Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rams Wrap Offseason Activities

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Since the players returned to St. Louis for the offseason conditioning program back in March, the Rams have been attacking the spring months with the sole purpose of making improvements. 

And, in the mind of coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have made great strides over the past few months. Or at least as much as the NFL guidelines will allow. 

“I think the team is really where we should be without putting pads on,” Spagnuolo said.  “I don’t use that as a crutch, but we have so much further to go when we get to doing the ‘real football.’ I’m anxious to get to that point.”

Before the Rams can get to that point, though, they’ve had to go through a rigorous offseason program. The conditioning program kicked off on March 15 and continued into April. 

After the NFL Draft from April 22-24, the rookies reported for the rookie minicamp April 30-May 2. About three weeks later, the Rams kicked off Organized Team Activities which started on May 18, included last weekend’s veteran minicamp, and finally wrapped up on Thursday after 18 practices. 

In this year’s OTAs, Spagnuolo wanted to make it a point to introduce his team to a variety of things. That meant finding time to work on the details of the game with situational drills like fourth and short, doing a little work preparing for divisional opponents and a variety of other drills and practices. 

In addition, Spagnuolo made a point of finding some time for the community with the team playground build at Monroe eMINTS Academy in St. Louis and for fun with a cancelled minicamp practice turned bowling outing. 

If nothing else, the Rams spent plenty of time this offseason building the team concept that is a hallmark of Spagnuolo’s philosophy. 

That’s something Spagnuolo already feels in the chemistry his team has in this the second year of his tenure as opposed to the first. 

“(It’s) huge,” Spagnuolo said. “I think any player will tell you that, and I think the coaches feel the same way about the players because you know the players, they know you.  There’s a comfort level there.  It’s huge.”

While there are still plenty of rookies and a few free agents that have had to acclimate to the Rams, it seems as though the ability of all new additions to fit in has been a relatively easy transition. 

Offensively, coordinator Pat Shurmur has been pleased with how new quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Sam Bradford have taken command of the huddle and is happy with how all of his players have adjusted and grasped his offense. 

With no pads on, it’s been difficult to judge the linemen but Shurmur and Spagnuolo both expressed optimism about the progress of the skill position guys. 

Indeed, Shurmur and the offense might now be in a position to open things up a bit more heading into the second season as the players have adjusted to the system and adapted to what the Rams want. 

“Well I think they’ve absorbed what we’ve tried to give them real well,” Shurmur said. “We’re obviously working in some new and young players and I’m really pleased with the progress we’re going to make. We’re preparing a big workload for them in the training camp and I think that’s the next focus. What we tried to do in the spring is give them pretty much everything they’re going to get in training camp and then really it’s a review and you re-install it and get it going and put it specific to the teams we play in the preseason.”

On the other side of the ball, it’s been a bit harder to make judgments without the benefit of padded practices. But defensive coordinator Ken Flajole has already seen the value of having players entering their second season in the system, even if only on the practice field. 

“That’s a fair statement and I think there’s some truth to that,” Flajole said. “But I think a lot of times you can throw out a coaching term in a coverage or a front or a blitz and maybe you know what it means and you think they know what it means, but in reality until you spend some time together and you learn each other, they may not be able to define your terms. I think what’s happening right now is they have a better understanding of what your expectations are and then in particular calls, how you’re trying to get it done.”
According to Spagnuolo and Flajole, it’s made a difference having some leaders emerge on each side of the ball. In the case of the defense, both point to middle linebacker James Laurinaitis for his embracing the leadership role and his much improved knowledge of the defense. 

On both sides of the ball, the pace and tempo of practice appears much crisper and detailed from a year ago.
“I think we’re playing faster, I think we have a better understanding of the scheme that we put in a year ago,” Flajole said. “Now whether we’ve gotten a little bit better physically that could be part of it. But, I think, part of it is, is we’re playing faster because we have a better understanding of where we need to be and how we need to fit things up.”

With training camp right around the corner, the Rams will have to make some roster adjustments before getting back to work. 

After releasing five players on Tuesday, the roster sits at 87 players. Teams have to be down to 80 before camp and the Rams will have to sign their rookie class at some point in that mix, as well. 

“We’ve got to get to 80 before training camp, but for the sake of the players who won’t be here, we need to do it as soon as we feel like we’re comfortable,” Spagnuolo said. “But I feel like we’re able to get a lot done.  Certainly the skill positions and you get the mental part and you see some physical things.  I think we’re getting good evaluation of the guys.”

That evaluation will ultimately decide where those final roster cuts come from to get down to the necessary 80. 

Following Thursday’s practice, the veteran players were free to depart while the rookies will stick around for another week of conditioning and getting the full rundown on what will be expected of them in the next month. 

A big part of that is staying in shape physically but also staying sharp mentally so that all of the work just completed doesn’t go for naught. 

The Rams will return to St. Louis for training camp at the end of July with rookies reporting on the 28th and the veterans on the 30th. The first full squad practice of camp, pads included, will come on the afternoon of July 31. 

“I really think that’s when it molds together the toughness part of it, and that part of the game we need to get rolling on,” Spagnuolo said.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bradford's First Toss on Target

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Sam Bradford fired his first throw in front of a St. Louis crowd on Friday night and if the result of that throw is any indication of what he’ll be able to do on football Sundays, it certainly bodes well for the Rams franchise quarterback.

Of course, Bradford’s first toss in front his new hometown’s fans didn’t involve a football so had it gone awry, it probably wouldn’t have meant much. As it was, Bradford – with the majority of the Rams rookie class in tow for support – or potential razzing, pending the outcome – threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Cardinals-Brewers game.

And after much consternation and pressure from his teammates and even his coaches, Bradford calmly walked to the mound and fired a strike to St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday.

“I’m not going to lie, when I got out there I kind of calmed down,” Bradford said, laughing in hindsight. “It was not nearly as nerve racking as I thought it was going to be. I was still a little bit nervous, had some butterflies but I was confident that I would throw a strike.”

Being “just a little nervous” was quite an upgrade over the butterflies Bradford had been feeling since it was first decided he’d be throwing out the first pitch last night.

That decision was made official earlier in the week and literally within moments of being informed of his pitching debut, Bradford sought as many opportunities to get his pitching mechanics in order.

Nearly every day after OTAs and meetings were complete, Bradford and a member of the Rams staff spent a little extra time throwing in the indoor facility at the Russell Training Center.

Of course, it didn’t help Bradford’s nerves that he received constant teasing from his teammates about the possibility that he would bounce one in the dirt or airmail it to the backstop.

Even coach Steve Spagnuolo made mention of applying pressure to Bradford to throw a strike.

“You don’t want to hit him on one bounce,” Spagnuolo said Friday morning. “That would be bad. It wouldn’t be good if the quarterback from the Rams couldn’t throw a strike. We’ll put some pressure on him today.”

After arriving with most of the Rams rookies around 6 p.m., the group took a tour of the Cardinals clubhouse where Bradford stopped to chat with a few players, including Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright.

After that, the group made its way into the Cardinals dugout where Bradford stopped to do a few media interviews. With about 40 minutes before his pitch, Bradford retired to the batting cages near the clubhouse for some last minute work.

Bradford threw even more, including his first toss off an elevated mound since he last played organized baseball way back in the eighth grade. That final session helped alleviate any remaining worry Bradford had.

“There’s no doubt,” Bradford said. “If I wouldn’t have warmed up, I would have been really nervous because I would have had no idea how I’d throw. But I found my release point in the cage and it felt good. I felt good when I got out there.”

After finishing up his warm ups, Bradford chatted up Cardinals closer and Oklahoma fan Ryan Franklin before Holliday, an Oklahoma State graduate, came out to catch the pitch.

Holliday offered a few words of encouragement.

“He was pretty calming,” Bradford said. “He told me someone threw a pretty good pitch right before I went out there so he told me if they can do it, you can do it.”

As any athlete who is used to performing in front of large crowds, Bradford was at his most calm as he took the mound with the baseball in his hands.

Without hesitation, he stepped up to the mound wearing his new Cardinals jersey with his new number 8 on the back, took a windup with a high leg kick and fired a strike with good velocity into Holliday’s waiting glove.

“It’s a little different, a little out of my comfort level because I am not used to throwing a baseball but it was fun,” Bradford said. “It was a great experience.”

In an instant, a week of nerves vanished and Bradford had completed his first pass in front of St. Louis sports fans.