Tag: Jeff Fisher

Snake-bitten Sam

Quick, apart from the position they play(ed), what do Tim Tebow, Jimmy Claussen, Colt McCoy, Mike Kafka, John Skelton, and Rusty Smith have in common with Sam Bradford?

If you said that they were the next 6 quarterbacks drafted following Bradford in the 2010 NFL draft, you would be correct. More on this later.

Any time a quarterback is taken with the first overall pick in the draft, the standard of Face of the Franchise is, either fairly or unfairly, bestowed upon that man. Sam Bradford was no different. From the moment his name was the first one read in 2010, he was going to change the fortunes of one of the most moribund franchises in all of professional sports. Apart from a three year period at the turn of the millennium, the Rams…well, they were awful.

Plagued by brutally inept leadership that consistently assembled rosters permeated by sub-professional level “talent,” failure was unavoidable. Bradford was the turning point, however. His on-field excellence was matched only by his spotless character. And with his Abercrombie model looks, the whole face of the franchise thing could literally be taken…well, literally.

If there were concerns about Bradford, they were about a shoulder injury that ended his junior and final season at Oklahoma, and kept him from participating at the combine. To date since then, it has never been an issue.

Being the first overall pick in any sport’s draft is both a blessing and a curse. Ultimately, you end up being a smashing success or a dismal failure, a “bust” if you will. There isn’t any middle ground. When I make this argument to people, for some reason they always point to Eli Manning as the example of why I’m wrong – the “other” Manning is the perfect example of the middle ground for a first overall pick. I argue back that two Super Bowl rings means smashing success unequivocally. Eli is hardly the most skilled quarterback of the last 20 years – his predecessor as top pick was the more talented and two Super Bowls lighter Carson Palmer, for example – but his status as big game leader is beyond reproach.  

The Rams brought in respected veteran AJ Feeley to both challenge Bradford for the starting gig as a rookie, but more to help the young quarterback become accustomed to life as an NFL player. Bradford played well enough to earn the starting job and it appeared a star was born.  Key word, “appeared.”

Those of us who have been Rams fans for the last few decades (guilty!) have a complex. An old work buddy of mine who was a huge Rams fan from the pre-Kurt Warner days used to truly (I think) believe that God had it in for the Rams. For the purposes of this article, and also for the purpose that it was actually his name and I’m too lazy to come up with a pseudonym for him, we’ll call him Chris. Chris once speculated to me that someone would have to sell their soul to reverse the cosmic law that forever and for always, the Rams would suck. Then, something strange happened. The heaven-ordered moratorium on competent personnel decisions was briefly lifted. They traded for the awesome multi-purpose back Marshall Faulk, signed Trent Green, a quality free agent quarterback from Washington, drafted promising receiver Torrey Holt, and things were looking up. Then, a single cheap shot by Rodney Harrison in preseason game number three changed everything. Shortly thereafter, the news became public: Trent Green’s season was over due to a knee injury.

“We’re f*****.”

That was the email I got from Chris, except that the little stars weren’t little stars. They were, in fact, letters of the alphabet. I don’t think I need to explain which ones.

The rest of that season of course was historic. Who knew that Kurt Warner would come in and play Hall of Fame level football?

Bradford won the offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, and a franchise devoid of any hope for the better part of a decade had some. The Rams even had a chance to back into the playoffs with a final week win in Seattle. Now, these Seahawks weren’t anywhere near the juggernaut that today’s squad is, but still a beast of an opponent at home.

The Seahawks ended up beating the Rams that day, 16-6, but three pivotal plays shaped the game. Two beautifully thrown bombs by Bradford, one down the middle and another down the left sideline, to rookie Danario Alexander, and a late key third down strike to tight end Daniel Fells. The normally sure-handed Alexander let both passes go right through his hands, and Fells allowed the ball to carom from right between the numbers on the front of his jersey harmlessly to the ground. Both plays to Alexander could have gone for 50 or more yards, and the play to Fells would have kept a critical late drive alive. And to be clear, all three of these passes were throws that an NFL receiver should catch 90% or more of the time. 

As frustrating as the loss was, there was a curious lack of foreboding among Rams fans. We had a young stud quarterback, we nearly made the playoffs, and things could only get better. Chris and I had long since lost touch, but I imagined that even he remained cautiously optimistic. Little did any of us know that the Seahawks game was only the beginning of, with a nod to Lemony Snickett, a lengthy series of unfortunate events for Bradford.

We’re not even talking about the injuries yet. Regular season, 2011, Game 1 against the Eagles. On the Rams’ first series, Steven Jackson thundered through the entire Philly defense for a long touchdown run. It was also his last contribution to the game as he pulled quad muscle on the run. Jackson frequently pulled muscles in the early part of seasons, leading one to believe he bit his thumb at the time-honored practice of stretching, but that’s neither here nor there. On the subsequent possession, Bradford threw a long strike to a wide open Lance Kendricks who could have waltzed into the end zone with all the urgency of molasses in January, had he only remembered the minor detail of actually catching the perfectly thrown ball.

Week 2 against the Giants, the teams were close until the game turned on a third down play deep in Giants territory where Bradford threw a lateral pass to a wide open Cadillac Williams. Williams dropped the well-thrown ball, and then inexplicably didn’t make any attempt to recover it, allowing the Giants to return it for a touchdown. Game, set, match.

The play of Bradford and his surrounding cast only deteriorated from there, culminating in a catastrophic high ankle sprain in week 7 against the Cowboys. This injury not only ruined the rest of 2011 for Bradford, it never quite healed right and cost him valuable mobility for all of 2012 – essentially making him a sitting duck for opposing defenses which penetrated the Rams’ putrid offensive line with minimal effort and remarkable ease. It’s worth noting, however, that Bradford managed to lead the Rams to seven wins in spite of terrible pass protection, and the fact that he now was working under his third offensive coordinator in three years, the appallingly incompetent Brian Schottenheimer.

2013 looked to be the first season since his rookie campaign that offered a glimpse of what a healthy Bradford may be capable of, though any real chances of a prosperous year were scuttled by a comically cataclysmic attempt at installing something resembling a spread passing attack, which ultimately spread only despair. After a particularly horrifying display at home against the 49rs, where a shell-shocked and panicky Bradford was desperately and aimlessly heaving passes in the face of a relentless San Francisco pass rush,  coach Jeff Fisher came to his senses and went to an uninventive but not calamitous power run approach behind bruising rookie Zac Stacy. Bradford’s play and that of the team improved, but giving the other teams in the stacked NFC West a four week head start is too much to overcome. Oh, and there was that whole ACL tear thing against Carolina in week 8 too.

The Bradford story for 2014 is a short one. It ended in the preseason with another ACL tear.

What is my point, you may be thinking? Well, with the trade earlier this week of Bradford to the Eagles for fellow quarterback Nick Foles, an era came to an end. It’s weird to call something that lasted just five short years an era, but it was. Bradford’s time with the Rams was a saga of unfulfilled potential and abysmal luck. It also leaves unanswered questions. Now that Bradford has been freed from any curse there might be over the Rams, as well as the lofty expectations that come along with being an obscenely overpaid quarterback before you ever even take a single NFL snap (he’s still obscenely overpaid if accomplishment is used as a barometer for what salary should be, but it’s in a new city), will he finally become the superstar that people thought he would? Or, is it just him? Remember those six guys I mentioned at the beginning? Maybe Bradford only seemed to be as good as he was in college because of who his contemporaries were. I’m among the dwindling crowd that still thinks Tim Tebow deserves to be employed as a quarterback, though probably not a starter, somewhere in the NFL. He has a playoff win to his credit (he threw for three hundred yards that game!!!!) ((though much of it came on the final play…)) (((shut up, voice in my head!!!))) and his career win-loss numbers are far from terrible. But apart from him, nobody in that crowd has accomplished anything of note in the NFL.

What do I think? Well, I think the good Lord has too many other important things to do to waste His time ensuring the continuing futility of an NFL franchise, though I haven’t entirely discounted the possibility that more sinister forces may be at work. That’s the kind of answer you’ll get from a self-aware conspiracy theorist and unapologetic pessimist. But I think Bradford is good. I think his struggles are far more a result of unfortunate circumstances and buzzard luck than they are of not being any good. Is he Andrew Luck good, to reference another number one overall pick at quarterback? No, very few people are Andrew Luck good. Is he Cam Newton good, also a first overall pick? Yeah. They’re not the same player but they’re close in terms of goodness. And you’ll see that in 2015. Or…you won’t if he gets hurt again.

Now, about Nick Foles. How good will he be? I don’t know, to be honest. The Rams offense should improve exponentially by the departure of Schottenheimer alone, but it will all be academic anyway if the Rams indeed are cursed, and Foles suffers some kind of horrible injury in preseason.

I sure hope curses aren’t real.

Why is My Seat Warm? NFL Coaches Who Might Soon be Jobless

As another NFL regular season draws to a close, a hot topic of discussion is always the coaching hot seat. It can be an awkward and unpleasant topic. In many cases it’s not 100% fair to blame the coach for a team’s underperformance. The NFL season is a short one; 16 measly games. A solid baseball team can go through a brutally bad 16 game stretch and have plenty to time to right the ship over its 162 game season. In basketball and hockey, it’s not quite as easy, but over an 82 game schedule, it’s still well within the realm of possibility to recover from a rough 16 game patch.

But football? No, entire seasons can go south in a mere 4 or 5 weeks. The quarterback can get hurt. The schedule makers can be merciless. The referees can be horrifyingly inept, or just plain cheat. Or the oblong ball made of pigskin might take an inopportune bounce. It really takes very little. The final playoff participants are frequently separated from the Just Missed Its by one lousy game…or even a tie-breaker.

And someone has to take the fall. The NFL is a gazillion dollar enterprise, and failure is not tolerated for extended periods of time; not by a fan base that spends ungodly amounts of money on season tickets and memorabilia. Not with television networks throwing around billions. Not in the social media era, where anonymity is an ancient relic from a bygone era, and everything gone wrong can instantly go viral. Every move, every mistake is under a microscope.

You can get rid of an underperforming player or two, and try to sell your fan base that an upgrade here or there was really all you needed. But put too much on the players, the guy who makes the decisions is indirectly pointing the finger at himself, since he’s the guy that went out and got those players. No no, we can’t look too hard at the GM. Well, that leaves the coach.

Again, it’s not always fair. Football can’t be painted in black and white, and there isn’t always a direct cause and effect correlation. Then again, the lowest paid nfl head coach makes 100 times what the average blogger with a day job makes, so my sympathy goes only so far. Well, for right or for wrong, here are The Stain’s top 5 coaches who may be filing for unemployment insurance sooner rather than later. 

5. Andy Reid, KC: Didn’t take us long to get to the surprises, did it? But wait a minute, you might be saying. The Chiefs have been halfway decent the last couple of seasons. And, you’d be right. In fact, they went 11-5 as recently as 2013. But there were rumblings that the record was fluky. They got off to a good start, just kind of held on at the end, and then predictably went nowhere in the playoffs. Apologists will point out that as far as the regular season goes, it doesn’t matter in what order you win the games, just that you do. And they’d be right, to a point. But this year, the team will either finish 8-8 or 9-7, barring a tie, and miss the playoffs regardless. That’s a startling regression from a team that won 11 games just one season ago, and doesn’t appear to have any age-related player regression concerns. The defense is solid, they have an all-galaxy running back in Jamal Charles. Alex Smith almost never turns the ball over. The right blueprint seems to be in place. But it didn’t happen. You look at some of the games they lost, like the one against the Raiders. A team that had just beaten Seattle should be able to win that game, right? And there was the winnable game at home against the Broncos. Charles carried the ball 10 times in that game. For perspective, the Broncos’ CJ Anderson carried it 32 times in the same game. Even if you count his four receptions, 14 times is not enough for your best player to get the ball in a game against a division opponent with Super Bowl aspirations. Some tough questions could be asked of Reid after this season. It remains to be seen whether he can come up with answers. I think he’ll get one more year, but if the brass in KC thinks that this could have been the year for them, it may be a story with an unhappy ending for Reid.

4. Marc Trestman, Chi: The Bears have to go down as one of the season’s biggest disappointments. It started week 1 at home against Buffalo, and just never really got any better. What may hurt Trestman is that he brought with him the reputation of being a sort of quarterback whisperer, someone who could coax extraordinary results from his signal caller. Well, that may or may not be true, but Jay Cutler leading the league in turnovers would jade just about anyone’s 10,000 foot judgment on that. If you look at little deeper, yeah, Cutler hasn’t been very good. But he also hasn’t been as terrible as the numbers would indicate. Quite a few of his interceptions have been of the second half variety while his team has abandoned the run and desperately tried to claw back into a game it was losing by multiple scores. This would be because the defense, by in large, showed an alarming lack of ability to stop anyone. Sure, age, injury and some personnel decisions that were questionable have had a negative impact on this unit. But Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker has to shoulder his fair share too. For years, Lovie Smith had success with a reasonably uncomplicated Tampa 2 scheme. Whatever Tucker is running currently for Chicago is neither Tampa 2 nor uncomplicated. That said, Tucker came from Jacksonville with a sterling reputation. And Trestman came from the CFL. In a logical vacuum, Tucker would seem the guy who may be responsible for more of this season’s calamity. But Trestman, at least on the surface, can be called the bigger risk when he was brought in to coach. So, logically, he’d be the guy that would make more sense to fire.

3. Jeff Fisher, Stl: Fisher has always been overrated, largely because he had a Super Bowl appearance with an absurdly talented Tennessee Titans team which he lost by half a yard. Apart from that, mediocrity abounds across his resume. When he joined the moribund Rams franchise three years ago, he was anointed some kind of savior, which was completely unfair to both him and the gullible fan base. But that said, he still represented an improvement over previous coaching regimes, so optimism spread like wildfire. After the third, and arguably worst of his three seasons in charge, the luster has worn off. However, upon closer inspection, he’s been perfectly serviceable as a head coach this year. The real issue is that as long as Brian Schottenheimer is in charge off offensive play-calling, the Rams will never be good enough. Schottenheimer is so brutally incompetent at running an offense, the Rams could eliminate his position entirely, have whomever is playing quarterback call every play at the line of scrimmage, and immediately see a drastic improvement. At the very least, there would no longer be a concerted effort made to keep the ball out of the hands of the team’s most explosive weapons. But the poop rolls down hill as they say (And by they I mean me), so Fisher is more likely to face the scrutiny. Couple the teams offensive troubles with questionable coaching selections (Gregg Williams the first time, then Tim Walton), there’s a real chance that GM Les Snead looks elsewhere. If Fisher has a saving grace, he can honestly and accurately say “look, I haven’t had a healthy starting quarterback for two consecutive seasons.” 

2. Jim Harbaugh, SF: Media outlets pretty much have already punched his ticket to Michigan, or Oakland, or…well, anywhere but San Francisco. It would have been hard to predict at the beginning of the season that the Niners would miss the playoffs. After all, the team made it to three consecutive NFC Championship Games, including one Super Bowl, and the core elements of what got them there were intact; rock solid defense, uber-athletic quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and of course, bulldozing running back Frank Gore. Looking back at the 2014 season, it’s not hard to see why it went south. The team essentially anchored Kaepernick to the pocket, taking the most explosive element of his game out of the nightmares of defensive coordinators. They also showed a Schottenheimerian reluctance to give Gore, arguably the team’s best player, the ball. Suspensions and injuries hampered the defense a little, but largely, the unit performed well. The struggles were on offense. Now, was it offensive coordinator Greg Roman who messed with a winning formula? Or was it head coach Harbaugh? I don’t know that the question will be answered. But one thing is for sure. Where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. And if Harbaugh wants out, as has been rumored all year, nobody would benefit by him staying.

1. Mike Smith, Atl: If the Falcons happen to lose on Sunday, they will have gone a combined 10-22 the last two seasons. TEN and TWENTY-TWO!!! And mind you, this is a team that boasts Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Julio Jones on offense, and shows no aversion whatsoever to getting the ball to its best players. The players, especially Ryan, love Smith. But the players are also not the ones making the decision on whether Smith stays or goes. And football is very much a what have you done for me lately game. If the Falcons happen to win on Sunday, they’ll actually win the NFC South division with a record of 7-9, and possibly save his job. But even that might be prolonging the inevitable. All you have to do is Google him and you’ll see multiple media outlets urging, albeit somewhat apologetically, for Smith’s dismissal. When it’s gotten to that point, it’s a long road back.

 

Honorable Mention. Sean Payton, NO: After nine years of coaching the Saints, you’d be hard to find many detractors of Payton. He’s universally regarded as a great coached, and he’s beloved in New Orleans. It would be hard to imagine him getting fired. But this could end up being a case of the team throwing Payton a bone and letting find a contender to coach next season. (San Francisco?) It’s time for a bit of a rebuild in New Orleans. They have some nice offensive pieces in place, with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, and a suddenly good Mark Ingram. But they’re lacking in youth and depth. Even with a good framework in place of stars to build around, it can take a couple of years to restructure a roster to perennially compete. It takes patience, and most often multiple successful drafts. Odds are Payton will stay, but would you really be overly surprised if a coach accustomed to success didn’t want to suffer through a rebuild?

 Did we miss anyone on our list? Let us know in the comments. Happy holidays, all.  

Homer Corner: Make Michael Sam a Ram

I think it says something positive about society that one day after SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam comes out as gay, the media has already moved on to way more important things…such as still debating and theorizing on why Shaun White opted not to compete in slopestyle. Now they can talk about not winning the Gold he was expected to, though regardless of what anyone says, a fourth place finish in the Olympics is hardly terrible.

That’s right, a nearly week old story about an Olympic athlete making a thought-out decision to not compete in a particular event is still commanding more headlines over the NFL soon having its first active openly gay player. 

Barring a terrible combine or suddenly going all Aaron Hernandez on an acquaintance, Sam will be drafted. He’s an excellent player as evidenced by his accomplishments this year. Some draft analysts have him going as high as the second round. Most have him in the third. All of them have him going somewhere. 

So where is that somewhere going to be? Let me be the first to say, let’s bring him to the Rams. Why? It’s the perfect environment for him. Look, one peek at Sam’s childhood/upbringing will lead you to the quick conclusion that coming out was hardly the toughest thing he’s dealt with. The kid has had three siblings die, and two more are incarcerated. He has a thick skin and will be able to deal with adversity. 

Still, you know there are going to be times when some player or fan in a spectacular moment of ignorance and bigotry will drop a slur or worse yet, wax poetic on some obtuse philosophy about football being no place for a man like Sam. Thick skin or not, when adversity rears its head, it’s nice to be where you are comfortable, feel supported and can bank on the right people having your back. 

So why the Rams? After all, if this were an episode of Family Feud, and Steve Harvey said, “Top five answers on the board, name a state associated with social tolerance,” think Missouri would crack the list? However, that’s where Sam went to college. And he came out to his team before the season started, and they all had his back. Nobody sold him out on Twitter. Nobody leaked a story anonymously to the press. They knew for months. We found out yesterday. Pretty freaking cool, huh? 

Second, there’s coach Jeff Fisher. I’ve long thought that his reputation as a coach is inflated. I still think he lacks the ability to make the in game adjustments to steal the extra win or three over the course of a season that the top coaches always seem to somehow manage. And I’m still convinced his eye for talent has cataracts. After all, this is the guy who thought Jim Walton, who presided over a breath-takingly bad secondary in Detroit, had the chops to handle a defensive coordinator position. But as a human being, Fisher seems the type to have his priorities firmly in line, and any intolerance will, for lack of a better way to put it, simply not be tolerated. 

Third, that defense is already populated with classy leaders; Chris Long, William Hayes, James Laurinaitas. Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn are growing into those roles too. (It’s worth mentioning Cortland Finnegan too. His atrocious play might spell release, rendering him a non-point, but nobody has ever questioned him as a leader to young teammates.) If these guys can provide an environment where young players deemed prone to getting in trouble, such as Alec Ogletree and Janoris Jenkins, can stay for the most part in line, providing a positive work environment for a teammate whose “difference” from everyone else is something as insignificant as sexual orientation should be a breeze. 

Ultimately, Sam’s success or failure as a professional football player will probably have nothing to do with his orientation, and everything to do with whether he can physically and mentally compete at the next level, just like it does for everyone else trying to make the jump from college to the pros. Personally, I’d like to see him succeed and I think St. Louis is great place for him to start that journey.