Chris Long hoping to bounce back, unsure what future holds

Chris Long has played in just 18 games the past two seasons. Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The Rams played their final game as the St. Louis edition of the team on Jan. 3, but it's also possible that defensive end Chris Long, a St. Louis staple, has played his last game as a Ram.

On the heels of two injury-plagued seasons that limited him to 18 games and four sacks, Long is due to count $14.25 million against the 2016 salary cap. In other words, the Los Angeles Rams will have to make a decision on whether to keep Long, release him or try to come up with a solution to bring him back cheaper.

Speaking to ESPN.com the day after the season ended, Long made it clear he's aware of what this offseason might hold.

"Honestly, I don't know," Long said. "Those decisions aren't all mine. Certainly I know the last few years I have been injured and the production is way down. So the bottom line is it's a production business. Do I deserve to play my last one here? I don't know but I know that I'm pretty committed to getting back to being me and I think that's very possible. It's two plays that kind of derailed the last two seasons for me and that's the way it goes. Bottom line is, I'm very motivated but I need some time to just get away."

Long took some of that time, going on a tropical vacation before returning and resurfacing as "Hopeful PowerBall Player" on a Charlottesville, Virginia, newscast. In February, Long will trek to Africa with fellow NFL players participating in his Waterboys Foundation to check in on the progress of the installation of clean water wells in east Africa.

After that, Long's NFL future remains uncertain. He's been the heartbeat of the Rams locker room almost from the day he arrived as the No. 2 overall pick in 2008. He's also been through nothing but losing seasons since and survived as the team's longest-tenured player. In those eight seasons, Long has 54.5 sacks, 246 tackles, eight forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in 114 games.

Until 2014, Long was the picture of durability as he never missed a game in his first six seasons. But a foot/ankle injury cost him 10 games in 2014 and even when he returned from short-term injured reserve, he played well below full capacity.

In 2015, Long played the first four games and appeared to be rounding back into form. He had two sacks and 10 tackles in those four games and was particularly effective setting the edge against the run. But on his 15th snap of the fifth game against Green Bay, Long fractured a bone in his knee. That ailment kept him out the next four games before returning in week 11 at Baltimore.

When Long got back, though, his role had changed. He averaged 36.9 snaps per game in the final seven games, a noticeable dip from the 47.3 he averaged the first four games. And Long's pass rush opportunities were even more limited as he rarely found himself on the field on third down. He averaged 7.6 third-down snaps per game in the final seven games after playing 12 third-down snaps per game in the first four weeks.

Which would seem to make it unlikely the Rams will pay Long so much money on the final year of his contract even if he's interested in sticking around.

"I love my coaches, I love my teammates here," Long said. "If there's a way to make it work where I'm needed here and it works out, that would be great."

The most logical way for that to work? It would probably require Long to sign a new contract that drastically reduces his pay. Long has worked with the Rams many times during his career to create salary cap space but this would almost certainly have to be a pay cut rather than moving money around as he has previously.

Asked if he'd be willing to discuss that possibility in order to stay with the franchise that drafted him, Long said he would.

"Of course," Long said. "But I'm not a guy that, I mean, the last two years I have been paid more than I've performed. That's just the bottom line. It's a business. Sometimes teams win and sometimes teams lose with that stuff so you're certainly not rushing to give the money you earned back. You can't control certain things with injuries and such but of course I'm open to doing something like that. It's not about the money at this point for me."

Which is to say that at this stage in his career, it's about the wins. That begs the next question of whether Long thinks the Rams offer him the chance to do that versus the potential to go elsewhere and enjoy the type of success he covets while getting back to his productive ways.

"I think personnel is going to continue to improve," Long said. "Coach (Jeff) Fish(er) and (general manager) Les (Snead) have done a great job of increasing the talent level on this team. We've got to win the games we're supposed to win. That's the bottom line. Hopefully we'll be able to take those steps next year."