The Contender

The losingest five-year stretch in NFL history can't dissuade Jeff Fisher that the Rams don't belong in the title debate
August 06, 2012

Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of necessary oxygen, causing those afflicted to lose their senses. It is fairly common in anyone who has scaled an especially high peak. That perhaps is the only plausible explanation for Jeff Fisher's refusal to rule out a Rams title run in ... 2012. "Since I took this job, nobody has told me that I can't win a championship this year," says the first-year St. Louis coach, who climbed to the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro last year during his break from the NFL. Oxygen, please.

Then again....

This is, after all, the NFC West, where the strangest things have been known to happen. Four years ago the Cardinals were considered by some to be the worst playoff qualifier in league history, yet they came within 35 seconds of winning the Super Bowl. Two years ago the Seahawks knocked off the defending Super Bowl--champion Saints a week after becoming the first club to reach the postseason with a losing (7--9) record. And in 2011, despite having a first-year coach and no off-season contact with players because of the lockout, the 49ers finished 13--3 and were an overtime loss from reaching the Super Bowl—just one year after finishing 6--10 and nine seasons removed from their last winning season.

So, perhaps Fisher knows something no one else does. For now, the Rams—who last cracked .500 in 2003—are most noteworthy for their status as the front-runner to relocate to Los Angeles, from whence they came in 1994 after nearly five decades in Southern California. Fisher's players, who speak of him with Lombardi-like descriptives, seem to think their new coach can pull it off. The 54-year-old Fisher guided Houston-Tennessee to a 141--115 record, four division titles and one Super Bowl appearance in a little more than 16 seasons before stepping down after 2010. He sat out all of last year to reconnect with his family and undertake such projects as hiking Kilimanjaro for the Wounded Warrior Project, which aids and honors military personnel. But from the moment he walked away, he knew he would return a year later.

Based on the Rams' recent history, the common belief is that Fisher's second stint as a head coach will be even more challenging than his first, which included a franchise move from Houston to Nashville, with a one-year layover in Memphis. It's a ridiculous assumption for many reasons. Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick in 2010, has the arm strength, intelligence and moxie to develop into an elite quarterback; the defense has the personnel to be better than average; and Steven Jackson is a workhorse back who has run for at least 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons. Not to be overlooked is Fisher, who has had only five losing seasons.

"Everyone in our locker room immediately respected him because of what he had done in Tennessee," says Bradford. "He walked in Day One, and everyone was like, He's the man. We're following him."

The Rams' roster was turned upside down in the off-season, but that doesn't mean it was bereft of talent. Former coach Steve Spagnuolo and ex--G.M. Billy Devaney, both fired after last season, drafted Bradford, defensive end Chris Long, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive end Robert Quinn and offensive tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, the group that forms Fisher's nucleus.

Fisher and first-year G.M. Les Snead have fortified that core with cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who played six seasons for Fisher in Tennessee; projected rookie starters Michael Brockers (defensive end) and Janoris Jenkins (cornerback); and free-agent wideout Steve Smith.

"We know the history here, but we deleted it and hit the reset button, and here we go," Fisher says. "This is a real young team, too, but in some ways that's an advantage. You have to learn how to win before you can win, and you have to make sure that you don't ever allow that Oh, here we go again thing to come in. But we have so many young players who want to win. And like I said, nobody has told me we can't win a championship this year."

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COACHING CHANGES IN 2012

BUCS: Greg Schiano (replaces Raheem Morris)

CHIEFS: Romeo Crennel (Todd Haley)

COLTS: Chuck Pagano (Jim Caldwell)

DOLPHINS: Joe Philbin (Tony Sparano)

JAGUARS: Mike Mularkey (Mel Tucker)

RAIDERS: Dennis Allen (Hue Jackson)

RAMS: Jeff Fisher (Steve Spagnuolo)

SAINTS: Joe Vitt (Sean Payton*)

*Suspended for the season

Burning Questions

From quarterback controversies to replacement officials, five story lines to watch as preseason games begin

1 How long will it take Peyton Manning to become one with his wideouts in Denver?

Manning had great timing with his receivers in Indy, but his new corps includes Demaryius Thomas, a big downfield threat not known for running precise routes. The Broncos' talented backs will help: If defenses are forced to play a safety in the box to counter the ground threat, it could create more one-on-one matchups on the outside, which means a larger window to throw in to.

2 Will the Mark Sanchez--Tim Tebow coverage become a distraction for the Jets?

Sanchez (6) will always look better than Tebow in practices, but what happens if Tebow performs well in preseason games? The New York media have never met a controversy they didn't like—or one they couldn't manufacture—and this one already is dominating back pages.

3 What will the 49ers get from Randy Moss?

The big-play wideout is returning after a one-year retirement that was preceded by the worst season of his career. The Niners are already a front-runner to reach the Super Bowl because of their elite defense and special teams. The running game will become even more dangerous if opponents have to keep a safety deep in coverage to account for Moss.

4 Who will win the starting QB jobs in Arizona, Seattle, Miami and Jacksonville?

Will it be Kevin Kolb or John Skelton in Arizona? Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson in Seattle? Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne in Jacksonville? David Garrard, Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill in Miami? Rookie first-round pick Tannehill (left) was slated to be the No. 3, but he was better than expected early on and could make things interesting with a strong preseason.

5 How will replacement officials fare during the preseason?

The game is tough enough to call with established officials, and privately, some coaches and players are expecting the worst if the league follows through on its threat to use replacements if it can't come to terms on a new contract with officials by this weekend. The preseason kicks off Sunday with the Hall of Fame game between the Cardinals and the Saints.

PHOTOPhotograph by JEFF CURRY/US PRESSWIREWHAT'S HOLDING THEM BACK? St. Louis and fullback Ovie Mughelli have the offensive weapons to make some gains in 2012. Stranger things have happened in the NFC West. PHOTOTIM UMPHREYHIGH HOPES Fisher scaled Kilimanjaro last year; he's aiming for loftier heights in 2012. PHOTOJACK DEMPSEY/AP PHOTOLEON T. SWITZER/ICON SMI PHOTOED SZCZEPANSKI/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOTERRY RENNA/AP PHOTOMARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP PHOTOTIM UMPHREY (CRENNEL)
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