Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ve been profiling a Rams position group. Today we wrap things up by looking at the coaches.
For the third year, the St. Louis Rams return a coaching staff, led by head coach Jeff Fisher, that is widely thought of as one of the best staffs that’s been around since the team moved to St. Louis. The staff has done a great rebuilding job over their first two years, accumulating a 14-17-1 record which is a significant improvement over the 15-65 record the Rams had from 2007 to 2011. Even so, 2014 will be a huge year for Fisher and company, because the general expectation is that an NFL head coach should make the playoffs by his third year. While that’s not necessarily the case since the NFC West includes the two teams who played in last year’s NFC Championship Game, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, plus the 10-win Arizona Cardinals, the Rams at least need to be competitive in 2014.
That would mean that Fisher’s Rams certainly can’t regress this season. But ideally, they should surpass .500, which is probably a major priority on the checklist of the man sometimes known as “Coacho Ocho” because he’s finished with an 8-8 record five times during his 22-year head coaching career. With a maturing group of core players and a stable 22-coach staff that only endured one change this offseason, it’s about time for the Rams to start experiencing some real success.
Once again at Fisher’s side will be former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis. The soon-to-be 63-year-old has extensive experience as a defensive coach, but with the Rams his chief responsibilities are to make sure things are running smoothly and take advantage of his previous head coaching experience to provide assistance at any position across the field. In addition to that, he’s a great asset to some of the younger and more inexperienced coaches on the staff.
Arguably the biggest addition to the Rams, even including players, is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The 55-year-old, who Fisher once called his “best friend in coaching”, was originally supposed to take the job when Fisher was arrived in 2012. Prior to the season, however, Williams was suspended for the entire season because of his role in the “Bountygate” scandal as defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. During that time period, Williams’ son Blake led a committee of coaches that oversaw the Rams’ defense, but he was fired following the season because of his failure to mesh with the rest of the coaching staff. This and other events apparently led to tension between Fisher and the elder Williams, and Williams worked for the Tennessee Titans while the two of them ceased speaking to each other.
After a 2013 season which saw the Rams’ defense regress under new defensive coordinator Tim Walton, however, Fisher realized that a change needed to be made and contacted Williams, who was officially hired in February. His tenacity, both through his on-field personality and his play calling, could enable the Rams’ defense to soar to new heights in 2014. Especially with a talented group of pass rushers that includes emerging superstar Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, Williams’ aggressive strategy should free up the linebackers and defensive backs to be able to make more of an impact.
The rest of the defensive staff will return under Williams. That includes defensive line coaches Mike Waufle and Clyde Simmons, who will try to make the Rams’ pass rushing attack even more dominant, linebackers coaches Frank Bush and Joe Bowden, who have a steady veteran group of starters but are responsible for the development of a very green set of backups, and defensive backs coaches Chuck Cecil and Brandon Fisher, who will aim to create stability in a very young secondary. Former Washington Redskins cornerback Dennard Wilson is also on the staff as a quality control coach.
On offense, coordinator and play-caller Brian Schottenheimer will look to repair his reputation with fans and media members who have blamed him for the Rams’ inability to get over the hump. The former New York Jets coordinator has the advantage of having a healthy Sam Bradford and plenty of talent to operate a successful running attack. Beyond figuring out how to make the passing game more viable than it was in 2013, Fisher will need to find a way to make 2013 first-rounder Tavon Austin a major impact player in the offense and decide how to best divide the reps at running back between second-year back Zac Stacy, who ran for 973 yards in 2013, and rookie Tre Mason, who ran for 1816 yards and 23 touchdowns last season at Auburn.
Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and his assistant, Andy Dickerson, will be faced with the task of acclimating tackle-turned-guard Greg Robinson to the NFL game and preparing him to serve as a key element of the Rams’ running attack. In addition to monitoring the continued progress of returning starters Jake Long, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold, and Joe Barksdale, Boudreau and Dickerson will be overseeing the development of two other 2014 draft picks, Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrius Rhaney, and 2013 fourth-rounder Barrett Jones, who could end up being their best option at center long-term.
Each of the other offensive assistant will also have at least one developmental project during camp. Quarterback coach Frank Cignetti will be helping along Sam Bradford as he works his way back from a torn ACL, in addition to helping newly-signed veteran backup Shaun Hill in adjusting to the offense and working with 2014 sixth-rounder Garrett Gilbert.
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans will oversee Mason’s adjustment to the pro game. Wide receivers coach Ray Sherman will be in charge of selecting which players in a deep but unproven group of receivers is worthy of starting, as well as tutoring five first-year undrafted free agents. And tight ends coach Rob Boras will help with the conversion of former defensive lineman Mason Brodine to offense and help develop young tight ends Justice Cunningham and Alex Bayer. In addition to those position coaches, offensive quality control coach Andy Sugarman is on the staff. Despite being in a rather low-level position, Sugarman is the one of the two longest-tenured coaches on the Rams’ staff and is heading into his sixth year as part of the organization.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel and his assistant, Paul F. Boudreau (not to be confused with his offensive line coach father, Paul T.), will work to maintain the massive success that the Rams’ special units attained in 2013. The punt team set an NFL record for average net yardage, and the other units were also very solid. As is the life of a special teams coach, though, Fassel and Boudreau will have to work with the players they’re given on a week-to-week basis and create the best possible units with the talent available.
Strength coaches Rock Gullickson and Adam Bailey, who were both holdovers from Steve Spagnuolo’s administration, also are back and will work to keep the team healthy and performing dynamically throughout the season. While the two have drawn some criticism in football circles at certain points, they are very well respected in the strength and conditioning world, and it’s hard to argue with their philosophy. In the past two years, they’ve finished with 12 total players on injured reserve. Considering that there were, on average, eight players per team who ended 2013 on IR, that’s a pretty good job of injury prevention, especially considering that three of the 12 have gone down to torn ACLs, an injury which no NFL strength staff has successfully been able to avoid. On another note, the strength and training staffs have also done a very good job over the past two years of working with players who have been put on the short-term injured reserve list. Scott Wells was able to come back and play the final six games of the season following a broken foot in the 2012 opener, while safety T.J. McDonald also was able to return for the last six games after suffering a fractured fibula in Week 4 of the 2013 season.