On Black New Year's Day, as 11 NFL teams try to figure out what to do with either their organization, GM, coach, coaching staffs -- or all of them -- I bring you my Smart Team of the Year: the St. Louis Rams.
I don't mean the best team of the year. I mean the team that, in the span of one year, did the most to turn itself around, and did it wisely, and used every resource it had available to get it done. And if the rebuilders of 2013 are smart, they'll study the lessons of the Rams of 2012.
First, to be fair, this bit of full disclosure: The COO of the Rams, Kevin Demoff, is the son of my representative, Marvin Demoff. The coach of the Rams, Jeff Fisher, is also represented by Marvin Demoff. So if you find all that to be a little too cozy for you-- and you don't believe I'll be fair or accurate is assessing what the Rams have done this year -- then feel free to skip this first column of the new year, or go straight to the next section of the column. I'll understand.
A little more than a year ago, Rams owner Stan Kroenke read a book by Boston-based author Michael Holley that I've recommended highly,
The first order of business was deciding whether to draft one of the franchise quarterbacks, Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, with the second overall pick. Sam Bradford was the incumbent in St. Louis, but he'd been injured two of the previous three seasons (one at Oklahoma, one in St. Louis), and Snead and Fisher had to study Bradford the person and Bradford the player to see if he was the right man. And they had to see if there'd be a strong market for the second pick in the draft. There was. When Fisher watched Bradford on tape, he knew he could make all the throws. He was comfortable with Bradford's medical reports, and he liked Bradford the person. And once the offers started coming in -- strong ones from Cleveland and Washington -- Fisher and Snead knew a trade would be a smart way to go.
Washington did the deal: first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and a second-round pick in 2012, to move up four spots in the first round. That gave Washington Griffin, as it turned out. And after two additional trades on draft day, with Dallas and Chicago, this is what the Rams got in the trade with Washington, as it stands now:
So, as it turns out, St. Louis moved down 12 spots in the first round in 2012 -- and got two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a fifth-round pick for the swap of ones. That's as it stands now. Snead and Kevin Demoff could pull off more deals with the extra ones in the next 16 months.
The hidden benefit of the deal is that St. Louis, with the current trade parameters in place, will have by 2014 a league-high 12 players, 23 percent of their 53-man roster, under the team-friendly control of the new rookie salary scale. That's two from 2011, four from '12, three from 2013 and three from 2014. In the flat-cap era the league will have in place for the next two years at least, the Rams are ahead of the game with getting good young players at manageable prices. Trading the second pick overall last year yielded, as of today, five of those salary-friendly high picks.
Now, none of this means anything if Bradford bombs. And the jury's still out on him. In his two full seasons quarterbacking the Rams, all his numbers are pedestrian, at best. He's been the 25th- and 18th-rated quarterback in football in 2010 and 2012, with a pedestrian 58.8 percent completion rate and a plus-11 touchdown-to-interception radio. All the excuses are there for him -- a struggling offensive line, all young and new receivers. But if doesn't make this offense soar in the next couple of years, he'll be forever known as the Rams' Sam Bowie to Michael Jordan, assuming Griffin keeps being the phenom he was in his first season. (Google that, youngsters, if you don't get it.)
You know most of the rest. Jenkins, shaky earlier and still a worry because of his off-field college rap sheet, was terrific for the last month of the season, and finished with four touchdowns, three on interception returns. Brockers' year was marred by a preseason ankle injury, but he looks like a keeper in the middle of a rising line. Pead was just a guy, and Watkins unimpactful. The Rams have more picks in the first two rounds of the next two drafts (six) than any team as it stands now. Kevin Demoff signed Chris Long and James Laurinaitis as long-term defensive leaders. Snead and Fisher got Cortland Finnegan to come in as the shutdown corner they lacked.
Fisher ran a tight ship. When he addressed all rookies before the season, he brought all of their family members to St. Louis to make sure not only the players but those close to them understood what his rules would be -- with the tacit message of
One play, to me, typified what Fisher instilled in this team. Late in the second quarter of the tie at San Francisco, the Rams had a 4th-and-4 at their 10-yard line. Special teams coach John Fassel, in studying the Niners punt-defense team, saw a consistent weakness he thought St. Louis could exploit. The 49ers">49ers sometimes left the gunner (the punt-pursuit man wide left or wide right of the formation) unblocked by sending the blocker on the gunner in to try to block the punt. How easy it would be, Fassel thought, to complete a pass to an uncovered gunner. He told Fisher about it. Fisher wanted to run a fake at some point in this game. When Fassel brought it to him, Fisher eschewed traditional wisdom about faking a punt from your own end zone. Go for it, he said -- if the Niners went for the punt block.
On this play, Niners cornerback Chris Culliver came off the gunner, safety Rodney McLeod, two seconds before the snap of the ball. Punter John Hekker saw it. Hekker faked the punt and threw the ball to McLeod. First down.
Hekker, undrafted rookie free agent. McLeod, undrafted rookie free agent. Hekker, with a pass 23 yards in the air from four yards deep in the end zone. McLeod, with the catch. Imagine having the faith in two kids off the street, in a game against the best team in the division, on the road. If this fails, Fisher is the laughingstock of the league, fake-punting from his own end zone. Unheard of.
But it didn't fail. Like most of the chance St. Louis took in 2012, it didn't fail.
I said I'd be writing about two of my favorite players from 2012, Blair Walsh and C.J. Spiller, today. If I can beg your indulgence, I'd rather give them a fuller airing in next Monday's column. Look for my thoughts on the two of them next Monday.
Now for your email:
HE DOESN'T LIKE MY "SHODDY'' HAIKU.
One: Coaches don't like to pick and choose who they sit, but I agree with you on Abraham. Two: You think you're going to the Haiku Hall of Fame with that?
YOU'RE MISSING SOMETHING, STEVE.
Did you see the announcement about the head of officials Carl Johnson moving back to the field in 2013? And have you heard the whispers that NFL VP Ray Anderson could soon be headed to an NFL front office? The league will say performance and the lockout had little to do with either move, but I believe, particularly if Anderson leaves, it will be a factor in both.
WHY, THANK YOU.
In that Patriots-Niners game, I can tell that interminable delay was not Hochuli's fault. I believe one of the officials on his crew called the play incorrectly at the start, calling a penalty on the incorrect team, and by the time the mess was straightened out, instead of marking off an incorrect call, Hochuli fixed the call and took the heat himself. Hochuli is a loyal referee. He would never out one of the officials on his crew for a mistake.
ALL GOOD POINTS, MIKE.
True, and probably unfair. Same thing happened all the time with Chuck Noll.
I AM SHORT-SIGHTED.
Same to you, Patrick. I haven't called it the greatest comeback in history, and I have even written that what Peterson has accomplished is on the same level as Wes Welker, who had the same injury two years ago, had the surgery five weeks later than Peterson did in 2011, and came back to play every game for the Patriots the next season. Sayers did have a great comeback that year, to be sure. I'm sure there are some by players at less marquee positions that rival his, and Peterson's. You're certainly right about the medical aspect of it. But one note: Sayers rushed for 73.7 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry in 1969. Peterson rushed for 131.1 yards per game and 6.0 per carry in 2012. I am sure the surgery on Sayers wasn't as sophisticated as the one on Peterson, but I'd say the two comebacks, looking at the results, are not so one-sided in Sayers' favor.