EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unfazed by the NFL lockout and energized by a new offense, Sam Bradford shatters perceptions of him as a young player scrambling to make up lost ground.
"We’re going to push the ball down the field," the St. Louis Rams' second-year quarterback says with some excitement. "I think we’re going to be aggressive."
Building steadily for the long term isn't the focus for Bradford and the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. They're living week to week, play to play.
It's a mindset change for Bradford and any quarterback transitioning away from a West Coast offense. Kevin Kolb is going through a similar adjustment after leaving Philadelphia for Arizona. Instead of honing a timing-based system designed to out-execute any defense, they're learning to change up their plan, sometimes dramatically, for each opponent. And they are reveling in the possibilities.
"We are not going to just keep the same stuff in from week to week and say, 'This is what we run, stop it,'" Bradford says. "We could come in and we could have 30 new plays in on Wednesday and they’re all designed to attack what the defense’s weakness is."
McDaniels retained portions of the offense Bradford learned as a rookie last season. The terminology for personnel groupings is largely the same. McDaniels also inherited most of the staff from former coordinator Pat Shurmur. But this will not be a 1-2-3 progression passing game to the degree it was last season. Bradford said he likes the changes in part because the new offense more closely resembles the one he ran at Oklahoma.
"Last year in the West Coast, you started in the same place every time, and no matter what the coverage is, you just kind of work through it and find the open guy," Bradford said. "This year, we still have progression plays where it is like that, but it’s a lot more, 'OK, if the defense gives us 2, this is exactly what we want. We’re going to work off the 'Mike' and we’re going to high-low it and we’re going to go right there. I really like that."
In another big change, Bradford will take over responsibility for making all of the pass-protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He previously leaned on his offensive line to make adjustments based on where specific defenders were lining up. That means Bradford, still only 23, will carry a heavier mental burden against a formidable schedule. The Rams play the Eagles, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints among their first seven opponents. They'll find out quickly whether Bradford is ready for the new responsibilities.
"Giving it all to me, it’s definitely a lot more, but at the same time, it almost makes it easier once you get everything figured out," he said, "because you know exactly what could happen with all the different scenarios."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Steven Jackson's role. The Rams' Pro Bowl running back has been an outspoken advocate for running behind a fullback in a traditional two-back offense. Jackson realized life would change as McDaniels installed what will be primarily a one-back system. He expects a less regimented running game and less reliance on pounding the ball between the tackles. More of his receptions will come by design instead of on checkdowns, flares and the like.
"This offense allows me to open my whole repertoire of talent and put on display the things I can do outside the tackles," Jackson said. "You don’t have a fullback and I hate to lose Mike Karney, but at the same time, it allows me on a bigger stage to show my overall talent as a football player."
The Rams ran one-back offenses earlier in Jackson's career. He'll have to set up his blocks instead of relying on a fullback to clear the way. A basic play called "Big Jab" illustrates the differences. It's a strongside run masquerading as an inside-zone play to the weak side. The back must freeze the weakside linebacker with his eyes long enough for the offensive lineman to reach the second level.
"Things like that, you can’t pick up on a live game, of course, but on the coaches’ film, it makes a difference," Jackson said.
2. The thinking at wide receiver. The Rams ran out of viable receiving options during their forgettable Week 17 defeat at Seattle last season. With an ascending young quarterback in place and multiple Rams receivers coming off injuries, this offseason seemed like a good time for the organization to invest heavily in a dynamic receiver.
Sidney Rice was available, but the Rams didn't flinch when the division-rival Seahawks signed him to a five-year contract. The Rams signed Mike Sims-Walker to a one-year deal and went to camp with a mostly undistinguished group.
"A lot of people think we have to have some guy that runs 4.25 [in the 40-yard dash] and weighs 230 pounds and he’s 6-foot-5," McDaniels said. "You don’t have to have that guy. You can do it different ways and that is what we are going to try to do."
Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are heavy favorites to earn roster spots if healthy. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander are fighting for one or two roster spots. None commands double-team attention or special game planning from opposing defensive coordinators.
Tight ends factor heavily into the Rams' plans for the passing game. The team envisions a "12" personnel grouping with Lance Kendricks and Mike Hoomanawanui at tight end with two wideouts and Jackson in the backfield. If teams stick with the base defense, the Rams expect Kendricks and Hoomanawanui to create coverage mismatches. If teams choose to play nickel, they can prepare to see a 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back coming their way. Either tight end could shift to fullback for another dimension.
3. Seeking to upgrade run defense. The Rams shelled out top dollar for only one free agent this offseason. Safety Quintin Mikell, who broke into the NFL with Philadelphia when current Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo ran the Eagles' secondary, brings a physical presence. The Rams are paying him $6.5 million per year because Spagnuolo pretty much had to have him.
"I don't know if anyone else would be able to feel this or see this, and I can't remember when he was a rookie if he already had these mannerisms, but he plays the game like Brian Dawkins," Spagnuolo said. "His mannerisms, the way he's a knee-bender. He plays fast, he loves the game, he's matured."
Sitting in his office following a recent practice, Spagnuolo cued up a 2004 play he shows annually to defensive backs. Green Bay, facing first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 7-yard line in a 2004 game at Philadelphia, hands off to Najeh Davenport around the right side. One of the Packers' big tight ends engages No. 46 for the Eagles at the line of scrimmage. Before this year, Spagnuolo never revealed No. 46?s identity to his Rams players. It’s Mikell, far lighter than his opponent, disengaging from the block and cutting down Davenport for a 1-yard loss."
"Boom, bang, bang, get out of here, and make the tackle," Spagnuolo says, taking on the voice of narrator. "I want to teach the smaller guys that size isn't a big deal, that it's about power and leverage, and if you run fast at 200 pounds and a 300-pounder is running slow, you can do that."
Gibson's development at receiver. The Rams have felt better about their restraint at receiver in part because Gibson, 24, showed up for camp ready to build on a 53-catch 2010 season. Gibson and the tough, steady Amendola have been the two best receivers in camp.
"Gibby has had a great camp," Bradford said. "He looks faster than last year. He looks more confident."
Gibson's 83-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee in the Rams' preseason game Saturday night was more than twice as long as any pass he's caught in a regular-season game.
"His route running has been great, he’s picking up schemes, learning how to block and he’s more of a complete receiver than he was," said Mikell, Gibson's former teammate in Philadelphia.
Jerome Murphy's broken ankle. Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell arguably give St. Louis the best starting cornerback tandem in the division, at least until Patrick Peterson gets up to speed in Arizona. Depth is a concern after the Rams lost Murphy. Al Harris, 36, adds toughness and experience, but there isn't enough depth to comfortably weather another injury at the position. The Rams would be wise to monitor the waiver wire for cornerbacks and consider potential trade options as the regular season approaches.
The Rams added veteran right guard Harvey Dahl to upgrade their talent and give their offensive line an edge. NFC West fans should remember Dahl. While with Atlanta, he enraged then-49ers coach Mike Singletary to such a degree that Singletary got into a verbal sparring match with Dahl during a game. The Rams would have reason to celebrate if Dahl's mean streak rubbed off on third-year right tackle Jason Smith.
Dahl's reputation as a brawler created an image in my mind of a player supplementing average talent with toughness. Dahl is better than that physically. He looks more like a tackle than a guard, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing about 305 pounds. He has thicker legs than Smith and has showed good athleticism in camp. McDaniels favors big guards.
Veteran newcomers have transformed the Rams from one of the NFL's youngest teams to one of the older ones, based on average age. The team took advantage of a flooded market in free agency. Most veterans signed one-year deals without salary-cap ramifications beyond this season. With so many veterans taking one-year deals around the league, a similar market could await next offseason. Teams like the Rams can have it both ways. They're relying most heavily on a young core featuring Bradford, Smith, Rodger Saffold, James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Fletcher and others. But they also have veteran depth.
Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are giving Jackson something he hasn't had in the recent past: veteran backups who command respect through their accomplishments. Jackson: "Yeah, coming here, they had their hands full. I think between my mentality on the field and how I felt as a player about the organization and what I would like to see, I think I kind of showed them in a way without saying it, 'Go fill the other areas of need and I’ll take care of the running back position. I can hold down the fort and when we feel comfortable enough, then go get another running back or two.' "
Laurinaitis is seeking to become more aggressive now that he has a fuller grasp of the defense entering his third season under Spagnuolo. ESPN credited him with four tackles for loss in 2009 and eight last season. Laurinaitis wants that number to climb. "We would rather have tough, physical play where you are attacking downhill than being assignment perfect every time," he said.
Long made an interesting observation about players the Rams have added in recent years. Several were coming off recent Super Bowl victories. Fred Robbins, Poppinga and Harris are three. Long: "I don’t think that’s an accident."
Quinn has a chance to play about 40 percent of the defensive snaps if all goes to plan. The Rams aren't counting on him for every-down production as long as veteran James Hall remains productive. Quinn couldn't have a better mentor. Hall, 34, still goes out to practice early for one-on-one work with retired defensive tackle La'Roi Glover.
Kendricks' addition through the draft raised questions in my mind about whether Hoomanawanui still figured prominently in the Rams' plans. He does. Bradford shot me an are-you-crazy look when I shared those thoughts with him at camp. "There is definitely a place for him," Bradford said.
Jackson's carries per game could fluctuate more in McDaniels' offense because so much of the plan hinges upon what the opposing defense offers. Jackson: "That is exactly what this will represent."