“Lol preseason”. With that simple tweet, the Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson summed up many NFL fans’ feelings towards the month of exhibition games leading up to the regular season kickoff. He probably did so accidentally, since it appears he was actually just correcting a previous, subsequently deleted tweet in which he had typed ‘pee season’. Either way, many embraced the sentiment. Everyone knows football in August is meaningless.
Except, of course, that it isn’t. True enough, preseason games rarely make for the most compelling spectacles – with the majority of snaps being contested by teams of back-ups using trimmed-down playbooks. They are also a terrible indicator of a team’s quality. Last season the St Louis Rams won all four of their playoff games, only to then go 2-14 during the real thing.
But for evidence of how important preseason is to the teams themselves, you need look no further than those same London-bound St Louis Rams. Having replaced Steve Spagnuolo as the team’s head coach in January, Jeff Fisher is seeking not only to wipe away St Louis’s annus horribilis, but also to build something completely new from the youngest roster in the entire league.
NFL teams are permitted to have as many as 90 players on their roster during camp, yet must reduce that figure to 53 by the time the season starts. Even for a coach who has been with a team for several years, that means making a huge number of personnel evaluations in the space of a single month. For one who has not even worked with his team’s veterans before, the challenge becomes even more significant. As much as can be done on a practice field, game time is critical.
Fisher, at least, has seen it all before. Unlike each of his immediate predecessors in the role, Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan, this is not Fisher’s first head coaching job. Through 16 broadly successful years with the Tennessee Titans (or Houston Oilers, as they were when he first took charge) he has had plenty of time to develop his own ideas of what he wants from his players, and how a team’s preseason preparations should be run.
The Rams closed their training camp on Wednesday amid general consensus that Fisher has already made his mark. Practices have been crisper than in previous years, with no wasted time on the field (no mean feat in temperatures that have peaked at over 40C). Even a scuffle between wide receiver Danny Amendola and rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins on Tuesday has been heralded as evidence of a competitive group whose energies had merely spilled over.
Fisher has been relentlessly hands-on with his young team, with one member of the Rams’ PR team observing this week that it was the first time he had ever seen a head coach taking it upon himself to hold up the play cards throughout team passing drills, rather than devolving that duty to an assistant.
He has pushed his players hard, but also known when to back-off, breaking the tension with playground games. Camp ended with “dizzy bat”, a relay race in which rookies had to spin around 20 times on the spot, with their heads resting on the end of a baseball bat, before attempting to sprint half the length of the field and collect a loose football. The veterans, naturally, did their best to help out by unloading buckets of ice on their team-mates along the way.
When it comes to the games themselves, Fisher has known exactly what he is looking for. Player evaluation is the priority, not wins. When the Rams opened preseason with a 38-3 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, he insisted the scoreline was irrelevant – telling reporters “nobody was crying on the plane home”. When they beat the Chiefs last week, he shrugged off reporters’ praise with similar ease. “We’ve got to get better on offence and we’ve got to get significantly better on defence,” he said.
It is a safe bet Fisher will adopt a similar outlook after Thursday’s game against Dallas. Where many teams treat their third preseason game as their main warm-up for the real thing – keeping starters in the game past half-time – Fisher has a different approach. He prefers to build up towards the fourth and final preseason game, believing that other teams cost themselves momentum by giving their starters a break in that final week.
“I won’t have any [starters] playing into the second-half against the Cowboys,” he told reporters at the conclusion of camp. “There will be a number of players that will do that in the fourth preseason game.”
For the many players battling not only for a place in the starting line-up but simply for a spot on the final roster, there will be nothing meaningless about it.
In the news…
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
St Louis Post-Dispatch writer Bryan Burwell breaks down the Rams’ increasingly fraught negotiations with the operators of their Edward Jones Dome home, with whom their contract is set to expire in 2014.
Five-minute interview: Rams wide-receiver Danny Amendola
After missing an entire season through injury, how good does it feel just to be out here catching passes from Sam Bradford in the sunshine?
It’s going well - I feel 100%, and I’m ready to go. It’s fun to get out here again.
What are your expectations for the season for the team and you personally?
Expectations for the team … just win every single game! Personally I just want to find a role on the team and fill that as best I can. I don’t set myself targets in terms of catches or anything like that.
Clearly you are going to be on the team this year, but what’s it like for some of the other guys at this time of year? It’s a 90-man roster right now and we know that’s got to come down to 53 …
It’s tough, it’s stressful and it’s also exciting. It’s everything rolled into one really. That’s the competitive nature of this game and this team right now. We’ve got a lot of guys competing for a lot of jobs, but in turn it makes everyone better. I’ve been around the ringer myself, I’ve been cut a couple of times, moved around a couple of times. Hopefully I can stay here for a little while.
The other thing you’ve got to look forward to as a team this season is a visit to London – though you were there yourself last year for the Super Bowl…
Yeah, I was over working with the BBC in London for five days, then I went up to Manchester to see the new studio. I had a good time.
Was that your first time in the UK?
Yeah, that was the first time in my life I’ve crossed the pond, so that was a good deal. It was eye-opening. It was definitely the first time in my life I’d had beans for breakfast. Usually I’d have some eggs, some bacon, some toast … but they were giving me beans, and ham, and potatoes. But I’m easy to please – I’ll eat anything really.
What was your favourite thing about the UK?
The people – everybody’s so nice! I like the transportation – the taxis are so efficient and there’s so many of them. It’s all very easy.
And your least favourite thing?
It was snowing when I was out there, so that! I’m from Texas, so I don’t like the snow too much. If it could be around 70 degrees [Fahrenheit] I’d be good.
It’s been a lot hotter than that out here in Missouri this summer!
Yeah, I think it got up to heat index 115 [degrees Fahrenheit] or so one day! But it’s cooling off now, so it’s nice.
Why should UK fans get behind the Rams?
Because we’re a team that’s going to come out and fight the whole game and we’re looking forward to coming to London and share the game with the world.
Paolo will be writing a weekly letter from Missouri for NFLUK.com throughout the season. If you have a question you’d like to put to one of the Rams, leave it below the line or tweet @Paolo_Bandini and he’ll do his best to ask it for a future edition.