Why it’s time to blow up the Rams (and why that won’t happen)

Rather than some short writeups across the league this week, I decided to take a more in-depth look at a situation that, as a fan of good football, bugs me. The St. Louis Rams have, under head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead, taken a team that was possibly the absolute worst in the league from 2007-2011– totaling 15 wins over those five seasons, including a seven-win season in 2010– and turned them into a team that is, at least, competitive in many games, if not quite ready to take a leap beyond the six- and seven-win dregs.

These improvements might lead one to think that the current nucleus of the team is primed to take a big leap forward soon. I think this is a mirage, and the team’s long-term prospects will be severely hampered if they stick with that core. Read on as I describe the problems.

1. Sam Bradford is not a franchise quarterback.

The Rams got something of a lucky break when Bradford tore his ACL last week. Human cost aside, this gave them an ideal opportunity to move on from the 2010 #1 overall pick, since it thwarts his leverage to command an extension and next year is the first where the team can cut Bradford without crippling their cap.

However, it seems management still sees Bradford as their franchise QB and plans to extend him accordingly. I think this is a mistake.

Bradford has been improving steadily throughout his career from a statistical standpoint, but these statistics need some context. The team has gone out of its way to give him as many weapons as possible on offense. Here are the resources the Rams have used to acquire receivers for Bradford:

  • 2011: Second-round pick (TE Lance Kendricks), Third-round pick (WR Austin Pettis)
  • 2012: Second-round pick (WR Brian Quick), Fourth-round pick (WR Chris Givens)
  • 2013: Traded up to the #8 overall pick (WR Tavon Austin), Third-round pick (WR Stedman Bailey), Free-agent contract at 5 years, $35 million total, with $19 million guaranteed (TE Jared Cook)

Now, shouldn’t you expect some incremental improvements from any quarterback whose team devotes this kind of attention to improving their passing game? Of course you should, barring the absolute bottom of the barrel at quarterback (Jerry Rice and Jesus himself could line up at WR for Jacksonville, and Blaine Gabbert would still put up bottom-3 numbers). Bradford’s improvements have been gradual; he hasn’t made any leap that suggests he “gets it.” This suggests the improvement in his numbers is as much a product of having better receivers as anything else.

So what exactly is wrong with Bradford? Fortunately for me, someone else has explained it better. Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders wrote an article last week about the problems with Bradford. I agree with all of them. For one, by the time it’s your fourth season in the league, your “potential” is no longer a factor– either you’re a player or you aren’t. The one impressive play Bradford makes no longer makes up for the ten where he misses an open target, demonstrates no pocket presence or feel for the rush, or lets his mechanics break down because he perceives pressure.

Bradford is simply too inconsistent to be counted on as a franchise QB. Without him, though, the Rams’ prospects for this season are essentially done, which means they could have two fairly high picks in next May’s draft (Washington is currently 2-5), and in a draft full of legitimate QB prospects, they should do whatever it takes to acquire one.

2. Jeff Fisher is overrated.

Probably a more controversial statement than “Sam Bradford doesn’t have it.” Fisher has a long track record in the NFL, particularly when it comes to getting abjectly awful teams to play like they give a damn. Unfortunately, he has rarely been able to get teams to play much better than that. I’ll break down why I don’t think he’s the right coach for this team– and maybe for any team, at this stage of his career.

  1. His record is unimpressive. Fisher has had eighteen full seasons as a head coach, and he has only produced winning records in six of them. (Eight times, he’s gone 8-8 or 7-9). His nineteenth doesn’t look likely to be a winner, either. His current winning percentage of .531 puts him fifty-second among all coaches who have coached at least 100 games. He’s thirteenth among qualifying coaches currently active. His winning percentage puts him behind such luminaries as Jack Del Rio, John Fox, and Brian Billick. His six winning teams include two 13-3 teams that didn’t win a playoff game.
    It seems like Fisher is a coach who’s good at getting a team to play at an average level, but not much beyond that without some breaks. I think people (fans, pundits, announcers, executives) like the idea of Jeff Fisher more than anything: He projects an air of toughness and grittiness, emphasizes defense, and all that harkens back to a time when football was still primarily won by grinding large men into each other, when the passing game was still mostly a novelty. But that approach, and that perception, speak to the next two problems:
  2. His approach to football is antiquated. The change in NFL rules since the millenium have given quarterbacks and receivers much more freedom to perform, and offense has exploded since then. More than ever, passing and defending the pass is what matters when it comes to winning NFL games, platitudes aside. Fisher still seems to cling to the approach of “run, stop the run, play good defense, and maybe field position will allow us to win a battle of field goals.” In a league where the best teams can score from anywhere on the field, that’s just not going to to cut it anymore. Fisher only seems barely, if at all, interested in developing a truly effective offense in St. Louis (but we’ll get to that in a minute).
  3. His teams play dirty. Now, this one is more difficult to prove with statistics, so I’ll just look at some pieces of evidence:
    • Drafted and developed Albert Haynesworth, notorious head-stomper who blatantly quit trying when it wasn’t going to directly lead to him getting paid.
    • Drafted and developed Cortland Finnegan, then signed him from Tennessee to St. Louis. Finnegan is notorious around the league as a dirty player who tries to goad opposing wide receivers into committing penalties by retaliating to his cheap shots and getting caught.
    • Frequently drafts defenders other teams consider to have character concerns (Pac-Man Jones, Janoris Jenkins, and Alec Ogletree are just three examples). Of course, if an offensive player has character concerns, he’ll pass– we all remember Kevin Dyson over Randy Moss in 1998. This suggests to me that Fisher deliberately targets defensive players he thinks will play dirty.
    • His St. Louis defense was first in the league in penalties called last year, and fourth in penalty yardage. This year, they are sixth in penalties called, but second in penalty yardage assessed. His last defense in Tennessee was second in both penalties and yards. These numbers don’t actually hold very well going back further than that, which could be simple variance, or possibly that referees are catching on to what Fisher is doing with his teams.
    • Let’s look at Fisher’s coaching tree. Over in Detroit now, Jim Schwartz was Fisher’s longtime defensive coordinator. And look at what he brought with him: A propensity for penalties and personal fouls, defensive tackles known for playing dirty, and a team that regularly crosses the line between hard play and dirty tactics. Now, Schwartz is more of an unhinged maniac on the field than Fisher is, so his dirty play is more obvious, but he learned it at the feet of the best.
    • Perhaps most to the point, Fisher is best friends with Gregg Williams, the man behind the bounty scandal that ended up gutting a Saints season in a ham-handed attempt by Roger Goodell to score a PR win (but that’s another story for another time). Williams was Fisher’s defensive coordinator for four years before the head coaching offers started rolling in, and Fisher had hired him again last season until he was suspended indefinitely. If you believe, as I do and as other reports suggest, that the bounty program is Williams’ brainchild and he ran it at multiple other stops in his career, then he almost surely ran it at Tennessee, and Fisher almost surely knew. And Fisher wanted to hire him again anyway.

Fisher obviously does some things well, but I think his “offense not necessary” approach ultimately will prevent him from building a powerful team. As a fan of well-run teams, I want to see the Rams hire a coach who will develop an offense that can compete for championships. (More on that in just a second.) As someone who loathes dirty play, I want to see Fisher out of the league so this kind of crap will stop. You think it’s coincidence that Janoris Jenkins is loading up on personal fouls and starting fights with Steve Smith? Or that Chris Long got himself ejected last week against Carolina? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and everywhere Jeff Fisher coaches, the ugly smoke of dirty play, after-the-whistle violence, and deliberate baiting and instigating trails right behind him.

Now, I can’t tease talking about the offense twice without really getting into it, so here’s the third major component of the Rams’ limitations:

3. Brian Schottenheimer is just bad.

This one is probably the least controversial, but I have the most to say about it. Brian Schottenheimer is the latest NFL coach whose job security seems to come from his last name more than anything else. In a league that hates risky decisions and loves nepotism, the decision to hire a Schottenheimer must have seemed as natural as the decision to hire a Shula did once upon a time.

But what qualifications does Schottenheimer really possess? He was quarterbacks coach in San Diego from 2002-2005. You can argue that he was responsible for the development of Drew Brees, but I think there are holes in that argument. First off, he failed to develop Brees to a degree that didn’t necessitate the team taking Philip Rivers in 2004. Brees’ performance notably improved once his seat became obviously hot. Second, Rivers was a four-year starter at North Carolina State, about as polished and ready for action as a QB prospect can be. I don’t think Schottenheimer had to do much to develop him, and he sat for two years anyway once Brees elevated his game.

The thing is, even if you disregard my above caveats, Brees and Rivers are the only really positive notes on Schottenheimer’s record. From 2006-2011, he was the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets. His most notable accomplishment in that time was failing to develop Mark Sanchez. In the three years before that, he had a well-below-average offense with Chad Pennington, finishing 25th and 26th in yards, until Brett Favre arrived and took the team to a less-bad 16th. (I know yards are not everything, but sometimes when writing a column, it’s the well-kept and easy-to-sort records that are used.) In his first two years in St. Louis, he has the 23rd and 30th-ranked offense by yards. And the band played on. It seems likely Schottenheimer will simply go down as merely the next coach who couldn’t develop Sam Bradford.

Of course, as the Bradford paragraph implies (and expresses), that isn’t totally Schottenheimer’s fault. But he isn’t without blame, either. Here’s how I best can explain this: Of the factors I consider when evaluating coaches, two are particularly important in this case. First, how well does a coach try to maximize the skills of his particular personnel, and second, how well does he understand what his unit executes well (or poorly)?

Sam Bradford was effective in college in a spread attack, one that placed him in shotgun and allowed him to survey the field easily and make quick decisions. (Granted, this may be part of the reason why his sense for the rush has failed to develop, but I digress.) Why not incorporate some of those principles into the offense? Why not put Bradford in a situation where he is more likely to succeed?

This is similarly true with Tavon Austin. His speed and acceleration made him a jack-of-all-trades offensive threat as a prospect; why isn’t he being used that way? Why haven’t there been more plays designed to get Austin in space? I know space is limited in the NFL compared to the college game, but from what I’ve seen, the Rams mostly use him on shallow crossing routes and standard handoffs.

If you have a team that’s spent so many resources on the passing game, you need to devise a system that takes maximum advantage of those players. Instead, Schottenheimer seems content to run a more-or-less standard pro set, mixing in all those classic runs with an uncreative passing game that too often comes up short. If you have lots of young talent at QB and WR, and your RB and interior line are fairly pedestrian, why do you run so many standard runs up the middle, and why don’t you create some plays to take advantage of where your strengths lie? Why don’t you pass the ball in a spread set once in a while?

Of course, as last night’s game proved, Schottenheimer can’t even get that right when he tries to. With Kellen Clemens playing the whole game in place of Bradford (the Rams haven’t even attempted to develop someone behind Bradford, another problem– if management thought Austin Davis had legitimate talent, he wouldn’t still be on the practice squad), the passing game had been struggling all night. However, the team had been running the ball well; Zac Stacy gained 134 yards, and when he went out with an ankle injury, Daryl Richardson looked competent (albeit like he had no ability to make a cut whatsoever).

The team got to first-and-goal from the 6 trailing 14-9 with the clock running down. On the four downs, the only positive play was a Richardson run on second down for four yards. On third down, after a penalty brought them from the 2 to the 1, they handed it to Richardson for no gain. On the other two plays, Schottenheimer called a play with four wide receivers, motioned the running back out to leave an empty backfield, and called for Clemens to make a quick throw.

Okay. Going into this drive, Clemens is 15/29 for 158 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. This is a pretty bad game. Combine that with Seattle’s potent pass defense, and passing seems like a really bad option here, since St. Louis has all of their timeouts and can manipulate the clock to ensure they get the last possession, no matter what.

But… you can make an argument for running a pass off a play-action, or keeping a running back in to block and flare out to an empty part of the field if no one rushes. Doing the unexpected always has a better chance of succeeding than the expected. Either way, you either provide some protection for your QB, and you force the defense to respect the possibility of the run, which may give you the edge you need to complete a TD pass. But if you take the running back out of the backfield, you can’t do that.

But… If you’re really thinking ahead, you can plan for this possibility as well. Clemens showed decent mobility on two scrambles earlier. Perhaps you can spread out the field, you can call a quarterback draw for Clemens, or, failing that, Clemens can scramble in if he sees an open lane. Perhaps spreading the field clears the middle enough that darting behind a blocker for one yard is an easy six. But if you call for a quick pass, you take away Clemens’ ability to do that.

By putting the offense in a position where they had to do exactly one thing or the entire play would be a failure, Schottenheimer hamstrung that offense. By making that one thing something St. Louis had shown no ability to do consistently or well during the course of the game, Schottenheimer gave his team as little chance to win the game as possible.

Why would Brian Schottenheimer run spread passes in this situation, where his team had been running well but throwing poorly? I’m forced to conclude he either didn’t understand what his team had been doing well and what they had been doing poorly, or that his play-calling is too clever by half. Either way, his team had a chance to win, and he put them in a position where to win, they had to win a one-on-one matchup against a much better player, twice.

This is an offense that can’t compete in the NFL right now. I don’t know if Sam Bradford or Brian Schottenheimer is more to blame, but I believe they both need to go if that is going to change. Jeff Fisher might have some positive qualities as a coach and be a strong leader, but I’d just as soon have a coach who encourages his players to play dirty out of the league. I haven’t made up my mind on Les Snead– he’s made some good picks and some questionable ones.  The real test for him will be if he accurately assesses that this team’s perceived strength and positive direction are a paper tiger, or if he falls into the trap of mistaking mediocrity for progress and square-jawed tough talk for good coaching.

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