Postcard from camp: Rams
Despite setting the record for most losses in a five-year span, Rams have talent
The offensive line will have to keep Sam Bradford upright for the team to win
It's clear so far that the Rams intend on running the ball a lot more this season
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about Rams camp in Earth City, Mo., which he visited on July 29. Read all of our postcards here.
At Rams Park, the team's year-round training facility in Earth City. Mother Nature gave the players a break for the first full-squad practice of the Jeff Fisher Era. Four days after temperatures topped out at 108 degrees -- it was the 11th day of 105 or higher in St. Louis this summer -- a cooling rain moved through the area and made the afternoon relatively pleasant. Just over 1,600 fans attended the opening practice, which might not sound like much after the Cardinals drew 14,500 and the Broncos nearly 6,000. But it was an impressive showing considering space is limited and the team has not had a winning season since 2003.
1. You'd never know the Rams are coming off a season in which they set a league record for most losses (65) in a five-year span. The reason for the optimism is Fisher, who won three division titles, appeared in one Super Bowl and had only five losing seasons in 16 full years with the Oilers/Titans. The 54-year-old has set the bar high in his first year in St. Louis, telling SI: "Since I took this job nobody has told me that I can't win a championship this year." Perhaps not, but the numbers are daunting. Over the past five seasons the Rams have ranked in the bottom seven in points scored and points allowed four times. Four times. In two of the past three seasons they were last in scoring, and on three occasions they were 31st among 32 teams in points allowed. Which could cause you to shake your head at my next observation.
2. The roster isn't bereft of talent. Once Fisher solidifies the offensive line and adds experienced weapons on the perimeter, Sam Bradford will develop into one of the game's elite quarterbacks. There's nothing the 2010 No. 1 pick can't do. He has a strong arm, tremendous accuracy and more athleticism than outsiders realize. Running back Steven Jackson is getting older, but has run for more than 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons. Chris Long is emerging as a top defensive end; middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is a high-impact performer; second-year defensive end Robert Quinn has the skill set to be an elite pass rusher and left tackle Rodger Saffold showed great promise as a rookie before slipping last season and ultimately winding up on injured reserve with a torn pectoral.
Additionally, first-year GM Les Snead and Fisher signed cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who played six seasons for Fisher in Tennessee, and crafty wideout Steve Smith during free agency, and brought in expected starters Michael Brockers and Janoris Jenkins through the draft. Jenkins has been particularly impressive. He moves smoothly and is so poised you'd never know he's a rookie.
3. The NFC West is going to be the most physical division in football. Let me repeat: The NFC West is going to be the most physical division in football. The NFL may be a quarterbacks' league, but the coaches in this division -- save for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt -- lean heavily on their run games. San Francisco's 498 rushing attempts last season ranked third overall; Seattle's Marshawn Lynch went over 100 yards rushing six times during a late-season nine-game stretch; and Fisher's teams ranked in the top 10 in rushing in half of his 16 full seasons.
You can look at Fisher's offensive assistants to know what he wants to do on offense. Brian Schottenheimer coordinated the Jets' ground-and-pound attack with the Jets; line coach Paul Boudreau was with Atlanta the past four seasons when the Falcons ranked 11th or higher in rushing attempts per season, including two stints in the top five; and tight ends coach Rob Boras, whose unit helped Maurice Jones-Drew lead the league in rushing last season. "In our first meeting it was made very clear that as an offense we're going to be a physical running team, and we're going to wear teams out," Bradford says. "It's an attitude that has to show up on the field, and these next five weeks in training camp that's something we've got to develop. It's something we're going to work at, so by the time the regular season gets here it's our identity. It's second nature."
Rodger Saffold, left tackle. The 2010 second-round pick played at a high level as a rookie, but didn't handle the lockout well and reported to camp last season in less-than-optimum condition. His year only got worse from there. He missed time because of a concussion, then was lost for the year after tearing a pectoral muscle lifting weights in November. It's critical that he regain his 2010 form and protect Bradford's blind side. According to Football Outsiders, Bradford has absorbed 159 knockdowns (sacks + hits) the past two seasons. If you think that's not an issue, think again. Bradford admits that at times he found himself looking at the pressure or running instead of sliding in the pocket. The Rams plan to run the ball to take pressure off Bradford, but they need Saffold in particular to step up in situations where they put the ball in the air.
Cortland Finnegan, cornerback. The Rams had a revolving door at cornerback last season, where injuries decimated them. Finnegan has missed only three games in six seasons and has 77 starts the past five years. His experience and presence is critical not only because he understands what Fisher wants out of the defense, but also because he has been a good tutor for Jenkins, who will start as a rookie. "I'm kind of picking his brain," says Jenkins. "I see what his preparation is like, how he goes about studying film, what he keys on in 7-on-7, and I'll ask him what he sees that gives him that recognition during a play. I'm just trying to learn from him, and follow in his steps. He knows the ins and outs of the NFL game."
The schedule is a monster early. The Rams not only travel to Detroit and Chicago and host Green Bay and New England in the first eight weeks, but also have divisional games against Seattle and Arizona. The final eight weeks are no less daunting; four of their final six games are on the road, including rematches against the Seahawks and Cardinals.