During his year away from football, Rams coach Jeff Fisher spent a few days last summer scaling Mount Kilimanjaro.
This summer, Fisher has no intention of scaling any mountains. Instead, he’s focused on helping the Rams climb out of the cellar of the basement and back to the penthouse.
In a whirlwind offseason that saw sweeping changes all over the organization and on the roster, the Rams and Fisher have accomplished a lot since he was officially named head coach on Jan. 17.
When the Rams wrapped up their final full squad minicamp practice on Thursday afternoon, they also completed an offseason that was one of the busiest and most dramatic in franchise history.
All told, Fisher doesn’t believe the past five-plus months could have gone much better in terms of getting the team to a point where it would be ready for training camp and ready to compete when the season begins.
“Yeah, it’s really gone by fast,” Fisher said. “I’m pleased with where we are right now. Guys have a great understanding of how we practice and what we’re trying to get done in the playbook, so it’s important when they take off, the veterans, and they need to get away. They continue to build their conditioning level and work and train for training camp and not put the book down. It’s that time of year where obviously you get concerned about what goes on out there, but this is a responsible group, a determined group and I know they’ll make good decisions. Again, the other side of that is we feel like it’s important for them to get away. They need to get away.”
The Rams veterans have mostly departed St. Louis already to various homes and vacation destinations. The rookie group remains in St. Louis through next week before it departs for the next six weeks or so.
The team that returns to St. Louis will look much different than the one that reported for camp in a hurry following the lockout of the summer of 2011.
Since Fisher was named head coach, the Rams have undergone a dramatic facelift on the roster, signing or drafting 45 new players, exactly half of the 90-man roster since his arrival. That includes big money free agent deals for the likes of cornerback
The busy offseason also includes a blockbuster trade that netted the Rams first round picks from Washington in each of the next two year, the release of 14 players, a revamped scouting department headed by new general manager Les Snead and the hiring of a brand new coaching staff.
All of that happened before the Rams even got to line up for a practice or Organized Team Activity.
Once the Rams opened their offseason program, though, Fisher has been blown away by the turnout of the players and their enthusiasm for getting to work on righting the ship.
On Thursday, Fisher said that of a possible 55 veterans, 48 participated in 90 percent or more of the offseason program and 40 of those 48 had perfect attendance.
“We had never seen anything like that so that sets the bar for us now moving forward,” Fisher said. “It went fast, I think we accomplished everything we needed to accomplish and now it’s up to them. We have another week with the rookies. It’s up to them to be disciplined and committed to the cause and the program and come back in the best shape and then we’ll have more fun.”
Before April’s NFL Draft, Fisher and Snead made it clear that there were plenty of needs for the team to fill at the time. Now, though, they’ve both spent the past month and a half of minicamps and OTAs actually getting to see the players up close and gained a better handle on what’s in place in the process.
“I feel like I’ve got a good sense, really good sense,” Fisher said. “We know what we can do right now and how we can do it, but then again we haven’t had pads on. Things change. You can be about 85-90 percent sure about the type of team that you’re taking into training camp. This is a little unique in that this is my first camp, our first camp with this team. But we’ll be wrong, hopefully in a good way, probably with 10 percent of the guys once the pads go on.”
ABOUT 90 PERCENT
For the third time in as many seasons, the Rams are installing a new offense. This year, at least, they have had the past couple of months to learn the scheme of new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Early in the OTAs, the Rams had almost three quarters of the offense installed already and they continued to put in more so they could rep the installed offense more than once and attempt to get some comfort in it.
On Thursday, Schottenheimer made it clear that the bulk of the offense is in.
“It was a really, really good offseason,” Schottenheimer said. “I think we got a lot of things in. I would say probably we are almost at 90 percent of what we need to have in. What we tried to do was we tried to overload them a little bit in the beginning. We tried to go back and repeat things so they could hear it a second, third, fourth and fifth time. But I’m very, very pleased. Obviously, not only are you competing against yourself but we are also going against the defense which creates a lot of problems. It was good for us going against a defense like ours. You troubleshoot a lot of your problems with protections and run game and things like that, so it was really good.”
The other 10 percent, according to Schottenheimer, are things that won’t need to be installed until camp such as some trick plays and, more to the point, game plan specific things that will change on a weekly basis.
But the key is that the general concepts of the offense have been put in and there was enough time for the offense to run those concepts more than once.
Perhaps most important, though, Schottenheimer and the offense got to work on a lot of situations. During OTAs, there was a clear emphasis on situational football.
“I think the way coach Fisher kind of structured everything we were able to touch on so many situations and that’s what football has become,” Schottenheimer said. “It’s all situational, whether it’s third down, two minute, four minute, coming out, all of those things we touched on them all which is great so when those guys come back for training camp it will be pretty similar in the progression of how we do it so we’ll hear it for the sixth and seventh time which is how you learn.”
From a personnel standpoint, Schottenheimer was pleased with how his group worked through the bumps in the road and is confident that the talent is in place to be a balanced yet explosive offense come the regular season.
“You have got to find what those guys do. They have to learn about us as a staff, we have to learn about them and I think we have done a really, really good job by just spending a lot of time together, figuring one another out. I just love to be around this group of guys. They are working really, really hard, they are picking it up and I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress we are making.
A GROUP EFFORT
On the other side of the ball, the Rams don’t seem to be facing many questions about how they’ll line up or who will be manning the starting spots (aside from outside linebacker, perhaps).
Instead, they spent the offseason program working on and developing their method for running a defense without a defined defensive coordinator.
Considering the experience of Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil and linebackers coach Blake Williams, the task didn’t seem terribly difficult as the defense was put in place and running smooth early on.
“It’s been so smooth,” McGinnis said. “It’s been seamless. Again, this defensive playbook, this defensive philosophy, this defensive system originated in Jeff Fisher’s office, so know that. And we’ve all been together. We’ve got a very unique situation here in that we have coaches that have not only been in this system for a long time and have seen it evolve - this system has evolved over the years - we also have players that are now coaching that have played in this system. As I said, Jeff did a very, very thorough job and a meticulous job of putting this staff together for a lot of really, really smart reasons. One of them being that everyone is in tune with what we’re doing.”
Like Schottenheimer, McGinnis was left quite impressed with the players in place, specifically mentioned middle linebacker
A defensive unit that is expected to return only four starters would seem to have a long way to go to build cohesion before the season begins but McGinnis believes that’s happened faster than one might think.
“These players, I can’t give them enough credit for what they’ve done as far as picking up a new system, being able to implement that system mentally in a classroom, but more importantly on the field,” McGinnis said. “Because again, in the process of all this ultimately what it comes to is where we can win ballgames when the regular season starts. The initial process that starts is knowing what you’re doing. If you don’t know your stuff, you have a hard time doing it. These guys have really done a tremendous job doing that.”
READY FOR CAMP
The Rams training camp is tentatively scheduled to begin on July 28 for the full squad with rookies reporting a few days in advance.
Heading toward that camp, the Rams appear to be in good shape on the injury front. Fisher said he doesn’t anticipate any lingering injury issues though tight end Mike Hoomanawanui figures to be cleared to return full time right around the time training camp begins.
When that day finally comes, Fisher and his staff will get a much better look at what they have in terms of personnel as the pads will come on and the competition will increase.
Fisher and Co. will be adapting to a little different world in terms of how often and the types of practices they can have in camp. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a physical, aggressive tone set early.
In fact, Fisher believes that mentality has already been put in place which should make for some awfully competitive practices come late July.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt,” Fisher said. “They know how to play. They know how to play from the time the ball is snapped to the whistle and how important it is to prepare to play that way. I’m looking forward to all this work that we’ve done, going back to early April, translate into good things at camp once the pads go on and then in the preseason. These guys are looking forward to playing again.”