The Rams left St. Louis this summer for Wisconsin, setting up camp at Concordia University in Mequon, a small Lutheran school where the players' dorm sits about 100 yards away from massive Lake Michigan. The weather has been spectacular, with one practice lost to lightning, but most others taking place under sunny skies with no humidity.
There were three days of practice in steamy Nashville, two against the Titans, and Wednesday marks the final practice in Mequon as the team heads home Thursday. To a man, the organization is pleased with how well things went for a first-time effort. Wide receiver Dane Looker said, "The people have almost been too nice." In a state that is Packers crazy, attendance averaged about 500 per session, with a crowd of over 2,000 for an Aug. 2 scrimmage.
1. The Holdout. The Rams were caught off-guard when running back Steven Jackson failed to report for training camp. The club approached Jackson and then-agent Gary Uberstine after the season and said they wanted to do a new deal, since Jackson is scheduled to be paid $1.708 million in the final year of his contract. Uberstine subsequently dropped Jackson as a client in the spring, and Jackson didn't hire Eugene Parker until June. Parker is Jackson's fourth agent since he was a first-round pick in 2004.
The night before the first practice of camp, the Rams offered Jackson a deal worth between $7 million and $7.5 million a year, with guaranteed money totaling around $18 million. Parker rejected the offer the next day and said Jackson wouldn't report to camp. Rams president of football operations/general manager Jay Zygmunt responded by saying there would be no more talks until Jackson reported. There have been no discussions since then, and now the buzz in the agent community is Jackson is interviewing agents for another potential change.
2. Incognito vs. Romberg. Last summer, center Brett Romberg battled Andy McCollum for the starting job and won, but then missed seven games because of ankle injuries. McCollum wasn't re-signed and recently went to Detroit, while Romberg entered camp competing with Richie Incognito for the starting spot. That supposed competition was created when Mark Setterstrom was moved to right guard (where Incognito played last season) for the final two weeks of OTAs. However, Setterstrom injured his knee early in camp, and Incognito moved back to guard. Romberg has been hampered by a broken bone in his snapping hand, creating opportunity for Nick Leckey. Still, it appears Romberg and Incognito will open the season as the starters at center and right guard, respectively.
3. Pacing himself. Left tackle Orlando Pace has played just nine total games the past two seasons, and was lost for the year in the second quarter of the 2007 opener with a torn labrum. The air went out of the Rams' balloon when Pace departed, and the Rams ended up starting 13 linemen at 18 positions last season.
Pace was cleared to practice at the start of camp, although he was brought along very slowly, not participating in one-on-one drills and taking limited snaps in team segments of practice. He did start in the preseason opener Saturday against Tennessee, and was beaten cleanly on an outside move by defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Acknowledging he was "rusty," Pace said it was time to pick up the pace in order to be prepared to play an entire game in less than a month.
The standard on offense was raised with the addition of offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who was the team's receivers coach when the Rams went to the Super Bowl in 1999. Saunders came to St. Louis that season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz after the Rams were 4-12 the year before. Trent Green was signed to be the quarterback that season, but he was injured and lost for the year in the preseason, making way for the Kurt Warner story.
Green also returns this year as the backup to Marc Bulger. Saunders' offense is similar to Martz's, but it's noteworthy that head coach Scott Linehan was hired in 2006 for his offensive prowess, but has now ceded control to Saunders. The first-team offense played with good tempo and rhythm in the first two weeks of camp, but then went without a touchdown against Tennessee, the ninth straight time that has happened under Linehan in preseason games. The starters are expected to play close to, if not all of the first half Saturday night at home against San Diego.
The Rams might be fortunate to finish 8-8, as a worse result is possible considering the first seven games of the season. Both Super Bowl teams will be played in that stretch, in addition to three other '07 playoff teams. The seven opponents -- at Philadelphia, N.Y. Giants, at Seattle, Buffalo, at Washington, Dallas, at New England -- combined for a 73-39 regular-season record last season. Only one team was under .500, Buffalo at 7-9. After the Patriots, the Rams play Arizona at home, and suddenly the first game of the season's second half looks more formidable than before: on the road against the Brett Favre-led Jets. The Rams "started" 0-8 last season, and somehow Linehan has to keep something similar from happening again.
There are only four players left from 1999 (Pace, Green, wide receiver Torry Holt and defensive end Leonard Little), but there were hugs all around for them and much of the support staff when then-coach Dick Vermeil arrived in camp this past Sunday at the invitation of Linehan.
Vermeil, who doesn't wear his Super Bowl ring much anymore, displayed it proudly. He attended practices Monday and Tuesday and spoke to the team Monday night.
"You look at it, it's a great symbol of so many wonderful things that happen," Vermeil said of the ring. "I wanted the kids here to see that the Rams -- there're people in this building -- that know how to do it. They've already done it."
In his talk, which numerous players described as inspirational, Vermeil spoke about overcoming adversity, playing as a team and taking advantage of opportunities.
Said Linehan, "As you would expect, it was a passionate talk. That's what you're always going to get every time with Dick. He knew the hot buttons to push about coming off a tough season, but being ready to make your own magic. I welcome him back any time."
• The Rams' numbers were so low in the secondary because of injuries that international practice squad player Sebastian Sejean played against the Titans and worked some in practice with the second unit, while wide receiver Derek Stanley worked at cornerback Tuesday.
• In the absence of Jackson, Antonio Pittman, Brian Leonard and Travis Minor have been solid, but they sure won't force any teams to play eight in the box. Many are hoping spunky undrafted free agent Lance Ball gets a good look in the preseason games.
• Leonard Little will be 34 in October, but he looks as quick as ever after toe surgery last season. Little had 13 sacks in 2006, but only one last season.
• Each year it seems, coaches try to replace wide receiver Dane Looker, and each year he earns a job. This year looks no different. The 32-year-old Looker catches everything in sight and knows every receiver position. He had a nifty 47-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Brock Berlin against Tennessee that led to the team's only touchdown of the game.
• Speaking of Berlin, he has a leg up on Bruce Gradkowski for the No. 3 job behind Bulger and Green. He was poised and efficient Saturday night, and led a drive at the end of the first half that resulted in a field goal. It hurt Gradkowski that he wasn't released by Tampa Bay until early June, and had only one week of OTAs with Saunders' offense.