It's been a long road for the NFL franchise that was once deemed "The Greatest Show On Turf." The last time the St. Louis Rams went to the playoffs, Ron Burgundy was sitting behind a news desk (2004).
In those seven years, the Rams have gone through four coaches, and the only real bright spot on the team has been Steven Jackson. But the stars are beginning to align in the "Lou" as new head coach Jeff Fisher brings his proven playoff formula to the Midwest.
The Fisher Formula: Running the Ball Plus Stopping the Run Equals Playoffs
Fisher's last five playoff teams finished in the top 10 at stopping the run and in rushing attempts. The name of the game for Fisher is ball control. Fisher likes to run the ball to control the clock and stop the run to force your opponent to throw the ball, limiting their ball control.
Fisher's formula relies on two things: 1) D-Line and 2) Running Back. Fisher has proven year in and year out that if you give him the talent to plug into his formula, he'll get the job done. Right now in St. Louis, Fisher has the variables that make up his highly consistent playoff equation.
Variable 1: Running the Ball
Make no mistake—Fisher wants to run the ball. Fisher hired Brian Schottenheimer as his offensive coordinator to implement his ball-controlled offense. There isn't a better match made in heaven than Schottenheimer and Fisher.
Will the St. Louis Rams make the playoffs next year?
Schottenheimer shares his head coach's enthusiasm for running the rock. In this century, only one other team has rushed the ball more times in a season than Schottenheimer's 2009 Jets (2004 Steelers). With Fisher, Schottenheimer and the offensive line wonder-coach Paul Boudreau, the Rams' think-tank is set.
Last year, the Rams offensive line gave up 55 sacks and was ranked last in protecting the quarterback. Boudreau has his work cut out for him, but he's got the talent to make this line mesh.
The Rams offensive line is made up of veteran free agents (Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells) mixed with recent high draft picks (Jason Smith, No. 2, 2009 and Roger Saffold, No. 33, 2010). The line is talented and finally experienced enough to open up holes for the running game.
Fisher has proven he can make the playoffs with premier backs—Eddie George and Chris Johnson—but doesn't necessarily need them. When Fisher made the playoffs in 2007, his offensive line carried Lendale White over the line.
All Fisher needs is someone who can hold onto the ball and run through the holes. Lucky for him, Steven Jackson can do that and more. Jackson is coming off his sixth straight thousand-yard season and shows no signs of letting up. Jackson's ability to work through injuries and produce will continue in 2012.
With backups Darryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead looking good in camp, Jackson feels optimistic about this year's team:
“I think we’re taking a step in the right direction. I believe Coach Fisher and what he’s brought to the team," Jackson said. "We had a huge turnout today and I think from what the fans saw, they saw a new type of team that is very aggressive, very confident in what we’re doing and looking for a change.”
Variable 2: Stopping the Run
Fisher got his start as an assistant to former Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Fisher learned from one of the best, and his dedication to defense can be seen throughout his career.
In 16 seasons of coaching, Fisher's defenses gave up an average of 100 rushing yards per game only five times. In St. Louis, Fisher takes over a team who ranked 31st in rushing defense—something that doesn't sit well with a defensive-minded coach.
The only good thing that came out of St. Louis being abysmal for seven years was stockpiling first-round draft picks, which they used mostly on their defensive line (Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, Chris Long).
Fisher glared at the Rams' defensive line output with disgust and took the first step in fixing it when he drafted LSU's defensive tackle Brockers 14th overall. Fisher will use Brockers' 6'5", 322-pound frame as a roadblock to attack the opponent's run game at the start.
Fisher added to his commitment to stopping the run when he gave Rams defensive end Chris Long a four-year extension. Long's in his fifth year and has increased his total number of sacks each year. Last year, Long had 13 sacks (fourth in the NFL) and 31 tackles. New contract, new coach will equal Long's best year yet, especially with help from another former first-round draft pick Quinn, who will be putting pressure on the other end.
Quinn, who was drafted 14th overall in 2010, is in his second year. In Quinn's rookie season, he had 23 tackles and five sacks—both better than Long's first year. Quinn has gotten into a little hot water lately, but his talent and potential have been a hot topic of conversation in training camp for Jeff Fisher.
“I am kind of just hoping that thing carries over in the games," Fisher said. "It kind of reminds me of a little bit—even though you’re going to think I’m crazy about the comparison—but a little bit about (Titans running back) Chris Johnson’s rookie year in training camp when you said, ‘Gosh, if this was a game do you think he’d score?’ And I am thinking, ‘Well if this is a game, he should have a few sacks by the time the game is over.’ He has really improved.”
With these three up front and a linebacking corps led by James Laurinatis, Fisher's new-look Rams will do better than 31st in stopping the run. The push up front will force opponents to throw the ball at a Rams pass defense that, last year, ranked seventh in the league even without newly acquired cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
This strong defensive variable will keep the ball out of the opponents' hands and into Fisher's ball-controlled offense.
All this adds up to a probable 2012 playoff appearance. Stay Classy, St. Louis.
Garrett Turner is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.