It's been a tough stay in St. Louis so far, but Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis (left) and quarterback Sam Bradford will look for more reasons to smile this season.
No one expects him to lead the last-place Rams back to the Super Bowl during his first season in St. Louis. This year's team doesn't hold many similarities to the one that went worst to first over a decade ago.
But Fisher and the Rams do appear to be on the upswing.
There may be no sense in comparing the 2012 Rams to the team's 1999 version, but there are few similarities to the 2011 version as well. Jim Thomas notes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the roster was blown up like none other" compared the previous 17 offseasons in St. Louis.
In addition to the new coach and new players, Thomas' article also notes the installation of new offensive and defensive schemes.
Change is the main reason for optimism in St. Louis. Let's take a look at all of those changes and why they position the Rams for a big turnaround.
Jeff Fisher will oversee all the changes that need to happen for the Rams to contend.
Any time a team changes head coaches, it changes the team culture.
For the St. Louis Cardinals, swapping Tony LaRussa for Mike Matheny just meant the culture was different—not necessarily better or worse. For the Rams, Fisher's presence comes as a significant improvement.
The official site of the St. Louis Rams quotes Fisher giving insight to the team's new winning attitude.
“No, not hungry to win, they expect to win. Everybody does. The past is the past but we are looking forward with that expectation to win football games.”
Fisher isn't alone either. He put together a veteran coaching staff highlighted by Dave McGinnis, Brian Schottenheimer, Adam Bailey, Paul Boudreau Sr., Chuck Cecil, Ray Sherman and Mike Waufle. A seasoned veteran himself, Fisher did not make the same mistake as first-timer Steve Spagnuolo. The former Rams skipper surrounded himself with many young assistants and first-time coordinators.
Returning to winning ways in St. Louis needed to start at the top. Fisher and his impressive staff represent that necessary change.
Pro Bowler Scott Wells joins the Rams and offers much needed help up the middle.
Today's fantasy football obsessed world often overlooks the most important part of winning real-life football games: the big boys up front. Linemen won't light up your stat sheet, but the Rams found out the hard way how hard it is to win without a solid unit leading the way.
Former Green Bay Packer Pro Bowler Scott Wells may be the most important player added to St. Louis' roster this offseason. The Rams spared no expense on their prized free agent, who Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch considered one of the better centers in the NFL and the best player available at his position.
The investment was well worth it.
"There was really a feeling that Bradford was ready to take the big next step. They were going to put the whole playbook in his hands and saddle him up, give him all the protections at the line of scrimmage, bring in Josh McDaniels and turn him into Tom Brady. That was the level of excitement that they had. Now they’ve gone almost totally counter to that where they’ve taken things off of Bradford’s plate. Scott Wells, the veteran center, he is going to handle the protections. So that is not going to be something that Bradford has to worry about."
Ryan Van Bibber writes for Turf Show Times that new Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau will improve the entire unit based on how he coached the Atlanta Falcons line. The presence of Wells allows Boudreau to employ a similar scheme in which uncovered guards are coached to help out towards the tackles as opposed to inside towards the center. Bibber expects that pushing unoccupied guards outside will help Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, both of whom struggled last season.
Current Rams guard Harvey Dahl thrived in Atlanta under Boudreau before he was acquired by St. Louis last season. Bibber identifies him as the team's top blocker and expects him to be ever better back in Boudreau's system, which "seems to emphasize nastiness from the guards."
Last year's injuries created a revolving door on the Rams offensive line. As new players shuffled in and out, so did opposing defenses. Better health in 2012 will help the starters work more effectively as a single unit.
Rams fans, say hello to the team's "biggest" addition: Michael Brockers.
Michael Brockers comes to St. Louis as the fourth defensive lineman the team has drafted with its first pick in the last six years.
Adam Carriker (2007) is no longer with the Rams but Chris Long (2008) joined elite company last year when he finished with 13 sacks for a two-win team. Robert Quinn (2011) is still a work in progress, but the Rams expect him to step up in a big way this year.
With Langford playing alongside three No. 1 draft picks, Turf Show Times believes the Rams "are poised to have one of the best defensive lines in professional football."
"We've got two young ends," Snead told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, referring to Long and Quinn. "We've added Langford. We've got Darell Scott coming back. Bam! You throw in Brockers, and all of a sudden that unit gets strong. Now the DL becomes a dominant unit."
Jeff Fisher and the Rams war room celebrated when they got their man, Brockers. Rams fans should be pretty excited too.
Cortland Finnegan headlines a revamped Rams secondary.
St. Louis' secondary is the team's most restructured unit heading into 2012.
Even though the Rams ranked seventh in pass defense last year, everyone knows it was a complete mess back there. The main problem was that St. Louis lost 10 cornerbacks to injury.
Fletcher was the No. 66 overall draft pick in 2009 and Murphy was the No. 65 overall pick in 2010. Fletcher started at cornerback for the Rams in the first four games of 2011 before tearing the ACL in his right knee for the second time in three years. Murphy was one of the leading contenders for the nickel back job last offseason before needing surgery to repair an ankle injury.
But while those players may be back, their starting jobs are not. That's because the Rams significantly upgraded their secondary this offseason.
David Heeb writes for Bleacher Report that prized free agent Cortland Finnegan "will immediately transform the Rams' defense" as "the most physical corner in the NFL." His presence finally gives the Rams a true shutdown corner to match up against No. 1 wideouts.
Fisher told Todd Ackerman of KMOX that he expects Jenkins to start opposite of Finnegan. Johnson and Fletcher provide supreme depth behind the and can also play in expanded coverages.
The youth of this group may be exposed at times. Their high learning curve, however, comes with even higher upside.
St. Louis' secondary is certainly the NFL's most improved unit. The talented group brings the potential to rise into the league's elite.
Isaiah Pead will start out as a change-of-pace RB behind Steven Jackson but could become the featured back in the future.
Don't mistake Isaiah Pead as exclusively a third-down running back.
That may be how he fits into the Rams' backfield now. It's doubtful he will split carries evenly with Steven Jackson, much less take over the bulk of the workload.
But St. Louis didn't spend the No. 50 overall pick on a scat back.
According to NBC, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on SportsCenter that Pead is viewed as the “successor” to the aging Rams starter.
For now, Pead will help keep Jackon fresh while standing in as a reliable backup if circumstances force him into more work. That isn't out of the question considering Jackson's injury history and high usage.
Jeff Fisher's resume features a long history of strong ground games. NFL fans should be quite familiar with the likes of Eddie George and Chris Johnson. He wants that tradition to continue in St. Louis.
Opposing defenses now need to account for more than one Ram running back. Sam Bradford certainly won't mind.
Brian Quick can make a fast impact as a Ram.
Their west-coast offense utilizes the skills of these underneath route runners. But the team was still desperate for a dynamic athlete that could stretch the field and at least keep defenses honest, if not at risk. Sam Bradford needed a true No. 1 target.
Sam, meet Brian Quick.
Greg Cosell from NFL Films notes that Quick is bigger and more athletic than Justin Blackmon. He thinks Quick has a chance to be the best wide receiver in his draft class. If you're worried about his small-school pedigree, Cosell dispels that myth too.
"Extremely fast," Bradford said of Givens, according to ESPN's Mike Sando. "He's a guy that defenses are going to have to be extremely aware of. If they fall asleep on him for a half second at all, he’s going to be by them. That's nice to have, just that added speed."
And don't forget about Danario Alexander, who is already making noise this offseason. If he can stay healthy—a major issue for him in the past—he too offers over-the-top speed that can stretch the field and must be accounted for by defenses. Like Givens, his skill set perfectly complements Quick.
If Alexander or Givens lines up opposite of Quick, defense will face the tough task of covering a deadly combination of speed and athleticism.
Sam Bradford is the primary beneficiary of all the positive changes in St. Louis.
Jeff Fisher, Scott Wells, Isaiah Pead and Brain Quick all add up to one happy Sam Bradford.
Fisher provides the leadership the young quarterback needs. Wells takes over responsibility of protections. Pead helps the ground game take pressure off the air attack. Quick gives him a true No. 1 target.
On top of all of that, Bradford will finally receive personal instruction from a quarterback coach. Josh McDaniels performed those duties as a side job when he was offensive coordinator. Now Frank Cignetti can give Bradford his full attention.
"I've said all along, I think Cig's great, especially for the fundamentals of playing the position," Bradford said according to Ryan Van Bibber of the Turf Show Times. "Every day he comes to me with an emphasis of the day, whether it's pass game-footwork, run game-footwork, play action fakes, boots, off the run game. And just to have someone who's constantly reminding to do the little things is very helpful as a quarterback."
All of those pieces are important to a team. In a quarterback-driven league, their biggest value lies in how they impact Bradford. The Rams need their former No. 1 overall draft pick to excel if they want to see success as a whole.
Bradford quickly flashed his NFL potential in 2010 when he won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He did that on a much less talented team under an inexperienced head coach.
Last season looks like a sophomore slump. Statistically speaking, it was exactly that. Like most of his team, however, Bradford's season was plagued by injuries. He was never healthy enough to find that same rhythm from his rookie year.
Being thrust into a completely new system with no offseason didn't help either.
"If he can stay healthy" seems to be a baseline disclaimer with nearly every player on the Rams roster. Last year was absolutely brutal for St. Louis health wise and it made for a brutal final product as well.
How the Rams hold up in 2012 will reveal if this team was unlucky or injury prone.
Better fortune will allow a young but talented squad to develop into a contender. Its upside is even higher than that.