Our Man in Missouri - Week 11

To survive in the NFL, a player must never lose the capacity to learn new things. Every year there will be new plays (in some cases new playbooks) to memorise, new opponents to face and new team-mates with wisdom to share. After the offseason’s annual meeting of the competition committee, there will typically also be new rules to digest. Not to mention all of the existing ones that nobody ever told you about.

Danny Amendola was among the players to discover one of those on Sunday, the St Louis Rams wide receiver admitting after his team’s tie with the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park that he did not even know such an outcome was possible. “I thought we were going to keep playing,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King after overtime had ended with the two teams still locked up at 24-24.

He was not the only one – Rams offensive tackle Roger Saffold and 49ers safety Dashon Goldson admitting similar confusion. Their words echoed those of the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who infamously told reporters after his team’s tie with the Cincinnati Bengals  in 2008 that he “never knew that was in the rule book”.

If many fans – both then and now – were startled by such gaps in the players’ knowledge, then Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was not. “No, it doesn’t [surprise me],” he said on Wednesday. “The overtime rule changed a couple years ago and this is their first experience this year. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise. [The players’] responsibility is to make the plays – whether they think there’s one period or it just goes on forever, it really doesn’t matter.” 

The rule changes mentioned by Fisher did not, in reality, affect Sunday’s game. Since 1974 it has been the case that any regular season NFL game which finishes level after four quarters goes to a period of sudden-death overtime. If neither team manages to score in that period, it is declared a tie. The new regulations simply state that each team must get at least one possession in overtime, unless the side receiving the ball first score a touchdown on their opening series.

But his broader point – that this is an uncommon situation in which he would not expect his players to know all of the regulations – is understandable. This is just the 18th tied game since 1974 (prior to which they were commonplace – since games would simply be declared a tie if level at the end of four quarters), and there have been none in the four years since that Eagles-Bengals game featuring McNabb.  Completely different systems are used for overtime in high school and college.

In any case, if players were divided on their knowledge of the rule, they were united by their unhappiness at the concept of a tie. "I never had to think about it until now, and I sure don't like it," said the defensive end Chris Long. "I think everybody on the field would have liked to have gone back out and just settled it, but that's where we are. That's the rule right now, so it is what it is."

For the Rams, any frustration was heightened by the knowledge they could, and perhaps should, have won this game despite being heavy underdogs. In overtime alone, they had an 80-yard reception by Danny Amendola wiped out by an illegal formation penalty (the player responsible was on the far side of the field and had no impact on how the play unfolded) and a game-winning field goal obliterated by a needless delay of game.

During regulation, Amendola had also seen a 62-yard punt return chalked off due to a block in the back by one of his team-mates. Worse yet, rookie Isaiah Pead had fumbled a kick-off return to gift the 49ers a short field at a time when the Rams were up by three points in the fourth quarter. Frank Gore went in for a touchdown on the next play.

While the result was frustrating, there were also many positives for the Rams to take. In his first game back after a collarbone injury, Amendola went for over 100 receiving yards – despite having that catch in overtime chalked off. Running back Steven Jackson did likewise on the ground, while quarterback Sam Bradford played one of his best games of the year.

He wasn’t the only one throwing the ball well. Rookie punter Johnny Hekker twice completed first-down passes on fake punt plays – one of them out of his own end zone. He is now three for three on the season, having previously thrown for a touchdown on a fake field goal in the Rams’ win over Seattle in September.

Fisher said the player’s abilities as a passer had played a significant role in his making the team in the first place. “It had a lot to do with it, actually, because we liked that as a potential additional weapon,” said the coach. “It tends to keep people off guard and it gives you opportunities to make plays.” Bradford was jokingly asked by one reporter whether he was worried about losing his job, but replied with a flat “no”.

And while the Rams would have preferred the win, there is pride to be taken from the fact that they remain unbeaten in divisional games in the NFC West, having previously beaten Seattle and Arizona at home. They had achieved the tie, furthermore, without two starters – rookies Chris Givens and Janoris Jenkins having been left off the gameday roster for an undisclosed breach of team regulations.

On Wednesday Fisher would only say that both players had “rejoined the program” and that “their issues are behind them”. He confirmed that they would play against the New York Jets this Sunday, but did not say if they would start.

Both players faced the press on Wednesday after practice during an open locker room session. Each showed remorse for their actions.  "I made a mistake and coach did the right thing by disciplining me,” said Givens. “I just take it how it comes and move forward, learn from it."

He may find it reassuring to know that he is not the only one on this team still working out how this league works

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In the news …

A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:

A fascinating E:60 video looking at what makes Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan tick. Among other, far more worthy and inspirational traits – he also comes within one pin of bowling a perfect game!

ESPN Radio host Bernie Miklasz highlights the folly of fans questioning Sam Bradford’s toughness.

And an interview by me with Rams running back Steven Jackson for the Guardian, in which he discusses the challenge of sacrificing your body for a losing team, plus the prospects for a London franchise.

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Five-minute interview: Rams offensive tackle Rodger Saffold  

We know you were frustrated by the way that game ended in San Francisco. Would you prefer the NFL not to have ties?

You know what, I would. But I know a lot of people say ‘hey, why don’t we do it the way the NCAA does it?’ Honestly, setting up at the 25-yard line, I think it would be hard to keep any NFL team out of the end zone from that close, so it could go on and on. For me it just felt like we could have kept going on Sunday. Eventually somebody would have scored a field goal or made a touchdown. But it’s a tough game and the unexpected somehow always seems to happen. This was truly unexpected.

Sunday was your first game back in the line-up since you injured your neck in week two. How impressed have you been at how this offensive line has held up despite so many set-backs?

I think it’s because of the good leadership we’ve had on the line. The way that we’re able to be interchangeable has been a threat. But it definitely felt good to be back out there.

As frustrating as that result was, it feels like this team is moving in a good direction right now …

I think we are on the verge of something special. This is a young and talented team, and all I see is nothing but good things, on and off the field. The emotions and the feelings for the players off the field is good. And that positivity really does direct back to the field on game day.

This is your third year in the league. Who is the toughest guy you’ve had to block so far?

Ah, that’s a tough one because there are so many people who are good. I’d have to say Justin Smith in my rookie year. Because he was just super strong, I was not ready for that strength.

You used to play a little bit of defensive end as well when you were younger. Are you happier on this side of the ball, or do you secretly wish you could go back to that?

I did play as an end back in high school but without a doubt, I’m happier on this side.

Although you were injured you did get to make the trip to London with all of your team-mates, some of whom have been less than charitable about the quality of food in Britain. As a lineman, you obviously have to maintain a high calorie intake every day, so how did you find it?

I enjoyed it. Of course, things taste differently. McDonalds is not the same, but hey – what can you do? I had a great time. I like the taxis, I thought it was a cool trip. The only thing I would change is maybe not have it as much overcast. Maybe not sun, rain and snow all in the same day, but hey – what can you do when you’re in London?

Can we ask what you ordered at McDonalds?

I ordered a Big Mac, and that thing did not taste the same. Not the same. But it was cool, though. I still ate it.

Can you give us a reason why fans should get behind the Rams?

Oh yeah, hell yeah. Because we’ll always be your home team. Just always think of us like your home team from now on!