Los Angeles Rams  

 

Jeff Fisher's firing comes at crucial juncture for L.A. Rams

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Jeff Fisher's demise seemed inevitable by Sunday evening, and the fatal blow was not merely the Los Angeles Rams' lopsided loss to the Falcons or that, with that loss, the Rams (4-9) had assured their fifth consecutive losing season under Fisher.

Those were bad, to be sure -- not what any franchise wants. But relocation years are difficult at best, and the upheaval is often reflected in the record. Managing the chaos and confusion that accompanies it was why the Rams wanted Fisher in place this season, their first after migrating from St. Louis to Los Angeles -- he has done it before with the Oilers' move from Houston to Tennessee, he knew what to expect, he could be a steadying hand.

But the expected road bumps on the move west turned into mountains, on the field and off it. Running back Todd Gurley said it looked like the team was running a "middle school offense." Fisher himself seemed to indict the personnel department and point the finger at individual players last week, revealing longstanding fissures among the team's brain trust. Those things, among others, made Fisher an easy punching bag for social-media snark. All problematic, but not as glaring as the culmination of disappointment that was plain even to those who didn't know of the strained personal dynamics inside the organization. And so on Monday, Fisher was fired.

The Los Angeles Coliseum itself proved to be the tomb in which Fisher's stint would be buried. It was pockmarked Sunday with empty seats and booing fans and a growing sense of apathy and frustration. Against all predictions, Los Angeles had embraced the Rams' arrival with a fervor very few saw coming. When 90,000 people showed up to a preseason game, it reassured everyone involved in allowing the Rams to leave St. Louis that a vast, diverse, distraction-laden market like Los Angeles had plenty of enthusiasm to spare for the NFL. The multibillion-dollar investment of Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the faith of the owners who approved the move, would be rewarded by the adoration of a glamorous, moneyed and ardent fan base.

Until that fan base proved to be like any other: prone to disgust with underperformance and looking around for something else to do on a Sunday afternoon. When that enthusiasm started to leak out with each loss, with the delay in starting the future franchise quarterback Jared Goff, with the league-worst offense and a disappointing defense, you knew Fisher's time was probably winding down. It was difficult to survey the scene in Los Angeles -- inside the building and on the field -- and feel confident that Fisher could turn both parts around.

The contract extension that Fisher received earlier this year, and which became public only recently, is now something of a parting gift for his trouble, even though Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer, told NFL.com's Steve Wyche only last month that Fisher should not be judged solely on his record because of the relocation. That is still true -- Fisher was the right man to manage the move and he remains well-regarded by plenty of his players and people in the league.

But Kroenke, ultimately, had no other choice as the season continued to spiral, although firing a coach with a Thursday game ahead is stunning. Kroenke was deaf to the screams of the St. Louis fan base when he moved their team, but he surely heard the growing silence in Los Angeles. He has expensive personal seat licenses to start selling soon for the Rams' new stadium. This is arguably the worst time to have a disinterested and disillusioned fan base, when an owner is approaching it with hand outstretched, hoping for cash.

There are two sure-fire ways to energize a fan base that has grown weary: switch quarterbacks and make a coaching change. The Rams tried the quarterback switch already, but Goff is still so far from ready -- on that account, Fisher was obviously correct -- that he could not provide a jolt. Now, Kroenke is trying the other approach.

With Fisher out, the focus will shift to Kroenke. With the appearance that his franchise has spun out of control, firing Fisher may prove to be the easiest part of this sequence for Kroenke. The job he can offer should be wildly attractive, because it is in an immense market and there are pieces in place that indicate the Rams could be poised to take a quick step forward: Goff and Gurley and a defense that, until this season, had been dominating. But there are delicate decisions to make. Does Kroenke want a quarterback whisperer -- an offensive coordinator, like current Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels -- to be the head man and to nurture Goff? Or does he want a bigger-picture CEO type who will bring with him a brilliant offensive mind and a quarterback guru?

The Rams get a head start on the process by creating the opening now, but only to a degree. Current NFL assistants cannot interview until their seasons are over or their team has a bye week in the playoffs. The Rams could, though, dip into the deep pool of unemployed coaches or college coaches who are sure to be interested.

Kroenke must choose carefully, even more than most owners. The loyalty he displayed to Fisher indicates Kroenke has patience, and he surely does not want a coaching carousel while trying to build a stadium and woo fans. He wants a coach who can usher the Rams not only into the playoffs, but into a new stadium on a wave of enthusiasm. And next month may provide another wrinkle. On Jan. 15, the San Diego Chargers could decide to begin the process of relocating to Los Angeles. Kroenke doesn't want that, the Chargers don't want it, and the NFL doesn't want it. But the possibility that the Chargers could siphon off even some of the fan excitement in Los Angeles has to be chilling to the Rams. That adds import to the hiring of a coach who both help Goff blossom and help a fan base bloom again, too.

For a long time, Kroenke thought that coach was Fisher -- and until the last few weeks, it seemed the right call. But after most moves, the settling in takes time. And a new home does not always mask the troubles that reside inside it.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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