Our Man in Missouri - Week 6

“WOOOOOOH,” exclaimed the tall man with the short goatee and the probably unnecessary sunglasses outside the Edward Jones Dome somewhere around 11pm on Thursday night. “We’re going to win the Super Bowl and the World Series!”

A touch optimistic, perhaps, but understandable. St Louis’s Major League Baseball franchise, the Cardinals, were just one day away from a wildcard game against the Atlanta Braves to determine whether they would enter into the postseason proper. More prominent in his mind at that particular moment will have been the fact that the city’s NFL team, the Rams, had just won their first home primetime game in five years.

For the first time since 2006, the Rams also had a winning record. A 17-3 victory over the NFL’s Cardinals, now based in Arizona but formerly of this same city, had lifted St Louis to 3-2 on the season. If this was not quite the moment to start booking flights for a February trip to New Orleans – host city of this season’s championship game – then it was still one worth celebrating for a team who only won two games in total last season.

The mood inside the winning team’s locker room was similarly boisterous. There was no talk of Super Bowls here, but there was a tremendous sense of release among a group of players who had just played their second game in five days against an NFC West rival – winning both. “It was awesome to play here tonight,” said the defensive end Chris Long. “Division games are the most fun.”

Thursday night games present a particular challenge for any team, the reduced recovery times placing a tremendous physical toll on the players. So many men had to be helped off the arena floor at various points that the St Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jim Thomas likened the scene to “an episode of Spartacus”. The one black mark on the Rams’ evening, indeed, came when their leading receiver, Danny Amendola, had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.

Amendola is expected to be out of action for more than a month, but even that news could not dampen the moods of a group of players who now knew they had a rare weekend off to look forward to. They were required to attend team meetings on Friday, but thereafter did not have to return to the team facility until this Tuesday.

Some need the break more than others. The team’s starting running back, Steven Jackson, has scarcely trained in three-and-a-half weeks since injuring his groin during his team’s win over the Washington Redskins, but continued to take the bulk of his team’s carries on game day.

For so many years the lone bright spot on a bad team – capable of producing 1,000-yard seasons even when every defence the Rams faced was geared specifically to slow him down – Jackson was the centre of attention on Sunday for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. Shortly before kickoff it emerged that his contract, which runs to 2013, had been modified to allow either of him or the team to void its final year.

In truth this new arrangement had been in place since the offseason, yet somehow never become public knowledge. Jackson, who turned 29 in July, had been outspoken about his desire to retire as a Ram, but for the team a contract extension would have been hard to justify. Past evidence shows that NFL running backs – and especially ones who have had such a heavy workload – rarely continue to produce at the highest level past their 30th birthdays.

And so instead, it seemed, team and player had come to a compromise. The mutual option to void the final year of the deal allowed the Rams the possibility of saving themselves $7m in wages should they decide that he was no longer worth that amount. Jackson, meanwhile, knew that another strong year, combined with the threat of testing the open market, might strengthen his bargaining position on a new deal.

So far, the former seems more likely. Under new head coach Jeff Fisher the Rams have sought to diversify – both by throwing the ball more and by having Jackson share carries with rookie Daryl Richardson, a less powerful but more explosive back. Jackson’s groin injury has only accelerated the process. On Sunday he enjoyed his most productive day so far this season, but still only recorded a modest 18 carries for 76 yards.

Publically, at least, all parties insist they are still working towards a solution which sees Jackson remain as a Ram into 2013 and beyond. “We want to have ‘Jack’ back. We want him to be a part of our future,” insisted Fisher after the game. “It’s interesting how this came out yesterday when this was something that we did back in training camp. It hadn’t affected anything … we’d like to give him an opportunity to finish his career here.”

Jackson sounded as keen on that idea as ever. “I’ve said that from the beginning that, even in 2004, I wanted to retire here,” he told reporters. “Something is happening here and I want to be a part of it.”

Whether or not he gets to be will, in all probability, not be decided until much later in the year, when team directors sit down to make cold, hard business judgements. The NFL is not a league in which nostalgia or relationships are often allowed to supercede business good sense.

For now the most positive news for the Rams is that even a contract saga involving their highest-profile, and hitherto most important player has done nothing to destabilise a team which is unbeaten at home, and which will have the chance to double its win tally from last year with a win over a mediocre Miami Dolphins team this weekend. A team which is allowing its fans to dream improbable dreams.

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In the news …

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

Jackson’s contract saga prompts Brian Burwell of the St Louis Post-Dispatch to reflect on the harsh reality of life in the NFL.

ESPN.com’s Mike Sando provides a statistical look at how the Rams have got away from their expected gameplan of running the ball first to set up the pass. 

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Five-minute interview: Rams linebacker James Laurianitis

Did you have a good long weekend off after that Thursday night game?
I did. I went back to Columbus, Ohio and watched my alma mater [Ohio State] beat up on Nebraska. It was great to go back and see some old faces and enjoy a football game back there.

You signed a big new five-year contract earlier this year … how does it feel to have got that out the way and now be on a winning team?

The nice thing was just being able to not worry about it. Going into a contract year, and I talked to a lot of guys around the NFL who have been through that situation, you try not to let it weigh on your mind, but it does anyway. The uncertainty of where you’ll be playing next year is tough, so just to get that done and extended out gave me the peace of mind to just go out and play football.

Did you run straight out and buy something lavish?

Hahaha – no! I gave most of it to my financial advisor and let him put it away somewhere nice and conservative, where it’s making money on its own. I don’t buy outlandish things. I like to be smart with my money so you won’t see me on one of those ‘why athletes go broke’ shows in the future! I’m

Was there any one item you did allow yourself maybe right after your rookie contract?

I went out and got a car right away – a used Range Rover. I think even to this day, and I was saying this to my financial adviser recently, I don’t grasp the amount of money that I have been blessed to be able to have playing this game. I was very conservative in college with my money and I’m still that way today. I was on scholarship in college but I know guys that were on scholarship that still had loans out or stuff like that. I never had any of that. I never paid for anything on a credit card where I didn’t have the money to pay off the card right away. I’ve always had that mentality that I never wanted to get myself in a bind. I like being cheap!

You’re coming to the UK later this month. Have you been before?
I haven’t, and I’m really excited to get over there and see what it’s all about.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the UK?

I’d probably say the queen. Just royalty in general. And a lot of history. I’ve always wanted to travel, that’s something I hope to get into more this next offseason, and I’ve always wanted to go places that have a lot of rich history. The United States is so young in comparison to other countries out there – and I want to see things that have been around for a long time. The only times I’ve been out of the country is Mexico on a family vacation and the Caribbean on a cruise a couple of years ago. Then I went to Kuwait this offseason to visit the troops over there. That was cool. But I can’t wait to be able to go to London and Buckingham Palace and just see everything about the British. I’m excited to just hear the accent too!

Well we can certainly guarantee you plenty of that! Looking at it from the other side, why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?

I think we’re an exciting team, I think we’re up and coming, we’re a hard-working, tough, physical team and we have a bunch of guys that play to the whistle on every single snap. And I think that people like to get behind an underdog. Everyone knows about the Patriots, so be a Rams fan!

If you can win either of your next two games, you’ll get to London with a winning record. Do you think you’ll do it?

I sure hope so! I won’t make any bold prediction, but hopefully.