Jeff Fisher has never lacked confidence. And his teams have always reflected that.
When the longtime Tennessee Titans head coach took over the Rams before the 2012 season, he inherited a team with talent in some areas but in need of an overall attitude adjustment. And though offensive issues (primarily at quarterback) have kept the Rams from reaching the NFL's top level, Fisher's blend of fearlessness and defensive intensity has been on display just the same.
One week after several Rams players entered the field making gestures popularized by protestors in nearby Ferguson, Mo., Fisher sent out for his team captains against the Washington Redskins the six players St. Louis acquired with the extra draft picks it received in the 2012 pre-draft trade that sent Washington the second overall selection, a pick the Redskins used to take quarterback Robert Griffin III.
That's attitude, to be sure, but none of it would matter if Fisher's defense wasn't silencing opposing offenses right now. After the Ferguson gestures, St. Louis beat the Raiders, 52-0. And with Griffin on the bench for most of Sunday afternoon until Colt McCoy's inefficiency became all too obvious, Fisher's team followed that up with a 24-0 drubbing of the Redskins at FedEx Field. The St. Louis defense hasn't allowed a touchdown -- or any points at all -- since Philip Rivers hit Keenan Allen for a score with 8:09 left in the Chargers' 27-24 win on Nov. 23. The Rams could have just as easily won that game, and in the last two months, they've beaten 2013's two best NFC teams (Seattle and San Francisco) and the Denver Broncos, the defending AFC champion.
At 6-7, St. Louis is probably not going to make the postseason, but with games against the Cardinals and Seahawks left on the schedule, the Rams have the opportunity to affect the NFC playoff picture as much as any team still in the hunt.
It's a young team, and it's only going to get better, especially on defense. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are outstanding pass rushers, and the interior line combination of Michael Brockers and 2014 first-round pick Aaron Donald has been nightmarish for opposing offenses all season. A secondary that's improving over time and a linebacker corps with athleticism for days round out a defensive unit that should be the envy of several postseason contenders. Brockers, linebacker Alec Ogletree and cornerback Janoris Jenkins were three of the players selected as a result of the Griffin trade haul.
"What an effort by those guys today," Fisher told reporters after Sunday's game. "It wasn't a good first half of football; we had a lot of things going on, and we had to overcome an awful lot. Then, we settled down, and I think we really were ourselves in the second half. I'm really excited for the guys. Back-to-back shutouts,it's really impressive."
It's not just impressive. It's something no Rams team has done since 1945, when the franchise won the NFL championship in its last year in Cleveland. To do it in a time when passing and scoring have never been more of a priority in the league is even more of a statement.
To be sure, there are still things this team needs to turn around. The quarterback position will probably remain a mystery until the 2015 draft, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is generally good for a few head-scratching schematic decisions in every game and the offensive line needs stability and improvement.
But in the larger sense, this is a team that is built to win for a long time and do so in Fisher's image, with toughness, bravado and intimidation. The Raiders and Redskins would agree that these traits have been amplified in recent weeks. Now it's up to Fisher to make the rest of the NFL take notice.
The Rams may not make much progress toward that goal by the end of this season, but their second half is the latest sign of the promising years to come.