In reality, that honor could just as easily have gone to his bookend,
But hanging in Hall’s locker was a pretty nice consolation prize. There hung a white Oakland Raiders Howie Long No. 75 jersey.
The jersey was a gift from Chris Long’s famous father after Hall had requested something from the Raiders Hall of Famer and father to his protégé. What wasn’t expected was the inscription.
In silver paint pen on the 5 of the back of the jersey was a personalized inscription.
“James, I would have enjoyed playing with you. To one of the good guys. –Howie Long No. 75, Hall of Fame 2000”
“That wasn’t expected,” Hall said. “It was awesome what he wrote. It meant a lot, especially coming from a Hall of Fame defensive lineman. I will definitely treasure that.”
What the Rams are currently treasuring is a defensive end combination that has regularly wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Now in their third season working together and their first as regular starters opposite each other, Hall and Long have emerged as a lethal pass rushing combination.
Never was that more evident than last week against San Diego when Hall and Long each posted a pair of sacks and spent a good portion of the rest of the day in the Chargers offensive backfield.
In one key sequence, midway through the third quarter and the Chargers driving for a potential game-tying touchdown or at least a field goal to chop the lead to four, Hall and Long took over the game.
On first and 10 at the Rams’ 17, Long broke around the edge and drew a holding call on Chargers tight end Randy McMichael to push San Diego back to the 27. After an incompletion, Hall sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers for a loss of 4 yards to San Diego’s 31.
Two plays later, Hall blocked Nate Kaeding’s 49-yard field goal attempt. The Rams were able to follow with a field goal of their own to provide the winning points.
That type of teamwork is why Long refused to take sole credit for the weekly honor.
“We all fell into some things,” Long said. “That’s what happens when things are going well, the right plays are being called, the right rushes are being dialed well and we’re playing well and taking advantage of the opportunities. We all feed off of that. It’s a group deal.”
In further examining the relationship between the Rams bookend pass rushers, it’s almost surprising they’ve forged the bond they have.
Long comes from the aforementioned football royalty and entered the league as the second pick in the draft and the expectations that go with that as well as the ones that go with being Howie’s kid.
Hall had a successful career at Michigan but went undrafted and had to scratch and claw to make the Lions as an undrafted free agent.
But it didn’t take long for Hall and Long to form a friendship that went beyond a basic mentor/protégé relationship.
Hall says Long’s playful attitude and relentless effort help keep him young.
“We have gotten closer over the years,” Hall said. “We live in the same area so we spend a lot of time together. He’s a great kid. He’s fun to be around and it’s been fun to watch him progress over the years and he’s doing a good job so far this year.”
Likewise, Long is quick to credit Hall with providing the guidance and leadership to help him improve as a player every day.
“James has taught me a lot,” Long said. “I joke about him being the consummate professional, but he really is. Everything he does, the way he approaches practice, film study, preparation, taking care of his body and the way he plays the game. When I am his age, I want to be like James Hall. James Hall is a hell of a player, and it’s been nice to learn from a guy like him.”
Indeed, the example Hall provides is one that any player can look at and hope to emulate. Hall has been through more than most players.
Hall’s been deluged by losses in his time with the Lions and Rams and has fought through repeated injury issues. Never once has he complained.
It’s become a regular habit for Hall to stay after practice and work on hand placement and movements with Rams Director of Player Programs La’Roi Glover.
When coach Steve Spagnuolo makes his rounds in the morning, Hall is usually the first player he sees around 6 a.m. Hall says he arrives early because he’s older and takes more time to prepare. But Spagnuolo thinks there’s more to it.
“He’s one of those guys that if you watched him for 24 hours, all he does is improve,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s always taking care of his body. He’s always doing extra, and it shows up on the field. He’s a leader. He’s done it for a long time. He’s embraced what’s going on here and I think he’s been a real key to what we’re doing, certainly on defense, with this football team.”
For those reasons, Hall is off to the best start of his 10-plus year career, racking up six sacks in the first six games and setting a pace to blow past his career-high sack total of 11.5, set way back in 2004.
And though Hall is setting a torrid pace, it’s not the sacks that matter to him so much as what they help the team accomplish.
“What’s important around here is winning football games,” Hall said. “And everything else that happens good is just icing on the cake. Me personally I am just focused on helping my team win football games.”
Hall readily admits that his draft snub so many years ago does provide motivation for him when he steps on the field but it’s far from the thing that keep him getting up so early in the morning to try to improve.
“It has a little bit to do with it,” Hall said. “It’s mostly because I just love playing the game. I love what I do for a living. I love being around these guys. I love the game. I love training camp, practices, game day, just everything about it.”
That’s one lesson that Hall hasn’t had to share with the passionate and driven Long. Effort has never been an issue for Long, who came into the league known for his relentless style if not his name.
In spite of that, Long has remained humbled by the game and refuses to let anyone else’s expectations surpass the ones he has for himself and his team.
“That’s not going to change, that’s always going to be the way things are,” Long said. “You just have to judge yourself on the things you always have. You have to be hard on yourself whether you are playing high school ball, college ball, second pick in the draft, unsigned free agent. You should always hold yourself to a high standard, and the results of that are going to be what they are going to be. You give your best shot and see what happens, and that’s how I’ve always approached it. I understand that is a great expectation of me around this city and the NFL. I was given a lot. It would probably be hard to live up to, period, but I’ll do what I can.”
What Long has done in his third season is piece together the best season of his young career.
Although he just finally started getting the results in terms of sacks last week against the Chargers (he has 2.5 this year), Long has been able generate pressure on the quarterback with alarming frequency.
In addition to those sacks, he leads the Rams with six quarterback pressures and eight quarterback hits. He also has drawn his share of holding penalties.
Long’s explanation for piecing together his best start is simple.
“Because I’m in my third year,” Long said. “The reason it is so simple is that it’s kind of true. If you are going the way you should, you should progress as a player, and I feel like I have learned a lot. I’ve been lucky to have these vets here to learn from. I’ll learn from them until the day they retire, and then I’ll call them and bother them some more. I feel like the guys around me are helping me progress.”
Of course, the guy Long will probably bother more than anyone else is Hall himself.
Whether or not Hall ever received a signed jersey from Long’s father, he’ll no doubt take Chris’ call when it comes.
“Oh, I was going to take care of him regardless,” Hall said.
Until that time comes, they plan to continue to take care of their business together.