russell Training Center to sign his one-year tender offer with little to no fanfare.

For as boisterous and loud as Atogwe can be, he works every bit as hard at making himself a better player. He regularly spends extra time catching balls from the JUGS machine after practice and he continues to be a pest to ball carriers who get within striking distance.

“I believe leaders lead by example first and that means being a professional and knowing your job and doing your job and from there other guys will raise their level of play to do exactly what you’re doing so I think we have a bunch of leaders on our team who are in that position and do stuff like that,” Atogwe said. “I think anyone of us can be a leader at any given point in time and it’s something we have got to take a hold of.”

Atogwe said recently that he spent the entire offseason working out all day every day, opting not to sleep even a wink.

One would reasonably conclude that Atogwe was joking but considering his non-stop motor, he might not have been telling too much of a fib.

“What does tired have to do with it?” Atogwe said, a broad smile creeping across his face. “Plays have to be made.”

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