It was a muggy June morning, the second-to-last day of the Rams’ OTA. After talking football for 20 minutes in his office, head coach Jeff Fisher was easily diverted to a discussion of his fast-approaching vacay.
“Yeah, I’ll be in a drift boat in the river on Friday morning,” said the aptly named Fisher, with a smile. Asked which river, he seemed to revel in giving this comprehensive reply: “We’re basically on the Madison. But within an hour and a half of our cabin, we have the Beaverhead, the Big Hole, the Jefferson, the Ruby, the Blackfoot. We fish the Gallatin on foot.”
I was in town for an upcoming SI profile on Fisher, who has since gone off the grid, and could be locked in combat with some giant brown trout as you read this. On foot or in a drift boat, the Rams’ third-year head man will be better able to enjoy his down time knowing that his defense, disappointingly static and reactive last season, is no longer adrift.
What a difference a coordinator makes. Fisher, 56 years old and going into his 20th season as an NFL head man, has never been a screaming, Old Testament motivator. “He doesn’t have to be, to get the results he needs,” said veteran defensive end Chris Long. “I can probably count on one hand probably the number of times he’s raised his voice since I’ve known him.”
The same cannot be said of Gregg Williams, hired (again) as the Rams’ new DC last February. “You can hear him from blocks away,” said Fisher, who played then coached for Buddy Ryan, the irascible defensive visionary who was also a seminal influence on Williams. This is, technically, Williams’ second tour of duty with St. Louis, the first having lasted a mere month or so and coming to an effective end when the league suspended him indefinitely in March 2012, for his involvement in the Saints’ Bountygate scandal.
The Williams’ re-hire will almost certainly end a period of tumult and, well, drift for the Rams defense, which ranked 15th in yards allowed per game and 13th in points allowed -- uncharacteristic for a Fisher unit. First-year coordinator Tim Walton, who was roundly criticized -- sometimes by his own players -- for, among other things, soft coverages that led to the Rams allowing a worst-in-the-league 68.1 percent completion percentage.
Of course, Fisher wouldn’t have needed to rush Walton into service if he hadn’t been stiffed by Rob Ryan, whose surprise resignation last January -- immediately followed, reportedly, by a bout of emotional eating -- left St. Louis in the lurch.
Expect the 2014 Rams defense to be as ornery, pro-active and ravenous as Ryan. “This Coach Williams’ defense, and everybody knows he likes to bring heat,” said Long. “He’s aggressive and fits the mold of what we want to be, and the identify we have to assume if we want to challenge for the NFC West.”
It’s kind of a bear to master. That’s the impression I got from linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis, who said of Williams, “He brings an accountability, an expectation. It’s kind of a competition within the group. It’s borderline uncomfortable like, you want to get better so much because you know that if you don’t, he’s gonna notice. Because he’s so dang smart.”
Williams’ creative, multi-various fronts and blitzes are expected to be an optimal pairing with the Rams, who boast probably the NFL’s deepest, most talented corps of defensive linemen. Bookending Long at end is the sensational Robert Quinn, aka Black Lightning, who finished last season with 19 sacks -- 2nd in the NFL -- and seven forced fumbles.
Additional mayhem will be wrought from inside: defensive tackles Kendall Langford and future Pro Bowler Michael Brockers can be spelled by superb backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims, with little drop-off in disruption. Throughout the spring, excitement built around rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald, plucked from Pittsburgh with the draft’s 13th overall pick.
Yet Donald’s national profile is far lower than that of a fellow defensive line-mate who was drafted much lower. Michael Sam’s 7th-round selection by the Rams could prove to be a two-edged sword. This is a progressive, open-minded organization with uncommonly strong bonds between teammates and coaches. As such, it was an ideal landing spot for the pioneering Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player.
St. Louis also happens to be a team with an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. To hear the carefully qualified statements of teammates and coaches at the end of OTAs was to conclude that the gifted, undersized Sam is right on the bubble.
“Mike has NFL ability,” declared Fisher. “He’s gonna play in the league. Whether it’s here, I can’t say right now, because of our depth at position.”
“I’m working with Mike a lot,” added Chris Long, who plays Sam’s position. “He’s ready to learn. Being a rookie, it’s like a shock to you. You go from the top of the food chain to the bottom. Mike’s adjusted well. The best way to do that is to work hard, be unassuming and ask questions.”
This much is beyond question: the Rams defense will make major strides this season, with or without Sam.