Rams coach Jeff Fisher isn't afraid to let his young players play early and often.
In the span of one offseason, the Rams went from the oldest team in the NFL to the youngest.
That wasn’t a coincidence after owner Stan Kroenke hired Jeff Fisher to take over as head coach and Les Snead to become general manager.
Soon after Fisher and Snead were put in place to lead the team’s football operations moving forward, they put forth a shared vision of what Rams football should and could become.
The vision is pretty straightforward: build a team that can contend for championships not only right away but over a long period of time.
“That’s the vision, to sustain it,” Fisher said. “But you have to do it with a young football team. You can’t sustain success as an old football team. We are a very, very young football team, and we have to grow up quick.”
Part of building a blueprint for the long term success of the Rams was putting the right architects into place. Following a the same design that has been successful with his other sports teams, Kroenke sought to overhaul the Rams by pairing a proven winner as head coach with a sharp-minded personnel mind as general manager.
With that vision set forth and guidance from Mr. Kroenke, Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer and executive vice president of football operations, was given all of the necessary resources to get the right people to lead the charge.
“It’s been an exciting past several months for us to discover what the St. Louis Rams can become,” Demoff said.
Identifying Fisher as a leading candidate was a bit of a no brainer as he was contacted by every team with a head coaching opening. The challenge was to land the most coveted head coach on the market. After a series of meetings with Kroenke in early January, Fisher accepted the challenge of turning around the Rams.
In landing Fisher, the Rams knew exactly what they were getting in terms of football philosophy.
“It will be next year I have been here in St. Louis working on sports for 20 years,” Kroenke said at the press conference introducing Fisher. “Over that time, we’ve kind of come to some conclusions, some lessons were harder to learn than others, but we developed a model that we have a lot of confidence in.
“And at its center is an experienced, confident head coach who has been, as we say in a lot of different situations has dealt with and seen most things that the world can throw at him in the world of sports. Jeff was absolutely what we were looking for. I told him that early on. I think, when we first talked, I don’t really wait long before I tell people kind of how I feel and I told Jeff early on that, that’s the way we viewed the world of sport and how important it was for us to find that kind of coach. Fortunately, we’ve been able to achieve that.”
With Fisher in the fold, the Rams turned their attention to the personnel side where Demoff and Fisher interviewed a wide range of talented football minds with creative ideas on how to build out the roster.
The search was expansive but ultimately ended with the guy who received the first call from Demoff when the process started.
“(We wanted) a general manager that could bring innovative thinking, a different way of looking at players, a different way of looking at pro personnel, at the college scouting process,” Demoff said. “And we wanted him to bring us to the forefront in the most advanced metrics and scouting ideas in the NFL. Les is an intelligent thinker, someone who when you sit down and talk to him, you come away saying this is not your average scout in the NFL. This is someone who thinks a little bit different; who approaches problem solving in a unique way and someone who we think will change our personnel environment and our scouting environment.”
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
Snead stepped into his role nearly a month after Fisher and only 10 days before the start of the annual NFL Scouting Combine.
There wasn’t much time to come up for air as Fisher, Snead and their respective staffs went to work on laying out the plan that would help turn the Rams around in a hurry. Free agency was only a couple of weeks away and the Rams also had to formulate a plan for the No. 2 pick in the draft.
It didn’t take long for those plans to come together.
“Well, the idea is you want to carry the best roster you can into training camp and then the question is ‘How do you get there?’ ” Fisher said. “You first identify your needs based on the existing roster then look at which players have a bright future, which players have potential and which players are starters and which players you need to replace. You identify those groups and then you move on.”
The Rams certainly identified those groups quickly; opting to eschew bringing back any of their own unrestricted free agents. In addition, they released older veterans such as defensive tackles Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan and end James Hall.
Those moves not only created salary cap room but also paved the way for the Rams to be flexible in building the roster. When the free agent market opened, Fisher and Snead aggressively pursued young veterans with track records of success.
They landed current and former Pro Bowlers in cornerback
“I was really pleased with free agency,” Fisher said. “You try to get starters in free agency and we got some starters in free agency and then got some guys that can come in and compete for backup roles as well.”
Of course, the Rams couldn’t fill all of their many needs in free agency but they also made a move as it opened to position themselves well to use the draft to build for the long term.
On the same day the team announced Finnegan’s signing, they officially announced a blockbuster trade with Washington in which the Redskins received the No. 2 overall pick while the Rams picked up the No. 6 overall pick and a second round choice (No. 39 overall) in this year’s draft, plus Washington’s No. 1 pick in each of the next two years.
The trade should be a game changer.
“The trade was huge for us draft wise,” Fisher said. “It’s nice to remind yourself that you have two more No. 1s over the next two years.”
Come draft night, the Rams continued to maneuver as Snead engineered another deal, this time with Dallas, sending the No. 6 pick to the Cowboys for the No. 14 pick and Dallas’ second round choice (No. 45 overall which later become No. 50 in another trade).
Suddenly, a team with a great many needs had a great many picks to help fill those needs. The boatload of picks enabled the Rams to be aggressive with their picks.
“You can’t be scared,” Snead said. “I think when you have so many picks… in the top 65,we looked at it a little bit like a mutual fund. It allowed you maybe to take a risk at one for talent whereas if you might have had less picks, you may go a little less risky. I think this is what this draft enabled us to do. That’s what we did.”
Fisher’s extended time in Tennessee had a few noticeable hallmarks that became key elements of the blueprint in building the team in St. Louis. Those elements became priorities in the free agent market and the draft.
In hopes of solidifying the defensive line, the Rams used their first-round pick on finding a big body with a world of potential to plug into the middle. In adding
“He was one of our top rated players on the board,” Snead said. “We felt like we have two young, good to very good ends and we signed Kendall Langford, so being one of our better players on the board, not only do we get one of the players we wanted but we made the defensive line unit one of our strongest units on the team.”
The Rams then turned their attention to other valued areas.
“We are going to have to run the football so our offensive line has to be good,” Fisher said. “And we felt like we had to address the receiver position and the corner position right away. We wanted to have a surplus at those spots and we think we have a good group.”
Indeed, the Rams spent two picks each on cornerbacks and receivers with
Naturally, anytime you go through a serious roster makeover, your team is almost certain to get younger. But the Rams made it a point to become one of the league’s youngest squads. Entering Sunday's game at Detroit, the Rams have an average age of 25.3 and only five players who have celebrated their 30th birthday.
It became evident right away in free agency as the unrestricted free agents the Rams signed and the ones they let go had almost a two and a half year age gap on average.
At 35, Robbins and Hall were two of the oldest players on last year’s team and were promptly released. Cornerback Al Harris, 37, retired and 35-year old quarterback A.J. Feeley was not re-signed.
The oldest player on this year’s roster was also free agent additions but at 32, linebacker
In an offseason that saw the Rams turn over almost 60 percent of the roster, the Rams opening-day roster will have 15 additions via free agency or trade and 17 rookies, the youth movement is officially in full swing.
The work done by Fisher, Snead, Demoff and the personnel department was strenuous but satisfying.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Fisher said. “We knew it was going to be fun. That was our focus: to enjoy coming to work and working together. It’s been really great and extremely rewarding. Les and Kevin are both very, very talented.”
Of course, just getting younger isn’t going to turn losses into victories. After identifying young talent, the goal then becomes not only to develop it but also to keep it around for its peak seasons.
That nucleus is mostly under contract with the Rams for the foreseeable future after Long signed a lucrative four-year extension in July. Laurinaitis is the next priority and once he’s signed, the Rams will have their core players signed for the long term.
“We’re just really excited,” Fisher said. “He’s not the only one we’re working on. We’re just happy. He’s had a great start to his career and we want to give him a chance to really settle in here and be one of the mainstays on our defense.”
REMODEL NOT REBUILD
Despite carrying a youthful roster with plenty of room for growth, Fisher, Snead and even the players have made it a point to avoid using the word that many commonly would associate with a team that has just 15 wins in the past five seasons.
“We’re not rebuilding by any stretch,” Finnegan said. “We’re going to start to put it together, push each other and win football games. We’re remodeling.”
Yes, this year’s Rams team is undoubtedly green in terms of experience but Fisher and Snead believe it’s a group with a lot of talent that just needs to be nurtured.
Not that they plan on babying that talent with some sort of patient three- or five- or however many year plan. Make no mistake, the youngsters will play early and often.
“I think we are not far away at all,” Snead said. “I don’t think we need to sit up here and talk about it. We think we need to start making very sound, very superior decisions and we’ll stack those and I think that will lead to success. We would rather not talk about it, just show you.”
For his part, Fisher has gone about setting the bar high for the entire team. He has never been OK with the idea of waiting around for the ship to come in. Rather, he prefers to set a standard and, along with his coaching staff, make that the expectation for his team.
Fisher is well aware there will be some growing pains but that doesn’t mean he has any intention to concede anything to anyone.
“In order to win, you have to learn how to win,” Fisher said. “You also can’t win without expectations. If those expectations don’t exist then you can’t talk about where you are going. I haven’t had anyone tell me since I took this job that we can’t win the Super Bowl this year. So the objective is to set a series of short-term goals as you move through the offseason and training camp and then the season.
"You can’t comprehend winning a championship right away but they will understand, Let’s have the best first day of camp that we’ve ever had then let’s have the best second day and then let’s commit ourselves to running the football.’ They’ll see those results and that series of short-term goals allows you to focus on and ensure that you focus on getting ready for the regular season.”