GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He sat in a folding chair a few feet from the showering area of the visitors' locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, flashing the tiniest hint of a self-satisfied smile under his ubiquitous Highway Patrolman's mustache.
Jeff Fisher, perhaps the NFL's most maligned coach heading into the 2016 season, was doing his best to low-key the Los Angeles Rams' 17-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, calling his team's third consecutive triumph after a putrid season opener "an under-the-radar win by a quiet team just going about its business."
It was a valiant effort -- until I asked Fisher what he'd told his pumped-up players before reporters had entered the locker room, and a man who has spent 22 years of his adult life as an NFL head coach finally stopped concealing the edge that has helped him connect with several generations worth of gridiron warriors and fessed up: "I told them, 'This was [the Cardinals'] Christmas present. We see them after Christmas [a Jan. 1 rematch at the L.A. Coliseum]. This was their Christmas present. We just gave it to them early, OK?' "
More specifically, Fisher's trash talk was a parting gift for a certain white-haired gentleman who, at the moment, was feeling pretty far from jolly. Certainly, after watching his highly regarded team fall to 1-3 and seeing his franchise quarterback suffer a concussion on a jarring fourth-quarter takedown, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians did not need to have insult added to injury. Yet Fisher did it anyway, because frankly, at that particular moment -- and I paraphrase -- he did not give a damn.
"Go back and see all the s--- Bruce said against us a couple of years ago," Fisher said, referring to Arians' comments following a 12-6 road victory over the then-St. Louis Rams in December of 2014. ("I love it when nobody says that you will have a chance to win," Arians had said. "There is an 11-3 team, and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out.")
It's not hard to figure out why Fisher remains so perturbed by that particular taunt: The always 8-8 stereotype is one that has been used against him increasingly as he struggles to shake the Rams out of their recent pattern of perpetual mediocrity. It's true that Fisher has had his share of middling campaigns: In 10 of his 20 full seasons as the head coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Rams, Fisher's teams have gone either 8-8, 7-9 or 7-8-1. In fairness, he also has posted a trio of 13-3 regular seasons, including one from the gritty Titans squad that fell a mere yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV -- but it has been 12 years since his last postseason victory, and the noise questioning his credentials has grown more deafening than a Metallica concert.
At that point, it looked like Fisher would have trouble winning one game, let alone seven -- and that he might not make it past September. Instead, for the Rams and their suddenly swagger-drenched coach, it's Christmas in October, something exactly no one on the outside saw coming a few weeks ago.
"Hey, it's L.A." quarterback Case Keenum joked as he sat at his locker after Sunday's victory. "It's Hollywood. It's a storyline ... and it's not short on drama."
It certainly wasn't on Sunday, as the Rams pulled out a come-from-behind victory on the strength of a timely Tavon Austin punt return, a second Keenum touchdown pass to receiver Brian Quick with 2:36 remaining and a trio of fourth-quarter takeaways, the last a T.J. McDonald interception of a Drew Stanton Hail Mary as time expired. The Rams' defensive devastation was an all-day affair, as they forced five turnovers and knocked out Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, whose head slammed violently against the turf when he was sacked by L.A. linemen Aaron Donald and Eugene Sims with five-and-a-half minutes remaining.
And when it was over, for the second consecutive Sunday, the Rams had won a road game they had to sweat out until the final snap -- and, with a 3-1 record, remained tied for the NFC West lead with the Seattle Seahawks (a team they defeated in their lone home game of the 2016 season thus far), two games ahead of the struggling Cardinals and Niners.
To understand how the Rams got here, you have to go back to that abysmal opening night in Santa Clara. As Fisher trudged off the Levi's Stadium turf, he was being lambasted across the football-watching land -- partly because his team looked overmatched, and partly because Jared Goff, the rookie quarterback for whom his team made a blockbuster trade to draft with the first overall pick, was in street clothes while the unheralded Keenum ran (or, in that case, attempted to run) the offense.
We'll get to the Goff situation in a moment. First, let's appreciate the fact that Fisher resisted the compulsion to panic, and that his team responded accordingly.
"My mindset was really simple," Fisher recalled. "It was a Monday night game, and earlier that weekend, 15 other teams had lost ... and a lot of 'em were good football teams. That was the message to our team -- that we're just one of the 16 teams that lost our opener. I told them, 'We're a good football team.' We put it behind us as quick as we could."
Amazingly, Fisher seemed to be speaking the truth. And as the Rams prepared to host the NFL's first regular-season game in Los Angeles in more than two decades, they vibed off their coach's calm demeanor.
"Jeff's one of the better coaches in the league, in my opinion," said middle linebacker Alec Ogletree, who had seven tackles against the Cardinals. "He does a great job of taking care of his players, and of getting us prepared, and we love playing for him. We've just got to keep playing the way he wants us to play."
Added Austin, who likely would have scored Sunday's winning touchdown had Arizona's Ifeanyi Momah not dragged him down by the facemask to short-circuit a 47-yard punt return with 5:09 remaining: "After [the 49ers defeat], I definitely was shocked. That wasn't us. Looking back, I think we were just smelling ourselves -- thinking we had arrived without putting in the work we need to put in. One thing about Coach Fisher, he always calms us down and helps us fight back. That's where the mindset comes from that has allowed us to win these games."
Even after their 9-3 victory over the Seahawks at the Coliseum, the Rams still seemed shaky -- in two games, they had yet to score a touchdown, which amplified the calls from outsiders for Fisher to make the switch to Goff. Instead, the coach chose to make light of the Rams' offensive struggles, telling his players in a team meeting two days after the Seahawks victory, "I just unpacked one of the boxes from the move [to the team's temporary training facility at Cal Lutheran University], and guess what I found in there? Some touchdowns. They do exist!"
Later that day at practice, Fisher pulled the entire offense out of a drill and asked them to gather at the far side of one of the team's practice fields. "This is the end zone," Fisher deadpanned. "See, this is what it feels like."
Last Sunday, the Rams' air attack got untracked in a 37-32 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Keenum (18 of 30, 266 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) wasn't as prolific against the Cardinals, and with star second-year running back Todd Gurley (19 carries, 33 yards) continuing to struggle to find any semblance of running room, it took a full-team effort to vanquish the Cardinals (1-3), who have now lost as many regular-season games as they did in all of 2015.
In other words, the NFC West Crisis Watch has officially migrated east to the Valley of the Sun, while the Rams head back to Tinseltown riding high in advance of Sunday's home game against the Buffalo Bills. And while it's still possible Keenum could give way to Goff at some point this season, he remains the Rams' leading man -- at least in the eyes of the people who matter most.
"Here's what Case is to us: He's 6-2 in our last eight games," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "That's the definition of him."
And Goff, who was the team's second-string quarterback Sunday, says he's perfectly cool with Fisher's patient approach -- with a not-so-surprising caveat.
"As long as we're winning, I'm good," he said after Sunday's game. "We're 3-1, and I'm just trying to enjoy it."
For one thing, Goff understands that Fisher's preference for easing him into his lofty role is a philosophical one. This was the way the coach handled the early stages of the late Steve McNair's Titans career, with highly successful results, and Fisher says he will do what he believes is best for Goff's development and for the franchise's long-term interests, period.
"That's clear -- and it's been that way from Day 1," Fisher said. "Our rookie quarterback is making really good progress. Our rookie quarterback is a Case Keenum fan, and Case is a Jared fan. It's all good."
While Fisher and his assistants would like to see Goff reduce the amount of interceptions he throws against the scout team, they're convinced that if thrown into the fray immediately, he has the physical skill, instincts and intelligence to thrive. That said, they recognize that he is only 21, and that many successful quarterbacks -- including Palmer, now 36 -- benefitted by observing and learning in the early part of their careers.
Said one Rams assistant coach: "Wentz turns 24 later this year. Goff is 21. This is a lot to take in for a 21-year-old. We said in our draft meetings, if you had to play a guy right away, you'd probably take Wentz, cause he played in a pro-style system and is older. The whole point with Jared is that he doesn't have to play right away. We love the kid."
Staying patient with the future face of the franchise would not seem to be the preferred approach of a man coaching for his job -- but Fisher, to his credit, doesn't seem to be especially stressed out by any of that. He declined to comment on his contract status, including the whispers that he and the Rams have already hammered out a multi-year extension that has yet to be announced, but he certainly exudes the confidence of a man who feels very secure about his present situation.
Fisher is the first to concede that his immediate past wasn't as fulfilling as it might have been: His first four seasons with the Rams -- and the first week of his fifth season -- were not without their share of 7-9 BS, or worse.
"I know what took place here from the day we walked in the door," Fisher said. "We took over a 2-14 team that was depleted. And we played six different quarterbacks. And now we're starting to get some stability, and we think we can take it a lot further."
And if Fisher's right? Well, Christmas in Tinseltown could be pretty festive this year, and January could be even better.