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Veterans Savor Opportunity

Posted Dec 30, 2010

In his first year in the NFL in 2003, long snapper Chris Massey and the Rams won the NFC West title and went to the playoffs. They repeated the feat in 2004 as running back Steven Jackson joined the fray.

It seemed as though going to the postseason was almost a given. And then, suddenly, it all went away. Massey and Jackson have seen countless players come and go but stayed steadfast in St. Louis without a playoff appearance since 2004.

In fact, things got so bad over the second part of the decade that Massey even found it difficult to go to his local barber shop for a haircut.

“Sitting in the barbershop, getting my haircut has been rough the last couple years,” Massey said. “I went to a new barbershop a couple years ago and they didn’t know who I was. Now they do and to hear some of the patrons, you can’t get mad at them. But now it’s all good.”

It’s all good because the Rams back in the playoff mix for the first time since that season and with a win Sunday night in Seattle, they will claim the NFC West Division title and sew up a spot in the following weekend’s NFC Wild Card round.

For the most tenured Rams like Massey, Jackson, cornerback Ron Bartell and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, having the opportunity to play in a game of such magnitude has been a long time coming.

“It’s very gratifying,” Bartell said. “When you have worked as hard as we have worked around here and you have been through the things we have been through the past couple seasons, it’s definitely gratifying. But the work isn’t done yet. There is still one more game to get where we want to get which is to win this division. We still have to go out to Seattle and win this game so we have just got to play.”

Considering where the Rams have come from to be in this position, there’s no doubt that it takes a special kind of person to stick through the tough times this team has endured in the past six plus years.

At various points, each of those aforementioned veterans has had an opportunity to move on but each has chosen to stay.

Using Bartell as an example, he was barraged by friends as he watched New Orleans win the Super Bowl last year because he turned down the Saints to re-sign with the Rams because he believed so strongly in being a part of the foundation in St. Louis.

So don’t tell these guys that an 8-8 division champion shouldn’t go to the playoffs. They are the only ones who believed it possible in the first place.
“You have got to imagine this at the beginning of the season,” Atogwe said. “You set your goals to…you see what you are capable of and then shoot a little higher than that. When things come together and start clicking, you never know what will happen.”

For Jackson, who played on but wasn’t the full time back in that first season, Sunday marks his 100th game in the NFL. That’s a pretty good milestone for any running back and it comes in a perfect situation.

“What better way to do it than just Seattle, division rival before a national audience and hopefully going to the postseason as well,” Jackson said. “We are very excited; we’re up to the challenge. Outside of that and a couple extra cameras on the field, it’s still the Seattle Seahawks.”

Each of the Rams’ most experienced veterans acknowledge that there have been difficult times, the type of times that would have made it easy to simply escape and go where the grass seems greener.

But they also now can have a greater appreciation for the way the city is embracing them in this season of redemption.

“There’s definitely a buzz,” Massey said. “The fans are excited about the young guys we’ve brought in. It’s almost like they are behind us thinking how good we are going to be as we continue this season with the young guys we have. It’s been real exciting. It’s really almost surreal.”

And though the thought has crossed his mind that he might not ever get another shot at the playoffs, Massey says that part of the beauty of the league is in the way it changes from year to year.

“If you stick around long enough, you go through highs and lows as a team, as an organization and we were on our way up when I first got here and we went downhill for a little bit and now we are on our way up again,” Massey said. “If you are fortunate enough to play that long, you will go through some of those times. That’s just the way the National Football League is.”

BUSY MAN: Rams receiver slash kick returner slash punt returner slash running back Danny Amendola even added quarterback to the list of his many duties last week when he threw a deep pass intended for Danario Alexander that drew a pass interference penalty on San Francisco.

It came as no surprise considering that Amendola has been asked to do just about everything else this season.

Through 15 games, Amendola leads the NFL in all-purpose yards with 2,283 combined yards between receiving and his dual return duties.

With one game to play, Amendola has 83 catches for 680 yards with three touchdowns, seven carries for 81 yards, 39 punt returns for 443 yards and 46 kick returns for 1,079 yards.

Considering how much Amendola is asked to do, it would seem reasonable if coach Steve Spagnuolo tried to find ways to cut down on his work load. But Spagnuolo doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think we ever worry, because when he’s got the ball in his hands he’s an effective guy,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s one those of things. If you’ve got one of your talented guys out there, you get him the ball any way you can.”

ALEXANDER’S IMPACT: There’s little doubt that when Alexander is on the field, he provides the Rams with another weapon capable of making big plays.

Whether it comes via a long pass or a catch and run that features Alexander’s ability to run after the catch, his involvement has regularly helped lead to Rams’ victories. And he’s started to find a groove with quarterback Sam Bradford.

“We just know that he does some good things for us just like the other three, and Sam certainly likes to throw to him,” Spagnuolo said. “I think Sam has gotten comfortable with all those guys over the course of time with all the reps.”

For his part, Bradford says Alexander is coming on strong and he’s noticed a difference in the offense with Alexander in the lineup.

“I think you guys see it,” Bradford said. “When he’s out there, he just gives us the ability to stretch the field a little bit more. It seems like when he’s showed up and had big games for us, we’ve been able to create some explosive plays with him, and I think that’s one of the big reasons that our offense seems to click a little bit better when he’s on.”

INJURY REPORT: There weren’t any major changes to the Rams injury report on Thursday as they continue to work to get tight end Michael Hoomanawanui back in the mix from a sprained ankle.

Hoomanawanui worked almost exclusively with head athletic trainer Reggie Scott on Wednesday but worked his way back into the practice mix a bit more on Thursday.

Although nothing is set in stone by any means, Hoomanawanui is making strides.

“Yeah, I just saw a few plays here and there,” Spagnuolo said. “Reggie felt like yesterday when he had him alone that he was ready to get back in practice mode so now we just have to see how it reacts after he gets off the field today.”

Cornerback Jerome Murphy was again listed as limited with his broken pinkie finger. He’s still expected to be ready to go on Sunday.

For Seattle, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck did not practice again Thursday and it continues to appear that Charlie Whitehurst will get the start.