Off-season report card: St. Louis Rams
When Buddy Ryan was an NFL coach, he considered offense to be a nuisance and defense a necessity. He was perhaps the best defensive mind in NFL history, but Buddy was never a balanced coach. In his 1993 Houston Oilers defensive playbook, Ryan opined that quarterbacks were "over-paid, over-rated pompous bastards and must be punished." Ryan once took a swing at Houston's offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, during a game.
Jeff Fisher, who played safety under Ryan with the Bears and coached under him in Chicago and Philadelphia, has adopted a more balanced approach through his own two decades as a head coach. However, his tenure with the Rams, which started in 2012, clearly reflects a defense-first mentality. The Rams have assembled the most formidable defensive line in the NFL. They have outstanding linebackers and an up-and-coming secondary. They've finished seventh, 11th and ninth in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics over Fisher's three years in charge, but have never cracked the .500 mark, because the offense has lagged behind.
It hasn't helped that Fisher's had an underwhelming rotation at quarterback, nor did Brian Schottenheimer take advantage of the personnel he was given. St. Louis has finished 21st, 22nd and 25th in offensive efficiency in those same years, and the Rams finally realized that if they wanted to make any sort of dent in the hyper-competitive NFC West, a change or two would need to be made on that side of the ball.
Schottenheimer left for Georgia to be the Bulldogs's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, replaced in St. Louis by former quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti. Then, quarterback Sam Bradford—whose impressive potential had always been hampered by injuries throughout his NFL career—was traded to the Eagles for quarterback Nick Foles in March. An offensive line full of problems in 2014 was seriously re-filled in the regular draft, with three tackles and a guard selected. Then, the team doubled down by selecting Clemson tackle Isaiah Battle in the supplemental draft. And with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the Rams took Georgia running back Todd Gurley, the most impressive collegiate rusher since Adrian Peterson, who could redefine St. Louis' offense if he's fully recovered from last year's ACL injury.
Questions still abound, but it's clear that the Rams have a renewed commitment to their offense. What on earth would Buddy Ryan think?
Best acquisition: Nick Foles, QB
In 2013, Chip Kelly's first season as Eagles's coach, Foles threw 27 touchdowns and two interception, and made the Pro Bowl as an injury fill-in for Michael Vick in 2013. However, Kelly prefers a mobile quarterback who can adapt to changing circumstances; in short, not Foles. One of the main components of his successful 2013 season was that Philly's line had the same starters all season. In 2014, with that same line affected by injury and suspension, Foles regressed pretty heavily—he threw 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in just eight games, and missed half of the season with a broken collarbone. Last year, per Pro Football Focus, Foles completed fewer than 40% of his passes when pressured.
That makes for an interesting marriage of team and player, considering St. Louis' line issues, but Fisher insists that Foles could be the Rams' long-term answer at the position. The two sides have been talking about a contract extension for a while, and Foles could get an deal worth $12-14 million per year, with $20 million guaranteed.
His 2013 season made history, and his follow-up campaign was a mystery. The Rams would settle for something in the middle, consistently, over the next few years.
"We've had some discussions," Fisher said during OTAs. "I think what Nick has done early in his career, he's proven he can get the job done on the field. With the numbers that he put up there it was very impressive. He's carried things on here and so we're going to continue to talk and see if we can get something that's good for both sides."
Stability at the game's most important position would be a huge edge for the Rams—something they haven't had since the days of Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger. And that's the main reason this franchise hasn't sniffed the postseason for more than a decade.
Biggest loss: Jake Long, OT
In 2013, Long was still a pretty solid left tackle, allowing six sacks and 32 total pressures on 469 passing plays. But the follow-up season was a nightmare for the veteran, as he suffered a torn ACL—his second in two seasons—and was released by the Rams in March due to injury and salary cap concerns. First-round pick Greg Robinson had to slide over to left tackle when Long was hurt, a position he wasn't yet ready to handle.
Though Long is essentially retired unless some desperate team decides to take a flyer on him, his absence was the first falling domino for a line that performed far under par no matter the situation. The Rams had thought about putting Long at a different position, but in the end, thought it was a better call to blow it all up and start over. They released center Scott Wells the same day they cut Long.
"Jake and Scott brought experience and professionalism to our program, and we appreciate their commitment and hard work," Fisher said in a statement. "Both of them overcame injury difficulties and provided leadership for our younger players. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for both of them."
A wise move for the future, but where does that leadership come from now?
Underrated draft pick: Andrew Donnal, OT, Iowa (119th overall pick)
Of the linemen the Rams selected in this draft, Donnal may have the most potential to make an immediate difference. He was Brandon Scherff's bookend at right tackle for the Hawkeyes in 2014, looking every bit the NFL prospect with impressive strength for his 6'6", 313-pound frame, and an easy kick-step that allows him to pass-protect with aplomb.
Why did he fall to the fourth round? Donnal dealt with injuries in the 2012 and '13 seasons, making his way as a reserve until he finally got a shot as a full-time starter last year. He's going to have to adjust to the NFL's more complex pressure schemes, but with the right coaching and a little patience, Donnal could be the Rams' answer on the right side for a long time, if he can stay healthy.
Looming question for training camp: What on earth is this offensive line going to look like?
This much we know: Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein and Louisville's Jamon Brown will likely start the season on the Rams' line as rookies—the early projection has Havenstein at right tackle and Brown at right guard. Then again, if Donnal realizes his potential early, that could shake things up. Frenso State guard Cody Wichmann, taken in the sixth round, seems more of a project -- he's an earthmoving mauler, but needs a lot of work with his mobilty and change of direction skills. Battle will be battling (sorry) for a place in that line as well. Barrett Jones at center and Greg Robinson at left tackle are the only seemingly sure things right now, though Robinson proved himself to be a better guard in his rookie campaign.
Teams have to deal with roster churn on their offensive lines all the time, but this is ridiculous. Fisher, for his part, seems nonplussed by the whole thing.
"They're going to be ready to go, so that's not going to be an issue," the coach recently said. "We don't have a lot of experience at the center position, but you gain experience by playing. We'll make that decision at some point. Like I said, I'm pleased with the flexibility. I'm pleased with where [Brown] is right now at the guard spot. Rob has been solid at right tackle. They're not making mistakes.
"I think they will probably improve significantly when the pads go on because it stalemates a little bit with the defense. Defense wins right now. That's just how OTAs are. Defense is going to win."
Wishful thinking? To a degree, sure. But Fisher's right about one thing—unless everything comes together to an uncommon degree in this new-look offense, the defense will win, and the Rams will go as far as the defense takes it.