One year ago, Jeff Fisher spent his 53rd birthday snowboarding in Montana. After a stalwart stint on the Tennessee sideline, Fisher was no longer the Titans head coach, freeing him from the responsibilities of a typical February.
His 54th birthday last Friday, however, was back to his norm. The new Rams coach spent it in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, balancing a non-stop schedule of meetings with Rams staff members, interviews with coaching staff candidates, trade talks with teams seeking the Rams' coveted No. 2 overall pick and -- oh yeah -- combine workouts to watch and interviews with 18 draft prospects that evening.
"I've been at the Combine on my birthday in 25 of the last 26 years," Fisher told me when I caught up with him in Indianapolis last weekend. "I enjoyed my year off and the opportunity to do some things I couldn't do while coaching -- watch my son Trent play football as a redshirt freshman at Auburn, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro last May with the Wounded Warriors, play some golf and do a lot of fishing in the summer and fall in Montana. But now I'm really excited about the Rams and our future. There's a hundred things going on at once and I have to prioritize to get things done."
Fisher stayed connected to the NFL during his year off, serving as a non-voting member of the NFL Competition Committee (he was previously co-chairman and has now officially rejoined the group) and a consultant to the NFL's Football Operations and Officiating departments. In the meantime, he declined network TV offers, knowing all along that he would return to coaching in 2012.
Now that he has, it's been a whirlwind few months. Here's an inside look at what it's like to first take over an NFL team.
During Thanksgiving week last year, Fisher began to look seriously at six teams that he thought may make a coaching change, despite it all being "a lot of rumors at that point." He spoke regularly with agent Marvin Demoff and started to research the teams. He put his findings together in a book that included his roster evaluations, team needs and a look at the organizational structure -- what the ownership and front office staff looked like.
In December, Fisher kept his ear to the rumor mill and narrowed his list to three or four teams. Conversations began between teams and Demoff, but Fisher wouldn't speak with any team that had not yet fired their head coach. One team that had fired its coach already, the Dolphins, engaged Fisher in "numerous conversations" in the last week of December.
"As the regular season ended, I narrowed my list to two -- Miami and St. Louis."
On January 2, the day the Rams fired Steve Spagnuolo, Fisher spoke with both teams, first with the Dolphins' contingent of owner Stephen Ross, GM Jeff Ireland and consultant Carl Peterson, then with Rams executive vice president of football operations/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, also the son of Fisher's agent Marvin ("that was not an issue, we were objective"). Meanwhile, Fisher worked on his list of potential coaches to compile a staff once he was hired.
The next day brought a flight to Palm Beach, Florida."I met with Stephen, Jeff and Carl and then we had dinner. The next day we had a breakfast meeting, I visited the Dolphins facility and had a final lunch before I flew back to Nashville. There were no offers yet. I just wanted to get comfortable with the team." Fisher met with Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Demoff a few days later, first in Denver and then at the team facility, where he got a chance to meet Sam Bradford ("I was very impressed with him").
With his destination narrowed to the two teams and initial meetings with both done, Fisher and Demoff sent "a non-economic issues wish list" to both teams, addressing the set-up of the organization, Fisher's personnel role and support for the coaches. Miami responded first, kickstarting serious negotiations, with the Rams following.
After two days, Fisher had made up his mind. He would coach the Rams.
Both teams were informed, and a day later Fisher was announced as the Rams' new coach. Fisher did not want to give specific reasons for his decision, other than to say he had a good comfort level with "the opportunity to win." That didn't stop speculation regarding the reasons Fisher chose St. Louis. It was reported that he preferred Kroenke as his owner and wanted a say in personnel decisions, which the Rams were more open to. It also didn't hurt that the Rams had three very valuable assets -- a potential franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft available to deal to the highest bidder, and approximately $25 million in salary cap room going into free agency and that number could grow with some player cuts before March 13.
Now it's time to put together a staff, starting with offensive coordinator. Though he had a few candidates in mind, there was one who stood out to Fisher.
"I'm literally driving down Hillsboro Road in Nashville and I call Brian (Schottenheimer) to set up a meeting to talk about the offensive coordinator position. I had no idea he was in Nashville at that moment. He had moved his family there and lived off Hillsboro Road so I was driving by his development as we spoke. So we had dinner that night and talked further the next day."
Gregg Williams -- a good friend of Fisher's -- was soon after added as defensive coordinator, coming from the Saints, and over the next few days the staff started coming together.
"I was really on the move during (the first week of February). On the 1st, I had been in Nashville identifying things in my house that I wanted to move and drove to St. Louis that day as Kevin and I were doing GM interviews and I was still interviewing coaches. On the 2nd, I drove from St. Louis to Indianapolis to do media interviews at the Super Bowl. On the 3rd, I drove from Indy to Nashville to continue to get stuff in order and see family. On the 5th -- the morning of Super Bowl Sunday -- Brian Schottenheimer and I interviewed a coaching candidate in Nashville. Then the next day I drove back to St. Louis."
Those GM and coaching interviews spilled into the next week. Eventually Les Snead is hired as the team's GM, but there are still coaches to hire. If that isn't enough, pre-Combine draft meetings were beginning to get underway. And lest we forget that NFL coaches and players are real people, Fisher also had to deal with finding a place to live in St. Louis, which he did in mid-February, and getting settled there. Realizing that he wouldn't have enough time to search for a more permanent home, Fisher found a townhouse to occupy until he has more time in mid-June, when he'll again go househunting and deal with relocating.
Late February brought a flurry of activity for Fisher. With still two spots remaining on his staff, Fisher had to set up the last of his coaching interviews while participating in NFL Competition Committee meetings all day -- and some evenings -- for three days, and meeting Snead and Demoff in Indianapolis about everything going on with the team. Meanwhile, February 24 brought the start of the combine -- a 24/7 football existence -- meaning Fisher had to balance all of the prior responsibilities with watching workouts, personnel meetings, interviews, trade talks and media sessions.
Now that the Combine is behind him, Fisher is focused on free agency (the Rams have 20 unrestricted free agents, including wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, and several restricted free agents) and the draft. He'll be heavily involved in trade discussions for the No. 2 pick, and he knows full well that this could be a franchise-changing move.
Fisher also wants to set his schedule for minicamps and OTAs. Under the new CBA, the number of OTA days was reduced from 16 to 10, and player participation in the offseason (including the conditioning program) cannot begin until April 2. "I've met a lot of our players but we can't sit down and talk football now, and most of our players want to get started."
Fisher's hectic March schedule includes Competition Committee meetings from March 3 to 9 and league meetings during the last week of the month. He'll be attending pro days for draft prospects and meeting with potential draftees that the Rams bring in for visits in April. NFL free agency begins on March 13 and Fisher says the Rams will be "active." He knows that with the exception of starting quarterback (Bradford), middle linebacker (James Laurinaitis), starting running back (Steven Jackson), safety (Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart) and perhaps defensive end (Chris Long and Robert Quinn), the Rams have needs everywhere. He also knows that the Rams have some good players who were on injured reserve last season and will return (such as cornerback Bradley Fletcher and wide receiver Danny Amendola).
To help the coach deal with keeping track of all the names and stats? Fisher carries an iPad loaded with profiles and video of Rams players, free agents and college players. "Today's technology is amazing. I've got all this with me whenever I want to review it."
Despite the Rams winning a total of 10 games over the past three seasons, Fisher has an optimistic outlook."We must have a plan in place and be mindful of avoiding mistakes. We can't go crazy in the free agent market. It's going to take some time but this is a good football team that was a game away from the playoffs in 2010 and was decimated with injuries last season. Our expectation is to win games and be a consistent playoff team year after year and that increases the odds to win a championship."
In regard to his whirlwind schedule, Fisher can see a light at the end of the tunnel. When the off season program and OTAs end in mid-June, he'll finally be able to catch up on his sleep, resume a normal workout routine that is important to him (he completed the Music City Marathon in 2002) and head to his second home in Montana for family time and fishing before training camp and the new season.
"It's real mind-boggling what I've gone through with the non-stop past couple of months. But you multi-task and push forward. It can be overwhelming if you let it. The most difficult thing is following up and getting back to the phone calls, emails and texts ... all the people expressing interest and waiting to hear from me. You continue the process -- some of the coaches you want fall through so you go find a better guy. You just have to know that at the end of the day, it will all get done."