St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has said it. General manager Les Snead has said it. Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff has said it. The Rams even put it in their renewal letter to season-ticket holders.
On Monday afternoon, Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis couldn't have made it any more clear: The time for building is through and 2014 is the year for the Rams to become relevant in the NFL's postseason conversation.
"[Strength coach] Rock [Gullickson] made a good point in the weight room today: for a lot of us that have been here for a while -- myself, Sam [Bradford], Chris Long -- enough of 'Hey, in the future we are going to be good, in the future, in the future. It's more of 'Hey, we need to be good now,'" Laurinaitis said. "I wouldn’t say we are getting old but we are not second- or third-year guys anymore. I think there's an urgency there, kind of a realization that we were fourth in our division, this isn't going to be easy to catch the Seahawks when we are still working to catch the Arizona Cardinals if we are going to be honest with ourselves.
"I don't think we're far away, I just think there's a sense of urgency, kind of a realism of we are fourth in our division and that's not good enough for any of our standards."
So it was that all 60 players on the offseason roster showed up Monday for the team's first day of the offseason program. And again on Tuesday. In this, the third year of the Fisher/Snead era, the excuses of years past are being tossed away. Even if the Rams have the youngest roster in the league for the third consecutive year -- a real possibility, by the way -- they've been building toward 2014 as a potential breakout season.
For that to happen, a lot is going to have to go right. Many young players are going to have to take a big step forward, an expected large draft class is going to have to contribute right away and a quarterback and left tackle coming off serious knee injuries are going to have to get and stay healthy. For now, the only thing the Rams can control is how they approach this part of the offseason program, the part known as "phase one."
That means doing everything possible to get the most of the strength and conditioning sessions and whatever little tidbits of actual football study they can get their hands on.
"Instead of denying it, we are just kind of accepting it and all we can do is work hard," Laurinaitis said. "We can't play football again for a while so just go out there and work your tail off right now while you can and realize that's our goal and our only objective to catch everybody else. Right now we are fourth. That's the reality, no matter how much it stinks or how much talent we've got. We're fourth."
As returning defensive captain, Laurinaitis was pleased with what he saw from teammates on what amounts to the first day of school for players. He said there was a noticeable growth among guys once they went from the more playful locker room area to the weight room and he could tell most of his teammates had been working out on their own.
"I think a lot of them showed up in great shape," Laurinaitis said. "You can tell [there's] a lot more maturity in them and stuff like that. I think the main question will be on the football field. You can be in better shape, look like you're faster and stuff like that but we all know sometimes it doesn't translate to the football field. We have a lot of guys, we need a whole bunch to [step up]. That won’t really show up until OTAs. Whoever we draft, that always seems to make people work harder as well. There's no bigger motivating factor than competition."
The competition at this point will come in smaller pieces like the bench press, in the sand pit and running sprints. But if the Rams are indeed going to make the next step in 2014, every step along the way counts.