Greg Bishop’s, reporting from an intense Rams/Cowboys joint practice in Oxnard, Calif., says the St. Louis defensive line is among the best in the league, which leaves playoff hopes on the shoulders of new quarterback Nick Foles
Site: Oxnard, Calif.
What I saw: Tuesday, Aug. 18, 75 degrees and sunny, for an afternoon scrimmage between the Rams and the Cowboys. That and three brawls between two teams that are as sick of training camp as everybody in the NFL is at this point in the summer.
What I heard, post-fisticuffs: From a Rams’ employee, after both teams called an early end to the scrimmage: “That’s the worst one I’ve seen in 18 years.” From the former baseball manager Tommy Lasorda, to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett: “Sometimes, a team needs to get fired up.”
Three things you need to know about the Rams:
1. Nick Foles looks like more than a serviceable starter. He looks like he just might be the reason the Rams can make the playoffs. That’s why St. Louis with Philadelphia this offseason, sending Sam Bradford and his litany of injuries to the Eagles in exchange for Foles. By all accounts, Foles is healthy after a broken collarbone sidelined him for the second half of last season. To that end, the Rams have already inked Foles to a two-year extension before he's taken a single regular-season snap. On Tuesday he followed his worst throw (an interception by cornerback Tyler Patmon) with a touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook. Throughout the scrimmage, Foles looked comfortable in the West Coast scheme of offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who was previously the team’s quarterbacks’ coach. Where the Rams offense held the team back in recent seasons, perhaps Foles will give them enough to contend in the NFC West.
2. The Rams’ choice to spend two days practicing at a site an hour or so (or longer, depending on traffic) outside Los Angeles seemed to hit a little too close to home. Or, too close to their potential future home, anyway. Much of the offseason NFL chatter centered on one or two of three teams—the Rams, Raiders and Chargers—moving to L.A. Then the Rams showed up in Oxnard, and fans wore the throwback jerseys of the best Rams from their late L.A. period—Eric Dickerson, Henry Ellard. On Monday, Rams owner Stan Kroenke came to practice, as did a fathead poster of Kroenke that someone waved in the stands. Anyway, it all seemed to point to a future where the Rams don’t just train occasionally in this area, but play here, too.
3. For a team that last made the playoffs after the 2004 season—the longest drought in the NFC—the Rams showed on Tuesday that they’re willing to fight.
It got ugly. There were players fighting without helmets, players throwing other players on the ground and players running between practice fields once the teams were separated to start the skirmishes anew. At one point, one kerfuffle nearly spilled into the stands. You could see guard Brandon Washington mixing it up, along with running back Tre Mason and tackle Greg Robinson and Cook. At one point, Mason knocked the helmet off a Cowboy, and one of his teammates handed the helmet to a fan in the stands. Anyway, the Rams won’t dethrone the Seahawks without, well, without a fight. If this was a harbinger for the season that lies ahead, they’ll take it.
Five dot-dot-dot observations: Last season’s 6-10 record marked the 10th straight year that the Rams failed to a) make the playoffs or b) finish above .500. You can see there’s an urgency to end that streak (maybe a little too much urgency, or too much urgency to end practice, anyway) … The Rams are still expected to field a team among the youngest, if not the youngest, in the NFL. Their longest-tenured veteran is defensive end Chris Long, now in his eighth season … Speaking of, the St. Louis offensive line will feature a first-time starter at center—either Tim Barnes, Barrett Jones, or Demetrius Rhaney—and two draft picks on the right side in right tackle Rob Havenstein and right guard Jamon Brown … One player the Rams likely didn’t want to see headed toward the brawl was Todd Gurley, their first-round pick – their recovering-from-serious-injury first-round pick. He had his left knee wrapped in ice as the scrimmage neared its conclusion, then twice ran toward the fracas, not away from it. The Rams don’t expect Gurley to play this preseason, and they want to take the time to make sure he fully recovers … Keep an eye on Kenny Britt, who recorded 48 catches, 748 receiving yards and three touchdowns last season. He’s only 26.
What will determine success or failure for the Rams: Scoring enough points to win. It sounds simple, right? But the Rams scored fewer than 10 points in four games last season and fewer than 20 in half their contests, some of which they even won. With a defensive line that looks like one of the best in football, all they need is for Foles and the offense to be steady and score enough in order to, at minimum, contend.
The one name on the roster I'd forgotten about: Jeff Garcia, a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback now in his first season as an offensive assistant, after a stint in the CFL with Montreal. Garcia looks like he can still play, but maybe this season, with Foles, he won’t be needed.
Player I saw and really liked: Robinson. The second-year tackle out of Auburn shed roughly 15 pounds this offseason, according to his teammates. He also had surgery on a toe. Those factors combined to make him lighter and faster and more nimble, which is good for Foles and Gurley and Mason and an offense on the rise toward respectability.
The thing I'll remember about Oxnard: Seeing the Cowboys set up at a Residence Inn, which is part of the Marriott hotel chain and a favorite spot for journalists, not football players. No frills here. Just the kind of mini-apartments that lend themselves perfectly to the modest expense accounts for out-of-town writers—and a football team intent on marching toward the playoffs. The Rams, it should be noted, stayed nearby for the scrimmage—in a Four Seasons.
Gut feeling as I left camp: The Rams do not wrestle the NFC West away from the Seahawks. But they do make the playoffs as a Wild Card team behind a Top 5 defense.