- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the bizarre things that took place in the past week to get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back as a member of the St. Louis Rams and addressing the local media in a news conference Friday afternoon, the one move that really started it all happened Nov. 10.
That was the day Saffold made his debut as a right guard against the Indianapolis Colts. It's hard to know for certain given the vagaries of the NFL but if that day had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Saffold wouldn't be a Ram nor would they have made much effort to keep him.
To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.
The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.
So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.
"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."
Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.
The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.
Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.
Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."
Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.
After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.
"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.
Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.
Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.
"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."
Now that he has, there's no turning back.
"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."
It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.