The grab bag of life situations that resemble what's happening with the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator position is brimming with your standard tales of rejection, then shame.
There’s the lonely feeling in the corner at a high school dance. In this version of the common teen movie scene, the camera slowly pushes back from our subject to reveal the entire gymnasium, and “Lightning Crashes” vocalizes the sadness.
Or if you prefer, we can go with the also familiar tale of being the last kid picked for a recess game of absolutely anything. Playing that role this time is Frank Cignetti, the Rams’ new offensive coordinator.
Although an official announcement won’t be made until next week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport reported Thursday night that after an exhaustive offensive coordinator search filled with crushing failure, St. Louis has settled for promoting its quarterbacks coach:
If shrugs could make a sound you would be hearing it now.
The problem here isn’t that Cignetti will certainly be horrible in his new role. No, the difficulty lies with the complete unknown for a team and an offense that desperately needs stability.
Cignetti has collegiate coordinator experience after holding down that position at six stops, most notably his four seasons at Fresno State. But this is his first time scheming any X’s against O’s in the NFL.
Inexperience always comes with some concern and hesitancy, but that alone isn’t a death blow. Every coordinator was also a first-time coordinator at some point, which is a basic statement about any job ever. The difference here is that two transitions are now happening simultaneously: a professional one for Cignetti and an offensive personnel one for the Rams.
Upon further examination, the nature of St. Louis’ need for a course correction doesn’t jive well with Cignetti’s lack of any pro-level experience whatsoever.
The Rams have most of the pieces in place to be a playoff team in 2015 or at least a serious contender in the always treacherous NFC West. The hole in their puzzle is rather important: They need a quarterback.
Sam Bradford has been mediocre at best when healthy, and staying in one working piece is still quite the challenge. He's torn the same ACL in back-to-back seasons, and that combined with his uninspiring career production (6.3 yards per attempt and a completion percentage of 58.6) made head coach Jeff Fisher come to an obvious conclusion once the 2014 season ended:
Cignetti’s success in his new position is tied to the pieces he’s given, and the offensive foundation always starts with the quarterback. Which is exactly why the Rams pursued anyone but Cignetti.
Fisher surely recognized that a more seasoned coordinator is ideal because of Bradford’s shaky history both in terms of his health and ability to play football. So being able to weather subpar quarterback play was likely a valuable qualification if you threw in an application for the Rams' OC job.
The Rams have been connected to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ Advanced Media. Foles could be available and awarded to the highest bidder this offseason. But his status as an upgrade after throwing 10 interceptions on only 328 dropbacks in 2014, per Pro Football Focus, is debatable, to put it politely.
That’s why Fisher contacted Kyle Shanahan at one point, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Shanahan was the Washington Redskins offensive coordinator during quarterback Robert Griiffin III’s Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2012. He also managed to keep the Cleveland Browns in playoff contention for most of 2014 even with journeyman Brian Hoyer as his quarterback, along with possible lost cause Johnny Manziel.
Shanahan opted for the same position and a lateral move elsewhere (to the Atlanta Falcons). Cignetti was still waiting patiently as a safety net, but Fisher had many more calls to make before admitting failure.
He was in touch with Adam Gase, the former Denver Broncos coordinator who recently managed Peyton Manning’s fading arm strength using a quick-strike offense rooted in screens and short passing. Gase was also the quarterbacks coach when the Broncos somehow dreamed up an offense that led to winning a real NFL playoff game with Tim Tebow under center.
Yet the legitimate push for Gase was passing at best.
The Rams weren’t able to secure an interview before he followed John Fox to the Chicago Bears in another lateral move. The continued whiffing played out deliberately and desperately for Fisher, and Cignetti sat in the background of that high school gym, waiting for the music to stop.
The Rams also interviewed Nathaniel Hackett, and were granted permission to speak with Greg Roman, according to Thomas. Then they were denied access to Indianapolis Colts special assistant Rob Chudzinski and Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
Am I missing someone? Oh yes, they also interviewed a turkey sandwich.
Cignetti may have been below a box of fig newtons on the interview list too.
The Rams’ inability to secure any of their top candidates isn’t solely tied to their quarterback. It can’t be, because Roman instead accepted the same job with the Buffalo Bills, who have EJ Manuel and…EJ Manuel. Gase is now overseeing Jay Cutler’s spiral, and Hackett downgraded from coordinator to quarterbacks coach after joining the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Plenty of awful quarterbacks are guided by hopeful (and often willfully blind) coordinators. Fisher’s hurdle while attempting to attract top coaching talent is likely instead far out of his control: No one wants to latch on to a franchise with an unpredictable future.
In January, Rams owner Stan Kroenke purchased a 60-acre plot of land in Inglewood, California. Now a move west is suddenly a real possibility as soon as 2016. Available coaching candidates had the choice to avoid that dramatic change and franchise upheaval. It likely wasn’t a difficult decision for them when other similar opportunities were presented elsewhere.
There was little choice then, and the Rams had to embrace the unknown—yet still sort of known—with Cignetti. He may not have any professional coordinator experience, but some hopeful thoughts can be found in the notion of continuity.
The relationship between a quarterback and his coordinator is one that takes time to form, and it's a sacred bond Bradford already shares with Cignetti. To his credit, Cignetti came on board as the quarterbacks coach in 2012, meaning Bradford has made 23 of his 49 career starts with the same position coach.
Rotoworld’s Nick Mensio notes that stretch was the most successful of Bradford’s career:
Bradford's production under Cignetti won’t knock you on your hind region. But with enough offensive weapons elsewhere and a defensive line that can turn opposing quarterbacks into bread crumbs, Bradford might only need to be passable.
But Bradford’s performance that approached pretty-alright status came when Cignetti had eyes only for him. Now Cignetti’s attention is widespread, as he’s tasked with turning around an offense that averaged only 314.7 yards per game in 2014 (a lowly 28th). Worse, over Brian Schottenheimer’s three-year tenure, St. Louis didn’t rank higher than 21st in points per game.
Cignetti also inherits the assignment of trying to salvage Tavon Austin's career and make him a viable offensive option. No one is doubting Austin’s ability as a returner, but offensively he ended 2014 with a meager 466 yards from scrimmage. He saw the field on only 57.4 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps, per PFF. Schottenheimer bailed on Austin, losing any sense of creativity.
Cignetti needs to locate some ingenuity fast—and do it while navigating a quarterback situation probably still dotted with question marks in 2015. That’s a steep challenge for anyone, especially a coach who’s challenge card is still clean as an NFL coordinator.