Sunday, July 27, 2014
Expected youth no excuse for these Rams
By Nick Wagoner
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Life in the NFL comes with a pecking order in everything teams do. Parking spaces at the team facility are no exception.
The closer to the door you are, the longer you've been around. Rookies are farthest from the entry, and if you play in St. Louis, that means more time to bake in the summer heat or freeze in the frigid winters as you make your way to work.
Seniority is a valued commodity in the NFL -- much as it is in most walks of life -- but for the St. Louis Rams, a look at the parking assignment sheet reveals that, yes, once again the Rams will be one of the youngest teams in the league. Perhaps, for the third straight year, the youngest.
"We’ve got third-year guys down there at about the fourth or fifth spot, so it is a young group," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
When Fisher and general manager Les Snead took on the massive rebuilding project in 2012, they quickly came to terms with the idea of being young. They weren't only OK with it, they were actively seeking it. The haul of picks they poached from the Washington Redskins for the No. 2 overall pick in that draft almost ensured it.
And those young teams, the youngest in the league each of the past two years, had their share of ups and downs in a pair of seven-win seasons. But youth is no longer an excuse for this team. Make no mistake, the Rams are going to be brimming with youth once again. But for right now in St. Louis, age really isn't anything but a number.
"Because of the fact that we have players now in their third year and guys last year in their second, they’re familiar faces, they’ve matured, they have the playing experience," Fisher said. "So despite the age on paper, the team doesn’t act that way. The team acts much more mature and will be much more prepared.”
Using the secondary as an example, the four projected starters have an average age of just 24, but the quartet of safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson has combined for 105 games played and seven seasons of NFL experience. They're young, but they aren't without experience.
"We’re young there still, but those (corners) have played two years," Snead said. "I’d rather have that. That’s where you start thinking you can ascend. They’re still young, but they’ve got playing time."
And because of that playing time, the Rams can really only be viewed as young in terms of age. Much of the roster, at least in some of the most valuable positions, has plenty of experience to go with the youngsters who have played right away. Quarterback Sam Bradford and guard Rodger Saffold are entering their fifth seasons. Defensive end Chris Long is going on year seven and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is about to embark on his sixth. Players like Jared Cook, Jake Long, Scott Wells and Kendall Langford have put in a combined 27 years in the league.
Sure, there are second- and third-year players dotting the roster at other positions -- even some rookies expected to contribute right away -- but for the guys who have reached veteran status, the idea of letting the kids grow up has become stale. They have their own clock to worry about and they want to win now.
Laurinaitis, for one, has made it clear since the spring that he no longer wants to hear about how young his team is.
"When you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes, it’s hard to get them shrunk," Laurinaitis said. "But now we have guys who are still young, but we have guys that this is their third year starting now. So I don’t consider that young. They say after eight games of your rookie year, you are not a rookie anymore. You have seen enough plays and the speed to adjust, and now we have a lot of guys like that."
The task of getting the Rams to move from the NFC West's least desirable parking spot to something much closer to the playoff door falls in their hands.