EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With training camp rapidly approaching, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead started to get the football itch. He could feel the time for football was close and he was growing so eager for it to start he actually considered cutting a family vacation short.
Upon returning to St. Louis, Snead walked back into Rams Park with full knowledge that this season must be different from the first two years of his and coach Jeff Fisher's regime. Under Fisher and Snead, the Rams have won 14 games in two seasons, far better than what they'd done in the five years before their arrival, but still well removed from something more than vague progress.
The third year of any regime comes with a certain amount of inherent expectation but here in St. Louis, Snead openly acknowledges now is the time for a team that has been the league's youngest each of the past two seasons to move past mediocrity.
"The goal is to win the division," Snead said Thursday. "We have played San Fran, we’ve played Seattle and we’ve played Arizona and we’ve beat them all in the last two years with these guys. All they’re doing is getting better and more experienced."
Clearly, the Rams enter the 2014 season hoping that their willingness to allow their many young players to start and play the majority of the snaps will pay off. The potential of the league's youngest roster must at some point turn into production if the Rams are to elevate to contender status.
Fisher and Snead set about a major roster renovation in 2012 knowing that they would hit their share of speed bumps along the way. They improved to 7-8-1 in that first season after combining a boat load of draft picks acquired in trade with Washington with some big free-agent spending. They followed a similar path in the 2013 offseason, trying to find a few emerging young veterans to complement the youth movement coming via the draft. The result was last season's 7-9.
In steadfastly sticking to their plan, Fisher and Snead entered this past offseason ready to mostly roll with what they've got.
"To get experience you have got to play and to learn how not to spill milk you have got to spill some milk," Snead said. "So I have always used that analogy. You have got to hope that experience keeps you from spilling milk and now you can pull it up and drink it a lot faster."
Of course, there's also plenty of risk that goes with betting big on young, mostly unproven players even players who have played a lot of snaps in their first couple of seasons.
The secondary, for example, has no projected starters with more than two years of experience. At wide receiver, only Kenny Britt has spent more than three seasons in the league. Zac Stacy, entering his second season, is the most seasoned running back on the roster in terms of carries.
While many of the team's young players have flashed the potential to become solid or better NFL starters, they simply still have yet to prove themselves on a consistent basis. And it seems overly-optimistic to think that all of the players the Rams are banking on will take the necessary step forward to help the team reach the next level.
But Snead believes there has been enough evidence, even if the sample size is relatively small, for many of those players to do what is expected. There's even an air of quiet confidence that the belief is more than just the usual summertime hopes and dreams of a franchise in need of wins.
"I think that’s the best way for us and the way we were setup to do it," Snead said. "I always use the example, you saw what Robert Quinn did. So what happens is those guys are maturing too and not only physically but also mentally and psychologically and in their life and in their game and they really want to be good and they had two years or one and they say ‘I did that last year and I was actually kind of nervous. It was my rookie year and now I got this.’ So all those things come into play. You have got to just let them evolve."
Snead and the Rams are well aware the evolution of a young team into playoff contender is not going to be an easy task. They find themselves in the NFL's toughest division and will, for the third season in a row, play one of its toughest schedules. If the Rams are to survive the crucible of those two things and come out on the other end still playing in January, they will have plenty of bumps and bruises along the way.
In some ways, they enter this training camp ahead of where they were last year. They have a clearly defined identity on both sides of the ball, even if it's one that doesn't promote the promise of Greatest Show on Turf recollections. They have the defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams they wanted all along leading a talented group.
"I think just having an identity, that helps you rally instead of 'What are we today?'" Snead said.
As they begin camp today, the Rams are still the team hoping the promise that comes with youth turns into the production of a team much older. Where they stand at the end of the season will tell us if they were right.