Coaches with the most to prove: Jeff Fisher, Rams long overdue for .500
On Jan. 13, 2012, the Rams hired Jeff Fisher to be the franchise’s 22nd head coach, replacing Steve Spagnuolo. Fisher chose the Rams over the Dolphins in part because he would have more control over the personnel; after coaching the Oilers through their relocation from Houston to Nashville, he had worked under a capricious owner before in Bud Adams and didn’t want to be the odd man out again. The Rams won a grand total of 10 games in Spagnuolo’s three seasons, and the personnel holes inherited by Fisher and new general manager Les Snead were pretty glaring, but Fisher still went 7-8-1 in his first St. Louis season.
Things seemed to be on the rise, but that trajectory didn’t last long. Fisher’s Rams went 7–9 in both 2013 and ’15, bookending a 6–10 finish in ’14. That’s how a head coach who compiled a regular-season record of 142–120 at his previous stop enters his fifth season with the Rams at 27-36-1. That’s the kind of record that would get a lot of lesser-known coaches fired, but the franchise has displayed patience with Fisher through thick and thin.
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That may change if the Rams don’t see noticeable improvement in 2016, because so much else has changed for the team lately. The move back to Los Angeles, the franchise’s home from its inception through the 1994 season, makes the Rams a major player from a marketing and p.r. perspective. On top of that, they sent the Titans a king’s ransom of draft picks to move from No. 15 to No. 1 and select Cal quarterback Jared Goff, giving up their 2016 and 2017 first-round picks, two second-rounders in 2016 and a third-rounder in both 2016 and 2017.
It’s not unlike the deal the Rams made with the Redskins in Fisher’s first year in St. Louis, gaining extra first-rounders in 2013 and 2014 in return for the pick that turned into Robert Griffin III. The run of mediocrity that defined the franchise’s final years in St. Louis can be traced back to its inability to cash in on those extra picks—especially the high ones. The 2013 draft brought Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree in the first round, two super-athletes whose ultimate NFL value is still up for debate. The team hit on 50% of its first-round picks in 2014: Future Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald was a heist at No. 12, but No. 2 pick Greg Robinson has yielded mixed results after being taken with the intention of taking over at left tackle.
As one might expect from a Buddy Ryan acolyte, Fisher has put most of his stock on the defensive side of the ball. When the Rams signed former Patriots defensive lineman Dominique Easley on May 17, Easley became the eighth former first-round pick in the Rams’ rotational front seven, joining Ogletree, safety/linebacker Mark Barron and defensive linemen Donald, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Quinton Coples. Donald and Quinn are franchise players, and Brockers and Barron have had their moments. The Rams finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency metrics last season.
The offensive side of the ball has been Fisher’s fundamental problem throughout his Rams tenure, and it’s not something that can be fixed by the arrival of Goff alone. The offensive line is in flux, and the receiver corps is just as questionable as it has been throughout the last four seasons. Second-year running back Todd Gurley is the team’s only elite offensive weapon right now. Fisher believes in a power-based, mistake-proof offense, which is also typical of defensive-minded coaches, but unlike his divisional rival Pete Carroll, he has been unable to think outside the box enough and more closely align his offense with the modern NFL game. His offensive coordinators (Brian Schottenheimer, Rob Boras, Frank Cignetti) have installed schemes and concepts that did the team’s limited personnel no favors, and as a result Fisher’s Rams have never finished higher than 21st in points scored and 23rd in yards gained. Last year, with Boras and Cignetti calling the shots and Nick Foles at quarterback, they finished 29th in points and dead last in yards.
That will need to change if the Rams want to secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2004. They pushed their chips in with the Goff pick, the kind of move that usually indicates a franchise understands its limitations and is willing to get out of its comfort zone to overcome them.
Fisher, a son of Los Angeles, would love to make that happen in his hometown. He’s in the final season of a five-year, $35 million contract, and although there has been talk of a contract extension, the record will catch up to him sooner or later. The unspoken pressures are mounting all around him.