Los Angeles Rams  

 

St. Louis Rams' war-room drama reveals team on a familiar track

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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- At certain uncomfortable junctures throughout his 20-year career as an NFL head coach, Jeff Fisher has had to adapt to circumstance, reshaping his offense as a pass-heavy attack, or one that takes advantage of a quarterback's mobility.

Yet the times when Fisher's teams have been most effective -- the times when the man with the sublime 'stache has been most at peace with his situation -- have coincided with the presence of an elite, eminently productive running back. When Fisher coached the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV, and later to the 2002 AFC Championship Game, the ultra-physical Eddie George was the offensive focal point. Tennessee's romp to the 2008 AFC South title, meanwhile, was fueled by the emergence of rookie speedster Chris Johnson.

And Friday night, for the first time in the three years and three months that have passed since Fisher took over as the St. Louis Rams' coach and top football decision-maker, he exuded a deep-seated satisfaction impossible to ignore -- that of a man who feels his team will play football the way he prefers it, with no ambiguity about its mission.

As he sat in his office following the second day of the 2015 NFL Draft, leaning back in a cushy chair while sipping a glass of bold red wine, Fisher didn't shy away from statements that might sound like hyperbole to some: Former Georgia star Todd Gurley, the swift and powerful runner he'd taken 10th overall in Thursday night's first round, is "a once-every-10-year back" who, along with the upgrades made to the offensive line in Rounds 2 (former Wisconsin tackle Rob Havenstein) and 3 (ex-Louisville guard Jamon Brown), will change the Rams' offensive identity.

"We're trying to become more physical on offense," Fisher said. "We did that today. We got two guys who are gonna go downfield and finish blocks -- and clear space for that guy we got last night to do what he does. It's not complicated: Hand it off, run play-action passes, get the ball out quickly, keep your defense off the field."

Or, as secondary coach and former collision-happy NFL safety Chuck Cecil had put it about 20 minutes earlier: "We're gonna be going old-school on 'em."

Fisher has, along with general manager Les Snead, already assembled an aggressive defense -- led by a star-studded stable of pass rushers and run-lane-cloggers up front. The coach believes he now has a suitably relentless offense to go with it. With a new quarterback in Nick Foles, acquired in a March trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for injury-prone passer Sam Bradford, Fisher isn't looking for big fantasy numbers or cutting-edge passing concepts. Rather, he and newly promoted offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who replaced Brian Schottenheimer after the 2014 season, will be quite comfortable handing the rock to Gurley and letting him grind his way down the field.

St. Louis Rams' 2015 Draft Class

On paper, the Rams are bucking a trend. As the NFL becomes increasingly pass-centric, teams consistently unearth short-term answers at running back from later rounds and productive veterans struggle to get lucrative, long-term contracts, the Death of the Marquee Running Back has become a trendy talking point. In fairness, it's not just talk: No running back was selected in the first round of the 2013 or 2014 drafts, with Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (who went 15th overall to the Chargers) breaking the ignominious streak on Thursday.

Going all-in with Gurley, who tore his ACL last November, could be construed as a gamble. When I interviewed the newest Rams runner Friday on NFL Network, he expressed confidence in his recovery, and his new bosses obviously feel similarly. Fisher and Snead locked in on him as their top target midway through April and sweated out the draft's first nine picks before happily pouncing.

A couple of weeks before the draft, in an act that was part superstition and part subterfuge, Fisher moved Gurley's player card well below his actual slot on the draft board in the team's war room, placing him in the second-round range. "At that point," Fisher said, "(our interest in him) was on a need-to-know basis."

That set up quite the draft-room scene Thursday: After the Giants selected Miami guard Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall pick, Fisher instructed Sean Gustus, the area scout who'd given the initial grade on Gurley, to put the magnetic card "where it really belongs" on the draft board.

Gustus, Fisher recalled, "tried to stick it on the ceiling," as the scouts, coaches and other team officials in his midst broke out in celebratory laughter.

Predictably, there were no dissenters. Snead, who'd been speaking glowingly about Gurley since the runner's true freshman season, put it thusly: "When you'd pick out a game and watch his film, it was like watching a highlight reel. He just kept doing special things, play after play."

Said Fisher: "If it weren't for the injury, he probably wouldn't be a Ram. Because in everybody's opinion, he was a top two or three pick. When they say running backs don't have value anymore, that's not the case when it's a once-every-10-year back. That was the consensus in the building, and it was basically the consensus around the league."

For all of the Rams' rich history at the position -- which includes Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk, as well as another current St. Louis scout, Lawrence McCutcheon, who got especially fired up in the war room as Gurley's card was pulled -- they haven't ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing yardage for the past 15 years. Tre Mason, selected in the third round last year, showed promise as a rookie, which will allow Fisher the luxury of easing Gurley back from his injury. Mason projects as the clear No. 2 behind Gurley; third-year pro Zac Stac was traded -- he had requested the move -- to the New York Jets on Saturday.

There was plenty of drama in the war room Friday night, as the Rams -- who had a cluster of offensive linemen stacked in the second-round range and were thus open to trading down -- fielded a fast and furious barrage of trade offers for their second-round pick (41st overall).

For five-and-a-half minutes, the room resembled a Jerry Lewis-sponsored telethon, with president Kevin Demoff, Snead and Fisher fielding simultaneous calls from teams making offers -- and in some cases, ringing back with sweetened trade proposals.

"I've never seen (a war room) quite that crazy," Fisher said later.

The Chiefs, Eagles, Texans, Steelers and Panthers all offered trade-down prospects, and the Cowboys called to gauge the market before bowing out. With four-and-a-half minutes on the clock, Fisher chose the Panthers' deal. The Rams got Carolina's second-round pick (57th overall), along with selections in the third and sixth round, and hoped one of the linemen they liked would last another 16 spots.

Mission accomplished: Four of the linemen the Rams coveted were there for the taking when the Rams went on the clock at 57, and after much back-and-forth at the board (with offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and assistant line coach Andy Dickerson joining Fisher, Snead and Demoff in the discussion), it was decided Havenstein would be the choice.

"We got a road-grader, boys," Fisher announced triumphantly. "A big-ass road grader."

Or maybe they hadn't: With a phone at his ear, Demoff informed Fisher that the Buccaneers were offering a trade prospect in which the Rams would move down eight spots (receiving the first pick of the third round) and swap a sixth-round pick for Tampa Bay's fourth-rounder. After a quick discussion, Fisher decided to take the deal.

Moments later, Demoff called the Bucs back, only to learn that they had chosen to rescind the offer.

Gesturing toward Boudreau, Fisher said, "OK, this guy can exhale now. Get him a glass of wine."

To the delight of Fisher and Boudreau, Brown -- another of the linemen being discussed as the possible second-round choice -- was still there when the team's third-round selection (72nd overall) rolled around. (And the Rams -- who later took ex-Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion with the third-round pick acquired from the Panthers -- weren't done beefing up the line; they selected former Iowa tackle Andrew Donnal in the fourth round and ex-Fresno State guard Cody Wichmann in the sixth round Saturday.)

On Friday night, as he rocked back and forth in the chair behind his desk, Fisher was the emblem of serenity and satisfaction. After three seasons in which the Rams have shown occasional promise but lacked consistency -- and were unable to overcome the damage inflicted by season-ending knee injuries to Bradford -- Fisher has heard the noise that he is in a win-or-else situation for 2015.

Logic suggests this is in fact the case: Fisher's teams have gone 7-8-1, 7-9 and 6-10 since he arrived in St. Louis, and with a possible move to Los Angeles looming, there's a lot of uncertainty about the future.

Fisher, however, isn't carrying himself like a coach worried about his job security.

"I think this reflects a stability in the organization," he said of Gurley's selection. "You know, we're not impatient. We're going to bring him along and make sure he's ready to go and then hand him that little brown thing a bunch."

For this coach, at this moment, nothing could be more fulfilling.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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