Tuesday October 7th, 2014

Did any team in the league get off to a worse start this year than the Rams? When franchise quarterback Sam Bradford was felled in August by a Groundhog Day injury -- poor guy tore his left ACL for the second time in 10 months -- his job went to Shaun Hill, a jowly, 34-year-old journeyman who’d thrown just 16 passes in the NFL since 2010. But Hill strained a quadriceps in the first half of St. Louis’ opener against the Vikings, giving way to third-stringer Austin Davis, a former collegiate walk-on and Dolphins practice-squad player who’d been working one year earlier as a volunteer high school football coach. Final score: 38-10, Vikings.

What tone did coach Jeff Fisher take with his players in the wake of that debacle? Were there harsh words? Was there shaming? 

Please. This is Fisher, who is to head coaches what Drake, the wholesome Canadian hip-hop artist, is to rappers: considerate, progressive, averse to the profane rants to which many of his peers are partial.

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“You point out exactly what happened, then you move on,” says Fisher. “Players don’t make mistakes on purpose. After a tough Sunday, you still want them to look forward to coming to work on Monday.”

We know the NFL is a cold business. One of the reasons Fisher’s players love strapping it on for him is that he tries, possibly harder than anyone in the league, to warm it up a little.

Not that optimism and a nurturing environment make much of a difference when you’re down to your third-string quarterback. Right? Surely the Rams’ Week 2 opponent, the Buccaneers, would make life miserable for Davis, who walked on at Southern Miss, incidentally, where he became a four-year starter and broke all of Brett Favre’s passing records. Turns out that, despite his scant NFL credentials, Davis has a few things going for him, as Tampa Bay discovered. In his first start since throwing a pair of TDs in the Golden Eagles’ 31-28 loss to Louisville in the 2010 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, Davis was almost shockingly poised and in control, making checks at the line of scrimmage, working deep into his progressions. He completed 23-of-29 passes for 235 yards, to eight receivers, and was never more collected than in the final minutes, when he zipped completions of nine, 13, 15 and 25 yards to get kicker Greg Zuerlein into field goal range. Legatron’s 38-yarder with 42 seconds left gave the Rams their first win of the season.

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The fiery and unflappable Davis has emerged as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise painful season. So poised and promising was the 25-year-old in the Rams’ otherwise brutal, come-from-ahead loss to Dallas in Week 4 -- St. Louis led 21-0, before dropping a 34-31 stunner -- that Fisher declared him the regular starter going into last Sunday’s game in Philly.  

With the Eagles teeing off on the greenhorn quarterback early and often, the Rams fell behind 34-7, before Davis rallied the offense to three touchdowns on consecutive drives. True, St. Louis lost, 34-28, but Davis -- who completed 29-of-49 passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns and no picks -- continued to earn respect, in his own locker room and around the league.    

While the Rams season has officially begun spinning out of control -- St. Louis is 1-3 with its next six games against the 49ers, Seahawks, Chiefs, 49ers again, Cardinals then Broncos -- there is no sense of panic at Rams Park. The trajectory of the organization remains distinctly upward.

“Being oh-and-two in this league is rough; oh-and-three’s a bitch,” says the ebullient Dave McGinnis, one-time coach of the Cardinals and now Fisher’s chief assistant. “I’ve been with Jeff when we started oh-and-six” -- with the Titans, in ’09; that team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs by one game -- “and when we started 10-0. And from one scenario to the other, I swear his demeanor hardly changed an inch.

“He’s got this California cool about him, a confidence that makes everyone around him think, ‘OK, we can do this.’”

***

Fisher was rocking back in his office chair before a preseason practice, reminiscing about his days as a student at Taft High in the San Fernando Valley (Calif.). There were mornings, he admitted, when he would ditch class to go catch waves in Malibu, or at Surfer’s Point, across from the Ventura Fairgrounds.

There was strife, he says, between the “Valley guys” and the locals. “If they knew you weren’t from around there they’d unscrew your tire caps, put little pebbles in the valves, then screw the caps back on, letting the air out of both your back tires, knowing you only had one spare. Finally, we just started taking the caps off our tires.”

The grown-up, 56-year-old version of Fisher -- the popular, mustachioed progressive -- wouldn’t stop there. He’d find some way to bring the two parties together, bridge the divide. Now in his 20th season as an NFL coach, his third at the helm in St. Louis, he’s evolved from scrappy reserve safety and kick returner for the early-‘80s Bears to a wunderkind assistant -- he was a defensive coordinator at 30 -- to a kind of youthful elder statesman, an unlikely éminence grise. When he’s not busy resurrecting the Rams or spanning the globe with his fly-rod or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, as he did in 2011, Fisher co-chairs the NFL’s Competition Committee, one of the few branches that hasn’t been under fire of late. He’s neither the league’s longest-tenured coach (Bill Belichick, by a hair), nor its most successful (Jim Harbaugh, based on win percentage). His .532 record ranks just 15th among active coaches, right between Ron Rivera and Rex Ryan. But he is, inarguably, the one with whom you’d most want to have a beer.

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There’s a little more gray, of late, in that trademark ‘stache. Yes, Fisher has made do, through the years, with plenty of workmanlike quarterbacks. He has entrusted teams to Neil O’Donnell and Billy Volek; he made it to the playoffs with Kerry Collins and Vince Young. Under Fisher, caretaker Kellen Clemens won four of his nine starts after Bradford went down last season, offing the playoff-bound Colts and Saints, and crippling the Bears’ postseason hopes. But with the Rams loaded on defense and the rehabbed Bradford looking crisp in training camp, 2014 was to have been a breakout year. Or, failing that, at least the club’s first winning season since ’03.

That made the loss of Bradford an especially cruel blow. “Because of how hard he’d worked, where he was at the moment and what the future looked like, it was devastating for him,” says Fisher, who compartmentalized his own disappointment, and moved on.

“It was hard to believe we were having the exact same conversation that we’d had [10 months] earlier,” says Rams COO Kevin Demoff, who remembers sitting in Fisher’s office with the coach and GM Les Snead, digesting the grim news. “There was no woe is us, there was no fear. It was, ‘Here’s how we’re gonna make the playoffs without Sam.’ That calm and confidence pervaded the whole building.”

On the first floor of those Rams headquarters hangs a framed, poster-sized picture that torments the team’s current coach. "SUPER HEROES" screams the headline of the Jan. 31, 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Fisher stood on the losers’ sideline that night of Super Bowl XXXIV as Titans receiver Kevin Dyson stretched valiantly -- but came up a yard short of the goalline as time expired. Fisher hasn’t been back to the big game since.

Fisher's Titans came up a yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV. The coach hasn't been back to the big game since.
John Biever/SI

But he’s found other ways to make news. He’s the guy on the other end of the phone with Michael Sam in the video that went viral last May. Sam, the ex-Missouri Tiger who’s still trying to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, sobs in that video, overcome with joy and relief by the news that Fisher’s Rams are about to select him. On Aug. 30, in a decidedly un-Hollywood denouement, St. Louis made Sam one of its final training camp cuts. Despite his three sacks in four exhibition games, he was clearly beaten out by Ethan Westbrooks, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Four days after the Rams released him, Sam was signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad.

Historic though it was, that phone call will end up having far less impact on this team than the olive branch that Fisher extended to an estranged acquaintance four months earlier. He’d had a falling out with Gregg Williams, the former Saints defensive coordinator who served a one-year suspension for his role in Bountygate. But after watching the Rams’ absurdly talented defense underachieve dramatically last season, Fisher swallowed his pride, fired coordinator Tim Walton, then dialed up Williams. Because those two hugged it out, the NFC West was going to be a much nastier neighborhood this season.

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That was the thinking in preseason, at any rate. But that stunning collapse against the Cowboys was merely symptomatic of a unit that continues to be less than the sum of its highly drafted, sumptuously paid parts. The Rams are yielding 6.0 yards per play to this point, fifth-worst in the NFL. Incredibly, the team that finished last season with 53 sacks, and which locked down defensive end Robert Quinn (19 sacks in 2013) with a six-year, $65.6 million contract, finds itself last in the league in that category through four games. The Rams have mustered just a single sack this season.

It’s worth noting that Fisher placed that fateful call to Williams from the beach in Mexico where he and his son Brandon, who coaches St. Louis’ defensive backs, had gone fishing. Specifically, says Jeff, “We were chasing permit with our fly rods.”

The quest for permit, an elusive and easily-spooked member of the jack family, requires supreme patience, which Jeff Fisher has -- and has needed during his work-in-progress turnaround of the Rams. His 15-20-1 record in two-plus seasons underwhelms until one considers that St. Louis had won just 15 total games in its previous five campaigns, the worst stretch of that length in NFL history. So talent-bare was the cupboard upon his arrival, in tandem with new GM Snead, that Fisher inherited 37 guys who never played another NFL snap. Eight players remain from the roster he was handed.

Fisher was preceded by Jim Haslett and Steve Spagnuolo, two first-time head coaches who never really stood a chance. “We failed them more than they failed us,” says Demoff, referring to the cavalcade of misbegotten trades and bad draft choices perpetrated before and during that 65-loss Slough in St. Loo. If the Rams’ first-round picks from 2000 through ’09 lived in the same zip code -- Trung Canidate (’01), Robert Thomas (’02), Jimmy Kennedy (’03), Alex Barron (’05), Tye Hill (’06), Adam Carriker (’07), Jason Smith (’09) -- that town would be called Bustopolis.  (Steven Jackson, ’04, and Chris Long, ’08, are the productive exceptions.) The constant turnover, Demoff admits, was driven by “the pressure it’s so easy to fall prey to in the NFL, to get better Now! Now! Now!

Now! Now! Now! resulted in one, seven and two -- the number of Rams victories in 2009, ’10 and ’11, after which majority owner Stan Kroenke cleaned house. He and Demoff admired the long-term success Fisher had sustained over 16 years at the helm of the Titans (née Oilers). They coveted the coach’s knack for organization-forming, building through the draft, taking the long view. They wanted him badly, but so did the Dolphins. It would come down to a meeting between the coach and Kroenke.

***

Kroenke’s car was not available. His dogs had been passengers earlier that morning, and now it needed vacuuming. “It was full of hair,” recalls Demoff, who volunteered the use of his own rental car for the purposes of squiring Fisher and his boss around Denver. That’s how Kroenke, an entrepreneur worth roughly $5.9 billion, found himself in the back seat of a lime green Ford Escape, in deep conversation with the object of his ardor.

The two men had hit if off immediately. Upon entering the inner sanctum of Kroenke’s headquarters, Fisher remarked favorably on some of his host’s paintings, depictions of the American West. It was quickly discovered that both men owned property in Montana, where Fisher puts in a few weeks every summer, angling for trout from a drift boat on rivers with names like Big Hole and Beaverhead.

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So engrossed were the two men in their backseat discussions that they barely noticed the Escape was suddenly surrounded by horses, Demoff having somehow piloted the vehicle into the heart of Denver’s annual National Western Stock Show. For lunch they ate bison burgers off of paper towels in a dive bar chosen by Kroenke. They spent two hours “talking about what we could build together,” says Demoff, who then dropped Fisher at the airport. Before escaping the Escape, coach turned to the COO and said, “That would be an unbelievable guy to work for.”

Two weeks later they tied the knot. It’s so far been a smooth partnership because Kroenke understands that, beneath the surface of consecutive seven-win seasons, and despite the serial misfortunes of Sam Bradford, very good things are happening. Here was Bradford, all confidence, speaking to SI on the eve of the team’s final OTA last June: “We know what we’re capable of, and we want to go out and show the world.”

Optimism and all, Bradford’s complete recovery had not prevented a vocal contingent of Rams partisans from urging their front office to take a quarterback in last May’s draft. As Johnny Manziel went unselected through the first 21 picks, even some staffers in the St. Louis war room urged Fisher to trade up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, according to one account.

Fisher wasn’t going there. He’s been unstinting in his support of Bradford as the team’s quarterback of the future. “Over the years,” Fisher pointed out, “I’ve stood behind my quarterbacks.” Do the Rams still stand behind Bradford? “If Sam returns healthy,” says Demoff, “our future at quarterback is bright.” (Bradford will need to be healthy, yes, and also flexible -- as in willing to negotiate a hefty pay cut; the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft is due $13 million in base salary next season, the final year of his rookie contract, at which point he will have missed 31 of a possible 80 games.)

It’s not just the quarterbacks who have Fisher’s backing. The ties that bind his teams have always been uncommonly stout, strengthened by his loyalty to players and staff. After the 1998 season, Titans owner Bud Adams was leaning on the coach to fire his wide receivers deputy, Alan Lowry. Instead, Fisher put Lowry in charge of special teams, and did OK. Trailing by one point and fielding a kickoff with 16 seconds remaining in their Jan. 8, 2000, wild card game against the Bills, Lowry’s unit pulled off the Frank Wycheck-to-Dyson lateral pass that won the game and has been known henceforth as the Music City Miracle.

Last May, Fisher avoided another rush to judgment when a brief but sexually explicit video appeared on the Instagram account of Kenny Britt. The post was quickly removed and the Rams seemed satisfied by Britt’s explanation. “Instead of pulling away, they opened their arms even more,” says the receiver, who got a text from Fisher saying, essentially: We’re going to come together and stand with you. “That broke me down, brought me to tears,” says Britt, who’d felt nowhere near that level of support from his previous coach, Mike Munchak. “When you get that from your head coach, you’ll run through a brick wall and keep running.”

But not too far. The coach would prefer that his guys save their legs for Sundays. “Fish listens to the players,” says linebacker James Laurinaitis. “He wants to know, What can I do to have you guys feeling great on Sunday? How can I get you recovered? We might have a great practice on Wednesday, and he’ll say, You know what, we’ve got a physical game coming up. Instead of coming in at 7 a.m. tomorrow, why don’t you guys sleep in? See you at 10:30.”

Fisher’s players also know there are lines they can’t cross. In 2006, the coach’s 10th season in Nashville, Ohio authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Titans linebacker Robert Reynolds, who’d been charged with domestic violence and assault against his then-wife. Rather than wait for due process to take its course -- Reynolds eventually pled guilty to a reduced charge of criminal damaging -- Fisher asked his player to leave the team facilities. Reynolds never played another snap for Tennessee, or any other team, for that matter.

***

Before he was a player’s coach, Fisher was a player-coach on one of the best defenses in NFL history. After a solid career as a safety at USC (where he had 108 tackles, five picks and four tackles for losses in two years), he was selected by the Bears in the seventh round of the 1981 draft. During each of his five seasons playing for Mike Ditka, he recalls, “I was probably the 52nd or 53rd guy on the roster, battling every year.”

Chicago’s Monsters of the Midway closed out the 1985 season with a 46-10 rout of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Fisher got a ring, despite spending the season on IR with a bum ankle. To make himself useful, he served as a player-coach for Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator. When Ryan was offered the Eagles’ head coaching job three days after hoisting the Lombardi trophy, he asked Fisher to join him.

But Fisher had spent the previous three years moonlighting in sales for a software firm -- a lucrative business that he intended to join once he got out of football. The night before he was supposed to fly to Philly, he called Ryan and turned him down. “I called him back 20 minutes later and asked, ‘You didn’t give my job away, did ya?’” Ryan hadn’t. Said Fisher, “I’ll see you at the airport.’” Three years later he was Ryan’s defensive coordinator.

In 1992, after a stop in a L.A. following Ryan’s dismissal in Philly, he took a job on Bill Walsh’s 49ers staff. “At the time,” Fisher recalls, “the 49er organization was the place to be, the place to learn.”

By 1994, when he arrived in Houston to take the Oilers’ DC position, he “blended the Buddy defense and the 49ers’ system.” His predecessor in the new job? Ryan, who’d taken the head role in Arizona. When the two teams met, the irascible mentor would razz his former protégé on the field before the game: “You really screwed this defense up.”

How had he changed it? Fisher “expanded the nickel package, expanded the red zone package, expanded our base -- just kind of morphed it into what I’d learned” with the 49ers, he says. There was also this overarching lesson: “Every defensive unit -- and offensive, for that matter -- is unique. And it’s different on a yearly basis. Identify your strengths during the offseason and camp, and then play to those strengths.”

***

Fisher can X and O with anybody. But his true strength is forging bonds, building trust, making the pros feel a little like college. Then, when the roster is right and the system is in place, be patient. Good things will happen. After which, of course, you still need a little luck. Following that shiv-in-the-ribs loss in the Super Bowl, Fisher’s Titans fielded what he believes to have been a better team the following season -- then ran into a buzzsaw.

“We lost to the Ravens at home in the divisional playoffs,” recalls the coach, his fine spirits turning dyspeptic. “I don’t think they got a first down in the second half. We blocked two punts -- but they both went sideways, out of bounds. Ray Lewis intercepted a ball that bounced off Eddie George’s hands, ran it back 50 for a touchdown, and we lost.”

It’s tough, sharing a division with one of the best teams in the game. Back then, it was Baltimore in the AFC Central. After some league shuffling, it was the Colts in the AFC South. Now it’s the Seahawks, as Fisher is reminded even when he leaves the country. The owner of the fishing lodge he visits in Punta Allen, Mexico, is a huge Seattle fan, and he’s not bashful about letting the coach know it.

Chasing permit is far more challenging than sitting on a drift boat, pulling trout out of the Ruby River. Fisher spends hours in the bow of a skiff, scouting for fish, then, when permit are spotted, wading toward them in the shallow coastal flats.

“I’ve had shots at them, but I have yet to land a permit,” he readily admits. “People go a lifetime chasing that fish, without success.”

“But I will get one.” 

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