The introduction of toasted ravioli to Rams media relations director Ted Crews and Atlanta-based TV producer Ed O'Brien went great. They never had it before and quickly learned why we St. Louisians so love the local delicacy. It was close to 9 p.m. as we dined in a private room at J. Buck's Restaurant, just two blocks away from the Cardinals-Cubs game taking place at Busch Stadium on the eve of the NFL Draft.
It was the perfect setting for a casual dinner that was supposed to include new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo. He didn't show, but that wasn't a surprise. We kind of expected he might have a few more pressing things on his agenda.
We wouldn't find out until Saturday morning that Spagnuolo, entering his first draft trying to redirect a franchise back to its relatively recent Super Bowl glory, was already counting sheep.
We arrived at Rams Park in Earth City, a northwest suburb of St. Louis, around 8 a.m. Saturday to set up for the draft, where the Rams had the No. 2 pick -- but really the first selection of intrigue since Detroit already had agreed to a contract with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford and would choose him first overall. That news broke, by the way, on our ride home from J. Buck's.
O'Brien got to the team facility a little early to work out the logistics of our behind-the-scenes coverage for NFL Network and NFL.com, and he bumped into Rams GM Billy Devaney, sporting a workout shirt, camouflage shorts and flip-flops. You would have never guessed that in just more than eight hours, Devaney and the Rams would officially be on the clock.
A few minutes later, I showed up and met with Devaney about how we were going to proceed with our access on the second floor of the spacious Rams facility, where the nerve center of football operations is located. We were set to file reports from inside the team's "war room," which was about as big as a Bob Evans restaurant, minus the kitchen, biscuit-batter supplies, syrup and jam cabinets, and some of the home-style décor.
After the finer points had been worked out, Devaney said he'd already received some calls from teams that were fishing about possibly moving up to the Rams' No. 2 spot. I was cynical; there didn't seem to be much rationale for a team moving up so far in the draft, unless it was after USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The Rams taking Sanchez was a long shot, but it was only a month ago at the Rams' minicamp that Devaney told me how much he and members of his staff thought Sanchez was a big-time quarterback and not to be shocked if they were to take him. Could have been a setup all along, but I've known Devaney for a while and I didn't rule out the Bobby Beathard protégé from making such a move.
The team had made plane reservations for Sanchez to fly from Los Angeles to St. Louis -- but it turns out it made reservations for other players, too. Still, Sanchez was a wild card and as it turned out, the Jets admitted calling the Rams about possibly moving up that far because they thought they might have to in order to land Sanchez. The Redskins were working to move up from their spot at No. 13 for a shot at Sanchez, but the compensation got too high; they stayed put and landed Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo.
Our four-person broadcast crew eventually was escorted to the second floor of the Rams' facility after convincing the extra diligent security detail at the main entrance that we weren't headed to Devaney's office to steal his Rams-decorated surfboard. We were positioned in a corner near a closed door of the war room and several assistant coaches' offices. We arrived well before most of them did.
There was no hurry for them to be there, though. Their jobs, for the most part, were complete. They had scouted, evaluated and filed their reports. Things were now in Devaney and Spagnuolo's control. They just had to coach whoever was picked. Still, the calmness on such a big day was awkward.
All I could think, using NFL vernacular, was that the hay was in the barn.
The Rams knew who they wanted at No. 2 and it would have to be a heck of a deal to get them off of it. All signs pointed to Baylor left tackle Jason Smith -- a nasty, physical prospect who could step in for Orlando Pace, whose release a few weeks prior triggered the need for an offensive tackle more than any other position. Then again, the Rams won just two games last season, so there were needs at a lot of positions.
The talk of Sanchez didn't move me much either, as Devaney had previously divulged how comfortable and confident he was with incumbent quarterback Marc Bulger. All Bulger needed was some protection so he could stay healthy. An offensive tackle, not a quarterback, fit that criterion.
After our first on-air report from outside the "war room," where we focused on a placard on the exit door that said "Do Not Enter," O'Brien led me to the war room entry around a corner. About 20 yards down the hallway, Spagnuolo walked past. Then he backed up and walked toward us. We knew he wasn't totally enamored with NFL Network/NFL.com getting such access, so we figured we were going to catch a little heat, especially as the anxiety was building with five hours before the start of the draft.
What we got instead were handshakes, smiles and a totally relaxed head coach sporting a T-shirt and warm-ups. He apologized for skipping out on the toasted ravs but said he was crashed out by 9:30.
Between he and Devaney, it was hard to tell if they were going to work out or stretch out on some lawn chairs on the practice fields and get acquainted with a few Fitz root beers from the local brewery in The Loop.
A draft? What draft?
When Crews finally led us into the war room, we saw a true nerve center with five phones at the head table, white boards on each wall with depth charts, prospects' grades and other charts and graphs that had been in the works for months. There were also four television monitors and about eight tables, a sliding wall and a screen pulled down over a portion of a wall. That had to be the money chart, where their targeted players were listed.
An hour or so later, after filing several reports, it was coffee time. On our way downstairs -- and past the no-nonsense security detail -- we saw Devaney heading up to the second floor after he'd been running. He was in a tank top and running gear (quick aside: Devaney has got some guns; he clearly spends plenty of time in the weight room). Devaney said he had to cut his run short because the phone kept ringing with teams inquiring about possible trades.
All I could think was on a day like today, if you've got time for a run just a few hours before the draft, any trade talk can't be that serious. The hay was in the barn.
As things got closer to the draft and we re-established our perch near the war room, more coaches filed in, with most of them going to their individual offices. There wasn't a whole lot of chatter, but at least they were dressed like there was some business to be handled. At one point, former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, now the Rams' running backs coach, walked past and shared a few quick jokes before secluding himself.
It was way too calm.
In fact, some coaches were watching the Nuggets-Hornets NBA playoff game on TV.
Finally, about five minutes before the selection was made, Spagnuolo, now in khakis and a polo shirt, bolted out of the war room and knocked on each coach's door. A sense of urgency was all about. His face was intense and his staff filed into the war room like a flock of ducks who were just tossed a box of croutons. About time. Some excitement.
A few minutes later, the pick of Jason Smith was announced. There was an uproar of applause in the war room. Then, the ducks filed out of the room and back into their offices.
Unbeknownst at the time to anyone not inside the room is that the screen that had been pulled over the draft board had gotten stuck for a few minutes. Different scouts and coaches took turns trying to get it to retract. They finally did, shortly before they made the pick, but it hid no surprises.
Smith was atop the board.
Devaney later would explain that Smith was the object of his desire since November, when he first started paying heavy attention to draft prospects -- and when he could officially move on from a disastrous in-house season, in which coach Scott Linehan was fired and Jim Haslett was promoted to interim sacrificial lamb. That's why parting with Pace, a franchise fixture, wasn't so risky.
Devaney and Spagnuolo did some media interviews following the selection of Smith, then returned to the war room and watched the draft. When it got to the 20th selection or so, they felt the target for their second-round pick, Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, would get plucked. So they called around trying to trade up.
They got stiff-armed.
So they held on until the 35th selection came around. They didn't need their allotted seven minutes to make the selection, choosing Laurinaitis. From just about that point, things got calm again, even though they had five picks to make Sunday.
"I think we felt like most teams around the league," Devaney said. "This draft wasn't that exciting. I feel like it was 10 days ago already and it's just been 48 hours."