This was not the send-off that St Louis had hoped for. With a victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Rams would have been able to leave town on a high note – departing for London with a winning record. Instead they were picked apart by an inspired Aaron Rodgers, losing 30-20 and slipping to 3-4 on the season.
Jeff Fisher will hope that the change of scene can help lift the mood. In the immediate aftermath of defeat the Rams head coach seemed more exhausted than excited by the prospect of a trans-Atlantic trip, noting that: “We’ve got a lot to do to get ready to get on this airplane tomorrow afternoon”. Since then, though, his team have thrown themselves into the experience.
There were excited tweets about aeroplane seats as the team boarded their flight on Monday and broad grins as they taught the game to London schoolchildren in Regents Park a day later. If jetlag was affecting some – quarterback Sam Bradford letting slip on Wednesday that he had not been able to get to sleep until 1am the night before – then it was compensated for by high spirits. Fisher deemed practice to have been a success.
The players have been universal in their excitement over this trip, with not one dissenting voice among the many I have spoken to since my first visit to the team’s facility during training camp. A large portion of those had never left the country before, and when they had it was often only to go as far as Mexico or Canada.
For those who were more widely travelled, the prospect of getting to play on an international stage only seemed more powerful. “I haven’t been in many big games since my rookie year,” running back Steven Jackson told this column during a conversation before the season began. “So I’m treating this as one of the hopefully many big games that I’ll be a part of in the future. I’m using it as a reset button on me being on the big stage.”
Jackson might want that reset button even more now than he would have imagined back then. After seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons on what was consistently a losing team, the running back’s star is now on the wane just at the moment when the Rams seem to be rising. In recent weeks he has split carries with rookie seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson and there have been rumours that St Louis are ready to entertain trade offers for Jackson before next week’s deadline.
But if the London game offers opportunity to both the teams and players involved and of course to UK-based fans of the sport, then it is only fair to note that the prevailing attitude here in Missouri is not so positive. In order to play at Wembley the Rams had to give up a home game. For regulars at the Edward Jones Dome, that has been a tough pill to swallow.
As a season ticket holder of seven years, Vince Vitale is among those losing out. “Yeah, the fans in general were not very happy about it,” said Vitale – who runs the website stlouisramfan.com. “For one, we just got Coach Fisher, and the fans were a lot more excited than they’ve been in a few years, because there’s hope and a renewed vigour. Plus, you only get to see them eight times, so giving away a game – that’s 12% of your games.
“In addition, it’s our home game and they made us play New England. We pretty much hate New England, for one thing, but they also have ties to England – they’ve previously played in London, and it is kind of like a home base for the Patriots. There’s a large crowd of Londoners who like the Patriots. So it’s already like a home game for the Patriots.”
That might be an exaggeration – the London games tend to bring together a broad church of all 32 teams’ fans – but the Patriots are well-supported in the UK and it is certainly true the Rams may miss their homefield advantage. Even when not sold out – and it rarely has been in recent years – the Edward Jones Dome can generate significant volume in support of the home team. “The first three games of this season were the loudest I’ve heard it in there for five or six years,” said Vitale.
Indeed, a great part of the frustration in St Louis at losing this particular home game stems from a sense the team had finally been gaining momentum in its efforts to win back over those local fans who became disaffected during a dire run of just 15 wins in five years. Many of those who have stuck by the team continue to fret that it could be relocated if attendances do not improve, with the lease at the Edward Jones Dome potentially set to expire in 2014.
A desire to counter that perception was cited by the Rams’ chief operating officer Kevin Demoff when the team announced their decision not to play further games in London in 2013 and 2014. The team is presently engaged in an arbitration process with the city's Convention and Visitor's Commission over required upgrades to the Edward Jones Dome.
The attitudes of many in Missouri were summed up neatly by Brian Burwell in Wednesday’s St Louis Post-Dispatch. “The National Football League loves playing football games in London. It makes perfect business sense to expand the NFL's brand overseas,” he wrote. “It's just rotten timing that this is the season that the Rams became the league's prominent marketing tool.”
Later in the same piece, he added: “It just seems a shame that after so many years of lousy, uninteresting football when hardly anyone would have cared if the Rams played in Timbuktu, that this is the year that the Rams are playing London hosts.”
The flipside of that argument, of course, is that the fans in London will be seeing a better Rams team than many had expected when the fixture was first announced – a drastically different proposition to the team that went 2-14 last year. The Rams will still start, rightly, as the underdogs against New England but have every reason to believe in their capacity to spring an upset.
And with the game being broadcast nationally in the US, as well as the UK, the fans left behind in St Louis will at least still get to see the game. With the right result, it could yet prove the ideal stage for the Rams to win new fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the news …
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
Five-minute interview: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn
This is your second year with the Rams, after they drafted you in 2011, but with the amount of new, young faces around here it almost feels as though you’re one of the old hands. How have you found the transition this year?
Yeah, I’m the young old guy. We’ve got a young group and many different personalities here now and that makes it fun as a group. We’ve got Chris [Long] who’s a big prankster … You don’t get bored of each other. I definitely like that about the defensive line we have.
Since you mention it … What’s the best prank that you’ve seen pulled by a member of this team?
Oh, the best prank? Well, I don’t know who did it, but someone bubble-wrapped James Laurianitis’s car, and somehow got 2,000 crickets inside his car before they they did that. Crickets, as in the insect. So they were all sitting in there when he found it. I think that might be the biggest prank that I can think of.
Blimey. Were there repercussions?
Oh, I have no idea. I just know it wasn’t me!
It seems like Coach Fisher encourages a sense of fun among the team. During preseason he was running games of Dizzy Bats to lighten up practice sessions – things like that. Is that something he brings as a coach?
There’s a whole new atmosphere in general. We know we all have to go out and give everything we have every Sunday, so you don’t want to come to work in the week and not be excited to come in every day. It’s mentally draining, as well as physically draining, getting ready for each team. Another coach could make it like a military camp, treat it like a dictatorship. But he keeps it lively: ‘get your work in, and get out’. And just tries to keep us healthy and get it right for Sunday.
Cortland Finnegan recently told us that he harbours a secret dream of playing at defensive tackle. If you could play a different position, which one would it be?
I would play quarterback. I think I’ve got an arm. One of the best arms on the team [Loud guffaws from team-mate Kendall Langford, seated alongside]. If I needed to roll out on a bootleg, I could do that. I think I could bring a couple of different traits to the quarterback position. I’m not a small guy, so it would take quite a lot to bring me down.
Well it’s that or free safety. Either one. I think quarterback, then free safety would be the second one. Quarterbacks get to call the shots. And you never get hurt in practice!
Have you ever been to the UK before?
Nope, never been.
What’s the first thing that comes into your mind?
Umm … honestly, expensive prices! Our dollar is worth less over there…
True enough. Why should the fans in the UK get behind the Rams?
Our owner has a soccer team over there – the Arsenal – and from what I know they’re a pretty great soccer team. We’re trying to become a great football team.