When attempting to summarize his six-year NFL journey,
The assessment would speak nothing of his individual contributions since being chosen with the second overall pick in the 2008 draft. It would overlook the fact that Long has fulfilled many of the hopes the Rams held for him when they installed him as a starting defensive end following that high draft pick. Serving as a mainstay along the Rams’ defensive front for the last six years, Long has led the Rams with 48.5 sacks, which also ranks 14th in the NFL in that time span. If he reaches 10 or more sacks this year, Long would join Kevin Carter and Leonard Little as the only St. Louis Rams to tally double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons.
The grade would only be attributed to the considerable promise that the future appears to hold for Long and his teammates, with the objective being a consistently contending team in St. Louis for the first time in a decade.
If there is an ideal player to personify the blue-collar, physical style of play that has been the trademark of the Jeff Fisher era in St. Louis, it would be hard to identify anyone more fitting than Long. During his first preseason as the Rams’ head coach, Fisher likened Long to veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who accumulated 38.5 sacks in five seasons under Fisher with the Tennessee Titans. Similar to Vanden Bosch, Long has provided not only a high-motor defensive end who rarely leaves the field during a game, but has also displayed the durability to maintain that presence each week.
Few defensive players have provided both the production and week-to-week presence as Long has since 2008. Since that rookie season, Long has not missed a single game, a feat that only Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Chicago’s Julius Peppers can match among NFL defensive ends.
Third-year defensive end
“What happens is he forces that thing to (DE) Robert (Quinn) sometimes because we have two guys on the outside that really do a good job of restricting the quarterback from running the ball and collapsing the pocket,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “The one that gets the one-on-one usually wins. He’s been a great asset to us, a great combo.”
True to Walton’s assessment, Long and Quinn entered this week having combined for 21.5 sacks on the season, third-most by any pass-rushing duo in the NFL, just a half-sack behind Kansas City’s Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. As a unit, the Rams’ defensive line has accounted for 38 of the team’s 41 sacks entering Week 14, with Long and Quinn serving as the leaders of a deep and talented group.
“I’m sure at times, it’s a decision they have to make,” Long said. “Who do they want to take away? Do they want to slide to Will (Hayes) who is a terrific inside rusher. Do they want to chip me? Do they want to chip Rob? If Eugene (Sims) is out there, he rushes well inside. It’s really a group effort getting to the quarterback. A lot of people don’t realize how much of a team effort it is, but when you have the best pass-rusher in football on the other side of you—and I do—it’s a pretty nice perk.”
The Long Road Back
Long doesn’t shy away from expressing the weight of the collective frustration pent up over five losing seasons in the NFL. There is little left to the imagination when Long expounds upon the beginning of an NFL career that showed team success would come slower than any of his teammates envisioned.
There was the 7-9 2010 season, a year that left the Rams a single win from postseason play, only to turn in a 2-14 season in an injury-plagued 2011. The team struggles wore on Long, currently the longest-tenured Ram.
“For a while there, it was tough,” Long said. “That being said, being better now and knowing what we have here, losses are more disappointing now because we know what we’re capable of. It was tougher being up and down earlier in the season, and hopefully we have this thing moving in the right direction.”
In the first year of Fisher’s regime, the Rams improved to 7-8-1, the team’s best regular-season finish since 2006. Similar to the days following the 2010 season, last year’s finish produced a considerable amount of optimism for the future. However, Long sees far more staying power in the latest resurgence for the only NFL franchise he’s known.
“We have the faith that it’s going to get better,” Long said. We had the faith before, but there was less evidence as to why we were going to succeed. We’ve exhibited that we can play with the best of the best against a tough schedule and we’re a physical football team. That’s the great part. To be on a team that’s physical is awesome, and I never take that for granted. That’s something that if it’s a fistfight of a game, we can come out on top.”
For Long, the defining moments in becoming sold on Fisher and the upward direction of the Rams organization came during two weekends last fall. In a pair of meetings with the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams emerged with a win and a tie, faring better against the eventual NFC champions than any other team during the regular season.
“We’re a different team completely—talent-wise, scheme-wise, belief,” Long said. “The belief thing is huge. It’s built through success, and we’re trying to build that success. We feel really good about ourselves right now, but we have a long way to go. We have the ability to take those next steps, but we have to take those steps. When you look at San Francisco, they went to the Super Bowl last year. We went toe-to-toe with them and, quite frankly, beat them up a bit. As a D-lineman, I hadn’t been on a team before that had been able to impose their will on another team that was really physical and well-respected. Seeing how we could compete in the division and with some of the things we’ve done this year, they’re just eye-openers. It just goes to show you if we can be consistent, how good we can be.”
“I’m just a part of that puzzle with leadership here,” Long said. “We’ve got a lot of good leaders. In the D-line room, we’re blessed to just have guys who lead by example.
While he may be measured in how he communicates his leadership verbally, his efforts on the practice field and in games have been most influential. For young, emerging players like Quinn, the example placed on the field on a daily basis by Long, as well as other holdovers from lean seasons in St. Louis has proven beneficial.
“With him and James, those guys have been through the struggles,” Quinn said. “They know the potential that we have as well as other guys. They’re just ready for a change, and they know we can only control one week at a time, but also look at the big picture. “I think it makes him hungrier to perform better and help this team win. The guys on this team who have gone through the struggles and don’t want to go through that again, they just stay focused and get better each and every day.”
While the signs surrounding this Rams team have yielded much excitement and optimism in the present, Long knows the potential of the only franchise he’s ever known remains far from fulfilled. The floor has been sufficiently raised in St. Louis, and Long has played a primary role in its most recent advancement.
“It’s gratifying to be on the ascent right now,” Long said. “Now when you show up to work, you know you have a chance to win. When you have a chance to compete, and if you execute well and play to your potential, we can beat a lot of people.”