Friday August 7th, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- One of my favorite things to do on an NFL training camp tour is to visit a team that features a rookie head coach, as the Rams do this year after hiring ex-Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo this offseason. Though I'm usually blowing through camp in a day or so, you can often learn a lot from watching those early days of a new regime, seeing whether or not the veterans on that team are buying what the new guy is selling, and seeing a first-time coach in the process of finding out who he can and can't count on.

True, trying to take an accurate temperature reading of an organization's new program after interviewing a handful of players for a matter of minutes is your basic snap judgment, writ large. It's far from foolproof. But sometimes it can be dead on.

For example, after stops at both the Falcons and Ravens training camps last summer, I came away believing that rookie head coaches Mike Smith and John Harbaugh both had a pretty good handle on what it was going to take to turn Atlanta and Baltimore around, and that they had already put the wheels in motion. It's not that I saw 11-5 seasons coming for both, far from it. But I did see two teams that were in the process of fully buying into Smith and Harbaugh's approaches, and I sensed it would pay dividends at some point.

In an inverse way, the same was true for the 2007 Falcons, who I also paid a camp visit to, in order to discover what the new Bobby Petrino era was all about in Atlanta. One day there and I had the feeling trouble was on way for the Birds that season, thanks largely to the degree of skepticism I heard coming from key Atlanta veterans. And you know how that story turned out: Petrino's rookie season was his only NFL season, as his 13-game tenure was a debacle of epic proportion.

All that said, I'm ready to make the call that Spagnuolo seems like the right man for the job that faces his downtrodden Rams. While their NFL-worst 5-27 record the past two years breeds a certain amount of willingness to follow anyone with a plan, the Rams convinced me that Spagnuolo has been pitch perfect so far in his make-over efforts in St. Louis.

"I was talking to someone in the locker room two days ago, and I said, 'He hasn't told us a lie yet,' '' Rams second-year defensive end Chris Long told me Thursday afternoon, after another two-a-day practice was in the books. "Everything he's said has been on point. I thought we bought into Spags the minute he walked in the door. I had never heard him talk or seen him before, but I knew where he had been, and that resume spoke for itself. On top of that, he's a man who treats people with respect, and when he speaks, guys listen and really embrace his notion of respecting team.''

Watching Spagnuolo work a practice is like watching a bee pollinate an entire field, one flower at a time. With a yellow pencil tucked behind his right ear, a'la ex-Vikings coach Mike Tice, he's here, there and everywhere, teaching and instructing at all times. Calling him high energy really doesn't do his style justice. Spagnuolo really is a hands-on coach, and not in the clichéd way we usually throw that label around. He doesn't mind a bit putting his hands on players and showing them the point he's trying to convey.

"I do enjoy getting around and seeing everything,'' Spagnuolo said, taking a break in his upstairs office after the morning practice. "My mother was a teacher, and that's what coaching is, teaching. I don't know if I could stand around there (on the field) and not do some teaching. It'd be hard for me to do that.''

Maybe on some teams, Spagnuolo's up-tempo style wouldn't fly as well. But the Rams are ready and willing to listen after last season's 2-14 nightmare, and he has sold the team's most influential stars -- from running back Steven Jackson on down -- on the wisdom of his ways.

"They've embraced his energy and his style,'' Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "He's got everybody buying in. The key guys. The building. The employees, the whole entire organization is buying what he's trying to do. Both the team and the whole building, we needed some juice. Throughout the locker room, and throughout (the team's front office), that's why he was the perfect guy.''

The Rams players knew for certain that there was a new sheriff in town right from the start of camp. Spagnuolo had them hitting in full pads, in 11-on-11 team drills on day two. Going "live'' that early in camp isn't exactly the NFL norm, but the rookie head coach followed it up with more of the same on day three, four, five and six. And not one Rams player has publicly grumbled, not even Jackson, the team's No. 1 offensive weapon who took a wicked hit at knee-level from second-year linebacker Chris Chamberlain on a screen pass in one recent "live'' drill.

"First of all, this team is hungry,'' said Rams center Jason Brown, the ex-Raven who was the centerpiece of St. Louis's efforts in free agency. "We only have one direction to go, and that's up. We have a new guy in front of our faces with brand new ideas, and he's full of enthusiasm.

"We're going to come out here and do whatever he says. To go live like this day after day? Some guys are not used to this at all. Maybe they usually went live two or three days out of the entire training camp. But my theory is when we go out there on game day, those other guys aren't going to be holding back. Why wouldn't we prepare for that in live situations?''

Brown lived through the first year of the Harbaugh era in Baltimore last year, and he saw the instant pay-off that the former Eagles special teams and secondary coach brought to the Ravens. Like Spagnuolo, who served as a defensive assistant with the Eagles from 199-2006 before joining the Giants in 2007, Harbaugh learned his commitment to physicality in practice from longtime Eagles head coach Andy Reid. That belief was buttressed, Spagnuolo said, by his two years with Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.

"It wasn't really a wake up for this team to practice like that, it's just how we believe we should do it,'' Spagnuolo said. "I've been used to Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin and I respect them. I think they're two of the best in the league. Why wouldn't you try and do what they do? I wouldn't try to create my own deal just to have my own deal. Andy always said that if you don't hit at this point in camp, when else are you going to do it? You lose the chance.

"I'm not trying to wear them out. Their response has been great. By the third day, when I was calling for 'thud,' which is not (full contact), they were like 'What do you mean, Coach? We're not going live?' Maybe they're trying to make me feel good, but they said it.''

As Devaney mentioned, the impact of the new Spagnuolo era has been felt almost as much throughout the Rams team complex as it has on the field. Losing organizations often develop sloppy habits across the board, and to say that some of St. Louis' ways of doing business internally were lax is an understatement. Spagnuolo, along with Devaney, has moved quickly to change the laissez-faire culture that had creeped into Rams Park since the team's most recent playoff appearance in 2004.

"There were a lot of people that were here that were on scholarship,'' Devaney said. "It just bothered me that we'd come in Monday mornings during the season, and it just seemed like the environment was, 'Oh, well. We lost, and it's another day at work. It doesn't affect me.' That's not acceptable. Everything we do, everything everybody does, the football team has to be the most important thing in this building. That's what drives this building. That's what we're here for. (Spagnuolo) wants them to feel a part of it, but at the same time, they have their jobs to do and we have ours. It's all about these 53 players.''

What Devaney is describing is what sometimes happens in the NFL when a losing organization allows the focus to drift away from the football part of the business, to other peripheral areas. That's exactly what happened in St. Louis in recent years, and dysfunction can result.

"Around here the past couple years, it was the most bizarre thing,'' Devaney said. "You'd walk through the locker room and there were people in there you had no idea who they were. It was just free rein, with marketing people taking sponsors, and people sitting and eating with the players. It was like, 'You got to be kidding.' It was so loose and out of control. There was no control. You didn't know who was walking the hallways. We had to tighten things up around here. We can't have it that way. It was totally chaotic.''

Rams veterans have noticed the sea change Spagnuolo has wrought. It hasn't translated into any wins yet, but it's only early August. Time will tell how much an improved atmosphere around Rams Park leads to an improved performance on game days.

"The operation's tightened up,'' Long said. "To win in the NFL, you need to have that atmosphere in everything you do. From the cafeteria to the players lounge, to taking down the pictures of individuals in the hallways. It's little stuff like that, but there are nuances to winning as a football team.''

Spagnuolo is under no illusions. He knows he's in his honeymoon period with the Rams, and all his changes within the team will be subject to a week-to-week referendum by his players, the fans and the media once the regular season begins. Anything in the range of five or six wins would represent a quantum improvement in St. Louis this season, and buy Spagnuolo's program both time and further political capital.

It's only the earliest of reads, but I like what I see of Spagnuolo's Rams. They're hungry, they're trying to remake themselves with a more physical style of play, and they're convinced they finally have a belief and philosophy in place they can win with. First impressions aren't always right, but in St. Louis, the worst is finally over.

• It's a tough early-season schedule for St. Louis, so a fast start might be out of the question. The Rams play four of their first six on the road, with Seattle and Washington the first two games, then San Francisco and Jacksonville around home games against Green Bay and Minnesota. Throw in a tough home game against Indy in Week 7, and the Rams won't be easing into the Spagnuolo era.

• The team's 2008 first-round pick, defensive end Chris Long, looks quicker off the ball, and is part of a veteran Rams defensive end group (along with Leonard Little and James Hall) that has stood out early on.

"I came into the league understanding that things don't happen overnight,'' said Long, who had four sacks as a rookie but none in his final nine games of the season. "I kind of studied other D-ends, and saw the way their progression went. A lot of times you have a decent first year, but maybe not up to expectations. But if you work at it and come in ready to really handle your business and learn from your first year, you can really take that big jump in year two.''

• Not surprisingly, first-round offensive tackle Jason Smith has looked stronger in run blocking than he has in pass blocking. Smith did not play with his hand down on the ground at Baylor, and the Rams concede he's a work in progress in a three-point stance. He has handled the inside pass rush, but struggled in defending against the edge rush. Smith is working mostly with the first team at right tackle, and gotten a few second and third-team reps at left tackle.

• Hard to watch second-round linebacker James Laurinaitis and not see him as a natural who could start for the next 10 years in St. Louis. He just looks like a football player, and the Rams say he has already impressed team veterans with his passion for the game, his smarts, and his business-like approach to his play and the game.

• I suppose a lot of teams could say the same thing, but there's a bit of a drop-off at quarterback after starter Mark Bulger. Veteran addition Kyle Boller has looked only so-so, and Brock Berlin and rookie Keith Null haven't turned any heads in the first week of camp.

• Keep an eye on third receiver Laurent Robinson, who the Rams got in a low-profile draft weekend trade with Atlanta. He's had a strong camp so far and sources say he could rise as high as the team's No. 2 receiver behind leading pass-catcher Donnie Avery.

• There's some building enthusiasm for the Rams here in St. Louis, witness they're up about 35 percent in camp attendance compared to last year, when they trained in Mequon, Wis. The sense among fans is that while St. Louis has a ways to go in its rebuilding project, the franchise is at least on the right track.

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