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Star running back relishing role with rebuilding Rams

As the losses have piled up around the NFL, so has the zaniness.

Winless Tampa Bay is on its third quarterback. Kansas City running back Larry Johnson blasted his coach on Twitter, then zipped the same gay slur on back-to-back days for public consumption, leading to a suspension. Washington took everything but his title from coach Jim Zorn (pride included). Tennessee underwent an owner-ordered quarterback change.

In Cleveland, owner Randy Lerner promised changes and started by bouncing the general manager this week. Fans met with the owner about their dissatisfaction with the team. The starting tailback said he'd rather retire after the season than come back to this, with this being a team that is the current leader in NFL dysfunction.

In St. Louis, though, there hasn't been a peep. The Rams got their first win last week over, a 17-10 decision over Detroit after starting 0-7, but there hasn't been any uproar, firings, player outbursts or tales of coaching tyranny. It's not because of apathy or because they play in a small market, or anything like that.

Tom Gannam / Associated Press
First-year coach Steve Spagnuolo hasn't let the Rams get frustrated over a 1-7 start.

Things are moving along under the radar because first-time coach Steve Spagnuolo has been totally up front with his players and coaches about his plan and he's stuck to it with the backing of management and everyone else he's come into contact with. His forthrightness has allowed players on a roster with junior-varsity talent to compete without complaint.

"All the way back in OTAs, coaches asked us to buy into the vision and that's building a high-character team," running back Steven Jackson said. "It's all about team. You put yourself behind the team. We're going through a transition of who fits the scheme, who are the guys the coaches feel they can build a solid foundation with.

"What we have here is a strong leader as a head coach. Him and our GM (Billy Devaney) have a vision and there's no grey areas. They tell you this is where we're headed. Even if you dislike it, there's no question he knows what he's doing. That makes the road easier."

That Jackson, 26, has bought in so thoroughly is huge, and is refreshing in this era of guys begging out of bad situations to coattail onto a better situation.

I asked Jackson (who is second in rushing in the NFL, if you haven't noticed) if he felt he was wasting his prime years toiling for a franchise that has been among the worst in the league the past few years.

"Not at all," he said. "I want to feel the momentum and enjoy it when we turn this thing around. I want to be able to look that guy in the eye and know we share common tears of joy or whatever that moment brings. I want to know me and this person have worked through this together. I don't want to go to another organization where I don't know anyone or hold the Lombardi Trophy where I didn't really build things. I don't think it would mean as much after I've put in so much work here."

You can be as cynical as you want about his feelings on toiling through the futility, but his effort and production on the field seem to back up what he's saying. It's hard to be cynical about that.

One more thing on the Rams

There has been speculation as to whether this will be quarterback Marc Bulger's last year with the team, especially with him being owed $8.5 million next season. I've been told that Rams management hasn't begun that evaluation process yet.

However, Bulger's retention could very well rest on the fact that St. Louis has so many other needs to fill that it could try to address those concerns before getting to the quarterback situation. Then again, if St. Louis feels the right quarterback is available, they could address those other needs after it replaces Bulger.

What's going on down there?

In the final seconds of the Saints' 35-27 victory over the Falcons on Monday night, Atlanta successfully executed an onside kick, thanks to the outright will of special teams captain and outside linebacker Coy Wire (Wire was featured on NFL.com's On The Fringe preseason series).

Here is how it played out: Atlanta's Michael Koenen dribbled a short kick to his left. The Saints' David Thomas initially grabbed the ball, but lost control while being splattered by multiple players on both teams. Wire was facemask to facemask with Thomas while they were sprawled on the ground, but the piling-on caused Thomas to shift, at which time Wire made his move.

Wire somehow grabbed a portion of the ball and with the referees' inability to separate players from the pile for more than a minute, he steadily managed to seize possession. Once he had it, he applied the death grip. In fact, his clutch was so tight that biceps in both arms began to cramp. Once he emerged from the pile with the ball, he had to have someone straighten out his arms for him.

That, as painful as it sounds, could have overshadowed the real chicanery that went on. As Florida's Brandon Spikes displayed last week when television cameras showed him gouging the eyes of Georgia's Washaun Ealey in a pile, what takes place when football players are stacked on top of each other isn't always pretty.

"I won't call anybody out but I have been choked, had my groin grabbed, I've been pinched," Steven Jackson said. "Those things happen commonly. It's not fun. If you see me screaming or someone screaming in a pile that means it's happening to me or them. If the game is tight and it's the end of the game and possession is huge, it's really bad. The pile is nowhere fun to be at."

Here is why we don't hear much outcry about the pileup shenanigans: Those who've been pinched, choked and had their manhood unwantingly examined have gotten a little frisky themselves.

Cleveland conundrum

The mess in Cleveland cost GM George Kokinis his job, but it's unlikely his reputation as a talent evaluator and solid personnel man will be tarnished because everyone knows coach Eric Mangini has full control. An agent told me this week it only took him a few few conversations with Kokinis about one of his clients to realize it was a waste of time. It became clear to the agent that Mangini was going to do what he was going to do, no matter what Kokinis suggested.

Larger issues in Cleveland
With another curious move, the perpetually rebuilding Browns have joined an infamous collection of woebegone teams, writes NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora. More ...

Kokinis developed a good enough reputation in the industry that he actually was among the wave of people being considered for general manager jobs around the league before Mangini hired him. He might not be at the front of the line this offseason after what has happened in Cleveland, but odds are pretty good he'll be back in some team's player personnel department by the 2010 draft.

YAC, yack

The up-and-down Jacksonville Jaguars are allowing 370 yards a game -- 24th in the NFL. It's not all scheme or breakdowns that that have caused the bleeding. It's tackling -- or lack thereof -- that might be the biggest problem. Jaguars GM Gene Smith told me that half of the yards given up by his team this season that were accounted for in the secondary were yards gained after initial contact.

"We have to tackle better," he said.

NFL coaches don't like to tackle during practice once rosters are cut down to 53 because of the risk of injury. Most teams do some type of form-tackling drills among their position groups at the beginning of daily drills or on the first practice following a game, but rarely do teams go full contact in full-team drills.

Which is why it's worth noting that on the first day back to practice this week, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio had his players practicing in full pads to prepare for the Chiefs on Sunday.

The failure to consistently tackle outside of games can cause some players' technique to suffer or for players to lose their physical edge, even though tackling is a huge reason most defenders made it to the NFL.

The interesting thing about this is that Smith told me about Jacksonville's tackling woes before Tennessee running back Chris Johnson ran for 228 yards on Sunday in the Titans' first victory of the season. There's a good chance that percentage of yards after contact went up a tad.

It might not just be the Packers' scheme

I was among the media scrum on Sunday that heard Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins criticize Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme and how it was handcuffing players like himself and (he didn't mention any names) outside linebacker Aaron Kampman from getting pressure on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Jenkins was frustrated, but you can understand why.

Kampman has earned a reputation as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL, but he has just 2.5 sacks this season. Then again, so do Joey Porter and Terrell Suggs. Of the top 10 sack leaders in the league, just three play in 3-4 schemes: Elvis Dumervil, James Harrison and Jason Taylor.

So Jenkins' criticism of the 3-4 might be warranted, because it appears more teams are figuring out how to protect against it -- especially a team such as the Vikings, who have a very good offensive line. Before Jenkins zaps his own coach again, he might want to look around the league to see if there are some trends that might justify or disprove his feelings about what's going on in his house.

It wasn't just Bud Adams who noticed

Though Titans owner Bud Adams didn't blame his team's 0-6 start on the play of quarterback Kerry Collins, he said it was time for Tennessee to play Vince Young. Young was named the starter and Tennessee won its first game over Jacksonville, making the owner look pretty smart.

A rival GM told me last week that in watching film of the Titans, Collins clearly wasn't the same player he was last season, when he helped Tennessee win 13 games. Collins didn't seem as comfortable and definitely wasn't as accurate, and he didn't seem to pose any more of a threat even though Tennessee added more offensive weapons, the GM said.

Finally burning

Falcons tailback Michael Turner broke for 151 yards against the Saints on Monday night, running for the first time all season like he did last year. Turner said he finally ran angry and, through film study, realized that cutback lanes weren't there any more so it was time to pound through the assigned gap -- whether there was a hole or not.

Moral of the story: If it don't fit, then force it.

No mercy for Percy

With all the highlights Vikings rookie wide receiver/kick returner Percy Harvin has provided, what impresses me most about him is his toughness. He goes across the middle with no fear and he runs with a purpose. There were durability and toughness concerns about him coming out of Florida. I guess those have been proven wrong -- thus far.

The best part about this gig

Getting a double dip to Green Bay and New Orleans this past weekend allowed me to experience, once again, some of the best fans and best communities in the NFL.

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The folks at the Blank family tailgate outside of Lambeau Field, where we did our NFL Game Day Morning pregame show for NFL Network, could not have been nicer or more fun. I just hope they weren't offended by me declining the variety of Jell-O and syringe shots at 10 a.m. (I never knew drinking had gotten that creative. Syringe shots?).

I never get enough time in New Orleans, which is my favorite stop on the circuit, but I did get to do a postgame fly-through at Lucy's in the Arts District, which is a must-do any time you're in the Big Easy. Those folks don't ever stop celebrating, so don't bother to ask what time things get started.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I do love my job.

On to my picks

My picks for Week 9: Falcons over Redskins, Bears over Cardinals, Bengals over Ravens, Colts over Texans, Jaguars over Chiefs, Patriots over Dolphins, Packers over Buccaneers, Saints over Panthers, Giants over Chargers, 49ers over Titans, Eagles over Cowboys, and Broncos over Steelers.

Upset of the week: Lions over Seahawks.

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