AL SAUNDERS runs
for an hour every day, and while he runs he thinks. Saunders, who was hired
last January as the St. Louis offensive coordinator after running the Redskins'
attack for two years, thinks about his new team's performance in practice,
about revisions to his 700-plus-page playbook, and about his time as the Rams'
receivers coach in the late '90s, when they were the Greatest Show on Turf and
winners of Super Bowl XXXIV. Mostly, Saunders, 61, thinks about how he can get
this year's attack to resemble that one. He has a lot of thinking to do.
The Rams were in
free fall last season, as player after player succumbed to injuries. By year's
end, 12 Rams, six of them starters, were on injured reserve, and St. Louis was
3--13. This season the hope is understandably to keep healthy bodies on the
field, specifically the offensive and defensive linemen. "Those guys in the
trenches decide our fate," says third-year coach Scott Linehan.
started in Week 1, when Orlando Pace, the seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, went
down with a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. That left quarterback Marc
Bulger more vulnerable; he was sacked six times against the 49ers in Week 2 and
suffered broken ribs, eventually missing two games. In Week 12 he suffered a
concussion and missed two more games. In the 12 games he did play, Bulger, who
had a Pro Bowl season in 2006, was sacked 37 times and threw only 11 touchdown
passes, with 15 interceptions. Linehan brought in former Chiefs quarterbacks
coach Terry Shea to repair Bulger's form and, more importantly, his psyche.
"With all the
injuries I lost my fundamentals and got happy feet," says Bulger.
"Terry takes a detailed approach to the game, which helped me a lot. I
never had a season like last season'it was just a terrible, terrible year. But
I worked hard to get straight this off-season, so whatever happens won't be for
lack of effort."
Pace, 32, had
shoulder surgery September 2007 and early in camp estimated he was back to 90%
effectiveness. Then in the second preseason game he banged up the shoulder
making a tackle on an interception, although there were no tears to the labrum
or rotator cuff. To boost his flexibility, Pace added yoga to his midweek
training regimen, as did middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, one of the bright
spots last season with a team-high 110 tackles.
offensive line lost its top player, the defense also had to scramble without
end Leonard Little, who had a nagging toe injury that ended his season after
Week 7. Little, who had 13 sacks in 2006 but only one before he was hurt last
season, is expected to get significant help from top draft pick Chris Long, the
Virginia standout and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. Noted for playing with
maximum intensity on every down, the 6'3", 263-pound Long is adjusting
quickly to coordinator Jim Haslett's aggressive, blitz-heavy system.
"When he got
here he was running all over the place, but now he's getting the scheme down,
and we're seeing flashes of the true Chris Long and realize why he was drafted
so high," says linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. "I'm hoping to tap that
reserve because his potential can pay dividends quickly."
provided reason for hope, the best news of camp was that Steven Jackson's
contract dispute was resolved. The Pro Bowl running back, who has averaged more
than 100 yards per game from scrimmage since entering the league in 2004, was
holding out for a renegotiation of the five-year, $7 million contract he signed
as a rookie. The deal finally got done on Aug. 21: six years at $44.8 million,
with just over $20 million guaranteed.
The Rams could
only hope Jackson would quickly work himself into playing condition'and, like
his teammates, stay in playing condition. "Well, if anything, he'll be
fresh," says Saunders. Just more for him to think about on those long
LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH ERIC MANGINI (11-21 in NFL), third season the