Rams won't use youth as an excuse

EARTH CITY, Mo. – For the second year in a row, the St. Louis Rams enter a season with the league’s youngest roster.

It’s not that there’s an award for being the youngest in the league or something, it’s simply the way the Rams have gone about rebuilding a roster that was one of the league’s oldest in the not-so-distant past.

Focusing their efforts on the NFL draft and finding hidden gems in undrafted free agency or on other teams’ practice squads, the Rams have begun a youth movement that permeates the roster.

Entering Sunday’s opener against Arizona, the average age of the Rams’ 53-man roster is 24.98. Of the 53 players on the roster, 28 are in their first or second season.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the team this year is how that youth will perform on a big stage. The first response comes against the Cardinals, but if it doesn’t pan out, the Rams don’t plan to point to it as a reason for not getting the job done.

“No, that’s not an excuse,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re young, but that’s not an excuse as far as what takes place on Sundays. We’re going to line people up because they’re ready to play. I think it’s a promising future for us, but I’m not concerned about it.”

Asked if he likes working with kids, Fisher pointed out that he doesn’t view any of his players in that vein.

“I raised three, but no, these are young men,” Fisher said. “They’re not kids, and they’re going to be ready to play.”

Make no mistake, just because Fisher and the Rams say they aren’t concerned with their relative youth doesn’t mean they are expecting everything to go perfect from day one. With so many first- and second-year players – the expected starting lineup will have seven total – the Rams know that mistakes will be made. A big part of the maturation of young players is making those errors and learning from them.

“Will they make mistakes? Sure,” linebacker James Laurinaitis, himself a four-year veteran, said. “All young players make mistakes. Heck, I still make mistakes. The key is that you make the other team make more than you make and you win a football game.”

On the flip side of that is a youthful exuberance that can manifest itself in positive ways. The Rams improved in 2012 to win seven games, up from two the year before behind the league’s youngest roster.

“Frankly, they bring an energy and a youth about them that I think is a great thing, kind of a hunger,” Laurinaitis said. “They’re just sponges right now, they are willing to learn.”

The question for this week will be how the young Rams react to the stage that comes with opening day in the NFL. As Laurinaitis points out, the stage itself shouldn’t be too big for a group of players that spent many Saturdays playing in front of crowds even larger than what will reside in the Edward Jones Dome.

“College football has gotten so big and a lot of these guys were big-time recruits and stuff, so they have played in [front of] huge crowds,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s what I try to talk to these guys about. You get in the dome, it’s really loud, Seattle is really loud, but you are adding 40,000 people to the stadiums in college. I said, ‘You guys have been through these moments.’ You just can’t make the game too big. It’s still football, you have prepared really hard. You’re ready.”

Making matters more interesting is the difference in age between the Rams and Cardinals. Arizona is the league’s third-oldest team, with an average age of 26.79. It’s doubtful that the Cardinals will have many butterflies in their stomachs when kickoff comes.

Having a young team doesn’t normally reveal itself in terms of talent or speed. In fact, it can be something of an advantage in those areas. More likely, it can lead to mental mistakes like a missed sight adjustment by a receiver working with a quarterback or a young defensive back getting caught staring into the backfield.

Little mistakes like that can lead to big plays that cost teams wins. At this point, the Rams are pot-committed to the youth movement, and they are just fine taking the good with the bad.

“Well, we have no choice,” Fisher said. “They’re going to play and they’re all going to improve. Unfortunately there’s going to be some growing pains with that. They haven’t played in a real game before and it will be a little more of a settling down things taking place as opposed to getting fired up and emotional to play. Take these reps, act like you’ve been there before and then get out there and make plays.”