Rams Break Camp, but Remain Focused for Week One

Posted Aug 24, 2013

‘Championships are won in the offseason’ – a phrase that touches on why players work as hard as they do every year to prepare for the upcoming season. Training camp serves as the bridge that transitions the offseason’s individual efforts into the regular season where it all pays off. A collection of rookies who are unsure of what to expect, second-year players fresh off of their first NFL seasons, and veterans who have been through too many August practices to remember all make up the cast that goes through the fun, laughs, soreness, and sweat that is training camp.

The Fisher Culture – A Player’s Coach

Jeff Fisher’s thought and care for his team during training camp starts with setting the day-to-day itinerary based on the needs and make-up of the roster. He blends his camp experiences as an NFL player with the wisdom that he has acquired as a head coach to make sure his team is given the time to rest and receive the proper nutrition to prepare for what’s next on the calendar, all while keeping in mind what was just completed.

Along with joining his new teammates, TE Jared Cook is also rejoining Fisher, the head coach that drafted him when he was with the Tennessee Titans. In addition to starting anew with a young, energetic team, Cook is also happy to be back with Fisher.

“It’s awesome,” Cook said. “I’m glad to be back under his tutelage and I’m excited about what these years are going to bring.”

Fisher’s approach to training camp is to work hard, but also work smart. The NFL player has evolved throughout the years, and so has the purpose of camp. With minicamps and OTAs, players are working towards the upcoming season year-round. Without the need to condition during camp as heavily as players in the past, it is no long necessary to put the team’s bodies at risk for further injury. Fisher’s guidelines are clear: come in to camp in shape or you will not be a part of it. With that aspect out of the way, the team can begin the process of implementing systems and preparing for the season’s opponents.

With the daunting wear that bodies take throughout camp, Fisher works with the training staff to provide several services for the players to keep them in the best condition possible. Veterans, such as Laurinaitis, are aware of and appreciate Fisher’s efforts.

“You have to kind of treat training camp differently now with the new rules and all that,” Laurinaitis said. “Coach Fisher does a tremendous job with making sure that we’re working, and then after we work hard we recover pretty well. He does a great job at that and it’s been the same way this year.”

Fisher also announced this season that all veterans going into their fourth NFL year could stay at home with their families during camp, rather than bunking in hotel rooms with the rest of the team.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am that Coach Fisher has that policy,” QB Sam Bradford said early in camp.

“It’s not a huge deal, but to be able to go home – we’re still going to get home at 9 or 9:30 p.m. – but just to be able to spend that 20 minutes on the couch, watching TV and then go to bed in your own bed every night, it’s definitely comforting.”

Possibly the most important part of Fisher’s relationship with the players is the fact that the team knows what they are going to get every day with him. He doesn’t have a long list of strict rules, but players know to abide by the ones he does set. That level-headed consistency provides a focused atmosphere not only for his players, but for the entire organization.

Keeping Camp Light-Hearted

It is inevitable for there to be monotony in camp, especially for veterans who have been through it several times. To break up that lull, vets like CB Cortland Finnegan and DE Chris Long attempt to bring fun into the building. This year’s fun consisted of sneaking up behind teammates in Rams-issued gear, slapping a whipped cream-filled plate in their face and catching it on video, hence Smack Cam.

“I think just the grueling process of what training camp can be, the continuous things that are repetitive over and over, you have to lighten it up somehow,” Finnegan said. “And I think Smack Cam for us was a way to just have a good time, entertain one another, but also know that it can be fun even though there can be long days at work.”

“Training camp is when you’re kind of isolated from everybody else, including your family, wives and kids,” Chris Long said. “So it’s good to kind of have that family atmosphere, to have fun during it, kind of take your mind off the fact that you’re isolated and take your mind off the workload.”

All of the Smack Cam action was well documented on Twitter and Vine, but Finnegan put the game on the national scene when he pied Chris Long while he was interviewed on NFL Network during a live broadcast.

Another element of the Fisher culture at Rams Park is the sense of family that is felt among the coaches, players, and staff. With 17 practices open to the public, thousands of pictures were taken and countless autographs were signed for children. You could also see the sons of the football staff helping out on the sidelines and a number of players’ children on the field after practice playing with their fathers. Chris Long seemed to be a kid-favorite and they followed him closely after practices with hopes to be in the latest Smack Cam video.

Coach Fisher put his own light-hearted twist on training camp when the rookie players were put through the Dizzy Bat Drill. A long standing tradition of Fisher’s, rookies carry a ball to a cone downfield. Then, they drop the ball and continue running towards a baseball bat where they put one end of the bat on the ground, place their head on the other end and spin around the bat 25 times while veterans dump water and ice on them. The challenge is turning around and running back to the ball while they are disoriented from spinning and the shock of cold water. Veterans, staff, and fans laughed as some NFL athletes were unable to stay on their feet, much less run in a straight line. The event celebrated the end of the participants’ first NFL training camp and according to Fisher, “It’s an honor to be able to do that.”

The Rookie Experience/New Faces

The beast of camp can be most intimidating for rookies. Often stars at their respective universities, the rookies are now the low men on the totem pole who have to learn the playbook, adjust to NFL game speed, and show that they deserve a spot on the roster. Often times, rookies like RB Zac Stacy come into a position battle full of skilled, youthful players to compete against and learn from.

“For the most part, it’s just really been about consistency,” Stacy said. “It’s been about being productive and taking the opportunity of the reps that you have. It’s been a pretty good experience so far, nonetheless, just a lot of grind, a lot of mental stuff, a lot of film and as the weeks progress things get a whole lot easier.”

Stacy is among a group of running backs vying for playing time on the field. Two of those backs are Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead who are both going into their second season in the league. Despite not being much older than Stacy, Richardson and Pead have a wealth of knowledge that can be valuable to a player transitioning into the NFL. Stacy has been able to take away some of those lessons, such as emphasizing the specifics.

“The little things matter, attention to detail all the way from landmarks, footwork, things like that,” Stacy said. “All those little things make a difference because it separates a 3-yard gain from a 15-yard gain.”

Similar to Stacy, rookie LB Alec Ogletree has capitalized on the opportunity to learn from the veterans within his position group. With an experienced linebacker corps, Ogletree has the chance to learn from pros with a combined 23 years of NFL experience such as James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon. According to Ogletree, just being a professional is the most valuable lesson that has been passed down so far.

“Those guys are very hard on themselves about their job and what they do,” Ogletree said. “So, I try to learn from them…how to practice, techniques and certain things like that.”

Ogletree’s progression through training camp and into his first regular season is vital for the Rams. As the 30th overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, he has stepped into a starting role on the defense, which was expected from the first day of camp. The time that he has put in with the first team in practice and the first two preseason games was much appreciated by Ogletree.

“It was a great feeling to be able to come in and earn the coaches’ trust – get on the field early and take reps with the first team,” Ogletree said. “It definitely was an honor.”

Much like Ogletree, DT Michael Brockers was the Rams’ first-round pick last year and earned a starting role as a rookie. With one year under his belt, Brockers feels much more comfortable.

“Last year, I was coming in with a lot of pressure,” Brockers said. “There’s no pressure this year. We gel together as a defensive line this year.”

For the new faces on the Rams’ roster, such as Cook and LT Jake Long, their first camp in St. Louis has been a success. Though the two have been with the team through OTAs and the weeks leading up to camp, the past three August weeks were the first steps towards the regular season.

“It went well just being out with the guys and your team getting back to football,” Jake Long said. “It went fast, but it went well.”

“It was a lot of fun,” Cook said. “I enjoyed being around the guys. There’s a camaraderie here that you don’t find in a lot of places. A lot of the guys get along.”

Looking Ahead

While Smack Cam, the Dizzy Bat Drill and other things provided the team, staff, and fans with a lot of laughs, the inevitable time of the preseason has come to finalize the roster. The first round of cuts comes on August 27, and the roster will go down to its final 53 players on August 31. The remaining two preseason games will serve as a final audition for players to keep/earn their jobs. For some, this part of the preseason can be the most difficult.

“In some ways this stretch of camp can be harder than the beginning of camp because the excitement that the beginning of camp brings kind of fades,” Chris Long said, “and you have to continue to increase your effort and increase your attention to detail. There’s a preseason game payoff, but it’s not like the regular season. So as you get closer and guys get hungrier you’ve got to just continue to focus on today.”

As the team nears the regular season and the competition for spots on the depth chart heats up, there is an elevated level of anxiousness to see what the team can do after the long days and difficult labors or camp.

“It can’t come fast enough,” Laurinaitis said. “I want it to be Arizona week already. You get to the point where you just want to play a real game, and I think that’s where a lot of the guys are in the locker room right now. This third preseason game is very much the closest thing that we can get to that.”

Training camp has officially closed, but the Rams will continue their journey towards the regular season this Saturday, August 24, when they take on the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High for a nationally-televised game. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CT.