NFL Nation: Jeff Fisher

LANDOVER, Md. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 24-0 victory against the Washington Redskins:

Zuerlein's rough day: Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein missed an extra point and two short field goals in the first half, leaving the Rams with just a 6-0 lead going into the locker room. He rebounded slightly in the second half by making an extra point and a 34-yard field goal, but all of his kicks seemed to drift to the right. However, Fisher gave Zuerlein a vote of confidence in a unique way after the game.

"I want you all to know that in our closed door locker room there, I had Johnny Hekker hold the ball and put the ball down and Greg hit the locker, and that’s what he was aiming for," Fisher said. "So he’s OK. Greg is going to be fine, OK."

Fisher's funny: Before the game, the Rams had an unusual group of players handling the coin toss duties. Receiver Stedman Bailey, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, running back Zac Stacy, left tackle Greg Robinson and linebacker Alec Ogletree represented the team as coin toss captains, a departure from the standard group. But there was a method to coach Jeff Fisher madness. Those six players are the ones on the team's active roster acquired with picks from the team's trade with Washington in 2012. Two others, running back Isaiah Pead and lineman Rokevious Watkins, are not on the current 53-man roster.

Moving on: Fisher barely allowed much time for his team to enjoy Sunday's win, making it clear that the normal 24-hour rule is not in effect this week. The Rams play the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night. I asked linebacker James Laurinaitis if there's a 24-minute rule and he said there's not even a 12-minute rule. The Rams will watch the film of Sunday's win tonight and even start getting into Arizona before Sunday night turns into Monday morning.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear Monday afternoon that he preferred not to mix sports and politics when he declined to answer questions about five of his players doing the "Hands up" gesture in a nod to protestors in nearby Ferguson before Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders.

"One of the main responsibilities as a head coach in the National Football League, which I have been, since, well nearly 20 years now is to address the media on the day immediately following the game and discuss the outcome, win, loss, I'll throw a tie in there, what happened and why," Fisher said. "It's my personal opinion, I firmly believe that it's important that I keep sports and politics separate. I'm a head coach. I'm not a politician, an activist or an expert on societal issues. So I'm going to answer questions about the game."

That wasn't the response the assembled media or anyone, really, was looking for. In fact, Fisher's nearly 20 years in the league should have long ago alerted him to the fact that sometimes sports and politics intertwine -- even if it's unwanted. Fisher didn't ask receivers Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens and tight end Jared Cook to express themselves during pre-game introductions and he didn't know that they had decided to do it beforehand.

As of Monday afternoon, Fisher said he had not yet spoken to any of the players about it but acknowledged that those conversations will take place and the nature of the chats will remain confidential.

From there, Fisher went on to point out he spoke to the team about Ferguson on Wednesday and went on to detail some of the positive things the Rams' organization had done for the community. That included inviting about 50 small business owners whose stores were damaged by looting and burning last week to the game, providing 2,000 Thanksgiving dinners to families in need on Tuesday and the entire team's symbolic gesture of locking arms in solidarity during the national anthem before Sunday's game.

Much of that good was forgotten in the aftermath of Sunday's game as attention to the gesture increased when the St. Louis Police Officers Association released a statement calling for the players to be disciplined and seeking a "very public" apology.

Fisher did mention that the players would face no such punishment and that Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff met with local law enforcement to discuss what happened.

"As far as the choice that the players made, no, they were exercising their right to free speech," Fisher said. "They will not be disciplined by the club nor will they be disciplined by the National Football League as it was released today. That's all I'm going to say.

"It's been brought to my attention that Kevin has had discussions with police department and law enforcement and any questions with respect to that should be directed to him and for that matter, any questions outside of football should be directed to the organization."
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 22-7 victory over the Denver Broncos:

The right stuff: Entering the season, the Rams were built to win on the back of a strong defense, strong special teams and an offense that runs the ball effectively and doesn't turn it over. That blueprint hasn't been on display much, but 10 games into the season, the Rams are starting to believe they've found it.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher pointed to Sunday's impressive win against the reigning AFC champion as a near-perfect example of who his team would like to be.

"Great win, as good a game as we can play in all three areas," Fisher said. "Coaches did a great job with the plan. We were able to stick with the plan because the players executed."

A near shutout: As crazy as it sounds, the one regret the Rams defense had from Sunday's game is that they had a legitimate shot to keep the high-powered Broncos off the scoreboard. Were it not for yet another coverage breakdown, that's exactly what would have happened. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod had a mix-up near the end of the first half resulting in Emmanuel Sanders' 42-yard touchdown catch.

Fisher said it was one of three coverage breakdowns the Rams had, but Peyton Manning was unable to take advantage of the other two.

Injury free? After the game, Fisher made no mention of any glaring injuries. We'll see where everybody is when the team returns to practice Wednesday.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher knows Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning better than any opposing coach in the league. As the coach of the Tennessee Titans, he faced Manning's Indianapolis Colts 19 times, including the postseason.

In those games, the Titans were 6-13. Along the way, Fisher said he tried just about every tactic one could think of to slow down Manning and his offensive directives.

"It’s like playing a computer," Fisher said. "That’s what he is. He runs that offense. He’s going to put them in the best possible position. He’s nearly impossible to fool and is hard to get down. If you rush more than four, the ball's coming out and he’s not going to take the hit. That’s just how he is. He puts that offense in the best possible position every snap. If the run’s not there, then he’s going to pick it up and he’s going to change and he’s going to put the ball down the field. He’s prepared. He’s prepared week after week, year after year. Again, like I said, I think he’s playing his best football right now.”

That's a scary thought for any defense or coach, but especially one who has seen him so many times over the years when Manning was on his way to league MVP awards.

On Thursday evening, Fisher offered an anecdote about a solution they tried in Tennessee in an attempt to keep Manning from so easily picking up on what they were doing from down to down, series to series and quarter to quarter.

“There were years when our whole defense wore wristbands and we changed every quarter because we couldn’t talk, because he recognizes your terminology and your calls and things like that,” Fisher said.

According to Fisher, each wristband had a number on it that represented a different defensive call. The call would come in just as a number. At the end of a quarter, the defense would change the wristband and the individual number would mean something different.

That begs the obvious question: Did it work?

“No," Fisher said, laughing. "It may have for a quarter. I don’t know.”

The reality is, there isn't one simple solution to slowing Manning. The best might be to keep him off the field completely.

"Every time that Peyton’s on the bench, that certainly is important, their offense is on the bench," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Certainly have played him a lot of times. The times we’ve played well against him, going back to the days with the [New York] Jets … division playoff games, stuff like that, you win the time-of-possession battle. You stay on the field. I think the more opportunities we can do that by being successful running the football, throwing completions will help us do that.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 13-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers:

Bouncing back: The Rams' 34-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week left them bruised and battered, with 13 players on this week's injury report and even more wounded egos. But after Sunday's stunning victory, nobody wanted to take any individual credit for a team effort that proved many a doubter (present company included) wrong.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher called it one of his most satisfying wins since he arrived in St. Louis in 2012.

"It's a big win for us, considering the circumstances with what happened last week and injuries and so on and so forth -- and the fact that I don't think anybody thought we could come in here and pull it off," Fisher said. "That's just a tribute to their personality."

Injury-free: Speaking of injuries, it appears the Rams came out of Sunday's game without anything pressing. Defensive end William Hayes, who had two sacks, left the game with an ankle injury, but Fisher indicated it wasn't serious and said there "wasn't much of anything" on the injury front in this game.

Laurinaitis recovers: For the second time in three weeks, the Rams had a late fumble recovery to seal a win against an NFC West opponent. Against Seattle, it was tight end Cory Harkey who claimed credit, though the replay didn't confirm. Sunday's was clearer, as linebacker James Laurinaitis scooped it up and immediately showed it to the official to ice the win.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The San Francisco 49ers enter Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams with the inherent advantage of coming off a bye week and a number of players returning to health.

The Rams, meanwhile, head toward that meeting with 13 players on their injury report, eight of whom were listed as non-participants in Wednesday's walk-through. They are also coming off a 34-7 drubbing at Kansas City in the middle of a three-game road stretch.

Needless to say, the 49ers don't need any more advantages, whether real or perceived. So as rumors swirl about the potential early return of 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith from his original nine-game suspension, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear Wednesday that he doesn't expect Smith to be available this week.

More to the point, Fisher believes if the NFL was going to make Smith available this late in the week, it should have done so earlier since the game-planning that his team has already done hasn't accounted for Smith.

"He’s a good football player," Fisher said. "I would expect it to be unlikely this late. I think I would have liked to have known about it earlier in the week from a game-planning standpoint, but we can’t control what happens at the league office. If he’s reinstated and plays, we’re going to have to block him. So we’ll just wait and see."

Smith has two games left on the nine-game suspension he received before the season for violations of the league's personal conduct policy and substance abuse program. The rumor mill has indicated a possible reduction in that suspension based on apparent good behavior.

So far, nothing has come from those rumors and it doesn't appear a reduction is imminent. That doesn't mean it won't happen, as the league has made similar unexpected decisions on such matters before.

Even without Smith, the 49ers sacked Rams quarterback Austin Davis five times in the first meeting on Oct. 13. Adding Smith, who has 42 sacks in 43 regular-season games, would make things tougher on a Rams team that will give rookie Greg Robinson his first start at left tackle Sunday.

"I’ve got a pretty good left tackle out there right now that’s going to get better and better," Fisher said. "So we’ll see."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Before taking questions from the media in his weekly day-after-game news conference Monday afternoon, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher took a moment to acknowledge the tragedy that reached St. Louis on Sunday evening.

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, 18, died Sunday in a car accident in Taveras' native Dominican Republic. The tragic news reached Fisher on Sunday night when he returned home after the team's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I’m going to start off by offering on behalf of Stan Kroenke and our entire organization our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Oscar Taveras and to the entire St. Louis Cardinal baseball organization and [manager] Mike Matheny," Fisher said. "It was such a tragic loss that we all learned about late yesterday. He was 22 years old. Such a promising young man. The future that was ahead of him was unbelievable, so we’re very, very sorry. It just shows you how precious each day is and how precious life is."

Fisher said he had been in touch with Matheny after learning of the accident and expressed confidence that Matheny would handle the tragedy on behalf of the organization as well as he can.

Matheny released a heartfelt and heartbreaking statement on Taveras' death Monday afternoon. Taveras was 22.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have made a habit of starting as the hare and ending as the tortoise in 2014, but for all of those slow finishes, many of them can be directly linked to a series of missed opportunities.

After the Rams' 34-7 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon, the 2-5 Rams appear headed down the path to another disastrous season.

And there will be no sequence of plays that better sums up this year's team so far than what happened midway through the second quarter of Sunday's loss.

In a 7-7 game with the ball at Kansas City's 8-yard line after a fumble recovery by defensive end William Hayes, the Rams somehow managed to come away with no points. Not a touchdown, not a field goal, nothing. Instead of at least a 3-point Rams' lead, Kansas City got the ball back and promptly drove for a field goal of its own.

It was a six-point swing that turned more painful as the Chiefs rattled off the next 24 points of the game. They scored all 34 of their points after the Rams' opening touchdown.

"We clearly got outplayed the second half of this game in all three phases," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "It probably started before half when we had the turnover, got sacked, got no points and then gave up points. So this team is going to have to learn to play consistent through 60 minutes."

Really, the most consistent thing about this Rams team is the repeated use of that final sentence. Talk of finishing a game, playing a full 60 minutes and other such cliches are staples around the St. Louis locker room, yet nothing seems to change -- with rare exceptions like last week's win against Seattle mixed in.

Sunday's failure came at all levels, but the steamroller didn't really fire up until after the missed second-quarter chance.

The Rams' offense had put together an impressive opening drive for a touchdown, and though it hadn't scored since, had at least moved the ball. On first down from the Chiefs' 8, running back Tre Mason ran up the middle for 1 yard. On second down, the Chiefs blanketed a Rams receiver corps as pressure came through the Rams' struggling offensive line and forced quarterback Austin Davis to scramble for a yard.

Third down is when things really took a turn for the worse as Davis felt pressure, escaped the pocket to the right and instead of throwing the ball away or hanging in the pocket to find receiver Chris Givens in the back of the end zone, took a 14-yard sack.

"That was a big point in the game," Davis said. "Obviously you get the big turnover. At minimum, you’ve got to come away with three, but, really, you need to score a touchdown. I’ve got to throw it away. We’re even closer and it would have been more of a chip shot for Greg so I have got to do a better job of throwing the football away and managing the situation. You get the field goal and everyone feels a little bit better. Those types of plays are critical in a close game, as it was at that point."

In fairness, Davis had thrown a touchdown earlier in the game on a similar play when he rolled out and found tight end Lance Kendricks in the back of the end zone. Taking a sack isn't a good play but it still left kicker Greg Zuerlein a 38-yard chip shot. Or so it seemed.

Zuerlein, who has developed a knack for missing kicks at crucial times, said he rushed the kick and didn't set his plant foot properly.

"Anytime you go out there they expect you to make the field goal, obviously you should, being that close," Zuerlein said.

Once again, there are a lot of simple enough things the Rams should be able to do to help them win games. They're the things that winning teams do and losing teams don't. And for as long as the Rams don't do them, they'll continue to get the same result.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 34-7 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs:

Walking wounded: For much of Sunday's game, it seemed the Rams couldn't go without suffering an injury every couple of plays. By the time the day was done, the Rams lost center Scott Wells (elbow), offensive tackle Jake Long (knee), guard Rodger Saffold (shoulder), receiver Brian Quick (arm) and safeties Cody Davis (concussion) and Rodney McLeod (knee). None returned after departing, and end William Hayes also left the locker room on crutches.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher offered no specific updates on any of the players but acknowledged that some of the injured would "miss some time."

Mishit kick: Fisher said kicker Greg Zuerlein's short kickoff to open the second half was a result of a mishit ball. The ball was not supposed to be a line drive. Instead, it was supposed to be high and angled to the left corner. But Zuerlein didn't hit it as he was supposed to and Kansas City returner Knile Davis took it 99 yards for a touchdown. Fisher also expressed disappointment in Zuerlein's miss on a 38-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.

Governor's appearance: There has been speculation about the Rams' future in St. Louis, and some of that has centered on the efforts of Gov. Jay Nixon to help keep the team in the state. Nixon was spotted walking through the corridor near the Rams locker room after the game.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins' latest coverage miscue resulting in another long touchdown pass hasn't changed how he's viewed by coach Jeff Fisher.

Two days after Jenkins was beat for a pair of touchdowns in the Rams' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Fisher offered a vote of confidence for his third-year cornerback.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lloyd
AP Photo/Scott KaneBrandon Lloyd was able to beat Janoris Jenkins for a long touchdown on Monday.
Asked whether Jenkins' boom or bust tendency -- the bust showing up most recently on Brandon Lloyd's 80-yard touchdown past Jenkins just before Monday night's halftime -- makes him a high risk/high reward option, Fisher made it clear he doesn't see it that way.

"I disagree," Fisher said. "He's playing corner, it's the hardest position to play in this league. The great part about him is that he's got a short memory. He doesn't let those things bother him. He doesn't make mistakes on purpose, understands our defense. Like I said he will take responsibility for the play. I think it was more of something that we should have kept him out of. I have no concern with his production and his play at this point."

More than a quarter of the way through his third season, Jenkins has been a starter for the Rams since his arrival in St. Louis. In 36 games, he's offered his share of game-changing plays (his five defensive touchdowns are the most in the NFL in that time) while also surrendering plenty of big plays. Lloyd's 80-yard touchdown catch was the second consecutive "Monday Night Football" game where Jenkins has allowed a touchdown covering that distance after then Seattle wideout Golden Tate beat him for one last year.

At other times in his career, Jenkins has been victimized by Atlanta's Julio Jones, San Francisco's Anquan Boldin, Dallas' Dez Bryant and others for big plays. Taking his cues from Fisher, Jenkins points to the ups and downs as part of playing one of the league's most difficult positions.

"They make plays and we make plays," Jenkins said. "You've just got to put it behind you because everybody is going to make a play. It's just when the play is going to be made and how it's going to be made."

The play against the Niners came at the worst possible time. Just before the end of the first half, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called for a basic three-deep zone in which it was Jenkins' responsibility to show that he was in a Cover 2 zone before the snap but then back off (known as bail technique) at the snap to stay deep keeping the receiver in front of him.

Instead, Jenkins got caught starting into the backfield and Lloyd beat him with a double move. That's been a common issue for Jenkins since he arrived in the league with that tendency leading to big plays for him but even more against him.

"It was all on me," Jenkins said. "I take full responsibility as a man. I just know on that particular play, I was doing the wrong thing, I was doing my own thing and it won't happen again."

While Jenkins and Fisher are right that the cornerback position is going to come with its ups and downs, it's not the big touchdowns so much as how they're happening that should be concerning. Jenkins' mistakes have come as a result of the same thing happening over and over. That's not a function of simply getting beat so much as a stubborn refusal to make the changes to minimize risk consistently.

With fellow cornerback Trumaine Johnson set to return from a knee injury soon, the Rams will have to do some reshuffling at cornerback. Based on Fisher's comments, it seems unlikely Jenkins' role will be a part of any adjustments.

"It makes me feel like I have always been feeling, normal, comfortable, just eliminate what I can eliminate and just continue to play," Jenkins said.
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

Jenkins keeps it moving: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins was on the wrong end of an 80-yard touchdown pass to 49ers receiver Brandon Lloyd with 14 seconds left in the first half, a play that changed the outlook of the game. But Jenkins declined to explain what happened on the play, departing the locker room before speaking to the media. A Rams media relations staffer attempted to get Jenkins to speak, but those pleas fell on deaf ears.

Davis blames himself: On the complete opposite side of the accountability spectrum, Rams quarterback Austin Davis spoke to the media at length and pinned the blame on himself for the team's loss. The clearly disappointed Davis finished 21-of-42 for 236 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his toughest test as a starter. He wasn't the only player at fault in a game where there was plenty of blame to cast.

Chatting with Long: Rams coach Jeff Fisher spent a couple of minutes speaking to Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long before entering his news conference. Long, of course, is the father of injured Rams defensive end Chris Long.

Jared Cook blames himself for loss

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 34-31 loss to Dallas:
  • Cook
    Rams tight end Jared Cook had what should have been an easy 10-yard touchdown slip through his hands early in the fourth quarter, leaving the Rams to settle for a field goal. Instead of a 28-20 lead, the Rams took a 24-20 advantage. Cook's frustration with himself boiled over on the sideline when he shoved quarterback Austin Davis, who had come over to help him settle down after the drop. Defensive end William Hayes stepped in and yelled at Cook in an attempt to defuse the situation.

    After the game, a despondent Cook said he cleared the air with Davis and took the blame for the drop and the shove.

    "I was heated, like anybody else," Cook said. "I feel like I let this game slip through my hands, and that’s my fault as a man."
  • Davis had another big outing, going 30-of-42 for 327 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 98.0. Apparently that performance, combined with what he did last week, is not enough to earn him the job moving forward. Rams coach Jeff Fisher reiterated that Shaun Hill will be his starter when he returns from a calf injury.

    "No, I have said it and stood behind that decision," Fisher said.
  • Fisher declined comment on a couple of controversial calls that went against the Rams, including a defensive holding against end Eugene Sims in the game's closing moments. He said he would look at the film before offering his thoughts, presumably in his Monday news conference.

Rams unsure of Shaun Hill's status

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
ST. LOUIS -- Some observations from the St. Louis Rams' locker room after a 34-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at the Edward Jones Dome.
  • Hill
    Rams coach Jeff Fisher said quarterback Shaun Hill left the game at halftime because of a quad injury. Hill did not return, and his status moving forward remains up in the air until further examination. "Shaun was uncomfortable the second-to-last drive [of the first half]," Fisher said. "At halftime, we decided it would not be a good idea for him to return. He has a quad strain. I'll know more information on it tomorrow."
  • One point of continued frustration for the Rams: penalties. It's been an issue for the past two years under Fisher. They had 13 infractions for 121 yards against the Vikings. Every year they say that area will improve, and every year we lack evidence that it has. "Penalties were certainly an issue," Fisher said. "They killed drives, back-to-back penalties. ... I can go on and on and on, but that's what happened today."
  • Some of the adjectives thrown around to describe Sunday's performance in a somber Rams locker room included "embarrassing," "disgusting" and many incarnations of "frustrating." And those are just the ones fit to print here. Fisher told his team not to let one game define a season, but as end Chris Long said, the Rams will spend at least one night being angry at themselves.

Rams must start season strong

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It might seem a bit over the top to call Week 1 of the NFL season a must win. But for the St. Louis Rams, Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings is about as close to it as you'll find in a regular-season opener.

C. Long
 Considering that the Rams have won just once in their past seven regular-season debuts (last year against Arizona) and the brutal eight-game stretch that awaits after a Week 4 bye, they can ill afford a slip in a winnable home game to start the season.

Looking at it from a broader perspective, it's worth noting that since the postseason expanded to 12 teams in 1990, 54 percent of teams to start with a win reached the postseason. On the flip side, just 25 percent of teams starting with a loss made the playoffs. Of the 288 teams to reach the playoffs since 1990, 68 percent started the season with a win.

With all of those things at play entering the opener against the Vikings, Rams coach Jeff Fisher is taking his usual approach of focusing on the micro over the macro implication of the matchup.

"I think about getting this team ready to play," Fisher said. "I think about what’s going to take place in the game and the adjustments. We’re in the scheme now, matchups and those kinds of things. I’ve never been one to think about that. Obviously, I was hired for a reason to bring a winner here and it’s not me, it’s just not me, there’s a whole new crew here and we’re all doing everything we possibly can to do that.”

The Rams' absence from the postseason and even the lack of a winning record for the vast majority of the past decade has been well documented. So have the Rams' efforts to take the sinking ship that Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over in 2012 and get it going in the right direction.

Over the past three years, the Rams have turned over the roster and put more talent in place, but it remains to be seen if that's going to be enough to take the next step. Seven wins in each of the past two seasons has represented major progress, but progress only lasts for as long as the arrow continues to point up. Another year mired in mediocrity will not sit well amongst understandably impatient Rams fans.

For veterans like end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis, who have survived the rebuilding process and put up with the excuses about the team's youth, there is no time like the present.

"It would mean a lot to all of us to turn this thing around," Long said. "We’re in the process of doing it. It’s not just the guys that have been here awhile. It’s everybody. Because I feel like you come in here every year with equally-high hopes. That having been said, we’ve got as much talent in this room as we’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s my seventh year here. So every year you want it to be this year. I’m as hopeful as ever."

That hope could vanish quickly should the Rams find themselves on the losing end against Minnesota. That isn't to say the Vikings are pushovers. Any team with offensive weapons like running back Adrian Peterson, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph and coach Mike Zimmer guiding the defense is a dangerous one.

But things will only get more dangerous for the Rams as the year goes on. After the Week 4 bye, the Rams begin a brutal eight-game stretch that features two games against San Francisco and one each against Philadelphia, Seattle, Kansas City, Arizona, Denver and San Diego. All but Arizona is coming off a playoff berth, and the Cardinals finished last season 10-6.

So for the Rams, getting off to a hot start is not only desirable but imperative.

"I think it would be great for our fanbase, and this organization to reward them with a team that can get over the hump," Laurinaitis said. "It sounds great talking about it right now, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. That starts with Minnesota."

Seven NFL predictions for 2014

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
Golden Tate Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Packers and Seahawks open the NFL season in their first meeting since 2012's "Fail Mary."

Of course. Two of the NFL's best teams will kick off the 2014 season Thursday night -- and all you want to talk about is some random play that happened two years ago in a dark period of NFL history.

Fail Mary? Thpptttt. You still don't think Golden Tate caught the ball? You're waiting for Roger Goodell to invoke his right to reverse outcomes? You're incredulous the NFL would open itself to outside influence by substituting woefully underqualified officials as leverage in collective bargaining? You're still following T.J. Lang after he posted the most re-tweeted tweet of all time?

Nope? Me neither. Over it.

I, for one, am far too focused on the crucial nuts and bolts of this game -- and the upcoming season -- to get worked up about the most recent time the Green Bay Packers visited the Seattle Seahawks. This is all business. I want to see if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can withstand the Seahawks' fierce pass rush and if his girlfriend, Oliva Munn, is in the stands to watch it. I'm pumped to break down how Richard Sherman matches up with Jordy Nelson -- in between viewings of his latest Campbell's Soup ad.

Nothing generates deep discussion of strategy, scheme and precision like the NFL. How will the Cleveland Browns find a deep threat after the suspension of Josh Gordon? (And what club will Johnny Manziel hit after their first game?) Will Robert Griffin III respond to new expectations as a pocket passer? (And who will be the next world leader to speak out against the Washington Redskins' team name?) How in the name of doomsday will the Dallas Cowboys field a competitive defense? (And can owner Jerry Jones find a way to market a practice squad player?)

So many questions, so little time in the film room. So for your collective preparation efforts, here is a touchdown's worth of predictions for the 2014 NFL season. Carve them in stone, bet the house on them, and if I'm wrong, feel free to call me at (555) 555-5555.

1. Officiating will be better

[+] EnlargeNFL Instant Replay
AP Photo/Jack DempseyOfficials will now get instant replay assistance from the league office.
Yes, I know. We spent the entire preseason freaking out about a spike of penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding, two key points of emphasis dictated by the NFL's competition committee. I'm well aware that officials called almost the same number of those penalties in 69 preseason games (271) as they did in 256 regular-season games (285) in 2013.

But it's also worth taking a breath and reiterating that the rate dropped sharply in the final week of the preseason as all sides adjusted. The rate will still be higher than in 2013, but I wouldn't expect anything close to what we saw in the first few weeks of the preseason.

Aside from that issue, the league took several important steps this offseason in response to a rough go of it in 2013. It replaced three referees and a total of 13 officials, the biggest turnover in more than a decade. New instant replay assistance from the league office will make the system more accurate and quicker -- by nearly 20 seconds per review, according to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- and officials will communicate better now via wireless headsets.

I still expect to see plenty of disputed calls, and I'm not sure how to quantify improvement. But there is no doubt this operation is moving in the right direction.

2. Russell Wilson will be elite . . .

By the time the season is over, the Seahawks' quarterback will no longer be the target of condescending compliments. He won't be known as a winner, a game manager or surprisingly strong-armed for his size. No, Wilson will be one regarded as one of the absolute best quarterbacks -- and passers -- in the NFL. Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will have no choice but to let him into their club.

This preseason, Wilson looked like a Ph.D. student who has submitted his dissertation. Preseason results are to be taken lightly -- sorry, just expunging the final drops of condescension -- but Wilson was the best player on the field this summer. He accounted for six touchdowns in three games while completing 31 of 37 passes for 400 yards. Wilson looked for all the world like a player on the brink of an individual breakout, one that will force the Seahawks to place him among the league's highest-paid players when he's eligible for a contract extension this spring.

3. . . . and Johnny Manziel, uh, won't

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonJohnny Manziel seems destined to be more like Troy Smith than Russell Wilson.
Manziel (6-foot) has drawn plenty of comparisons to Wilson (5-11) because of their height, but the associations should end there. This summer, Manziel revealed a big-play attitude but offered no confirmation that he has the physical attributes to carry it out.

There's reason to believe Manziel's inaccurate passing (47.9 percent in the preseason) can improve over time. But what made him a special college player was his ability to break the pocket and pressure defenses on the edge. Those expecting him to play that way in the NFL saw good instincts but not the kind of speed that suggests he can make a living doing it. Instead, we were reminded that Manziel (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash) isn't nearly as fleet as players who have pressured defenses with speed in recent years. Griffin (4.41), Wilson (4.55) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53) were all considerably faster when drafted.

Manziel will get on the field, but he'll conjure more images of Troy Smith than Russell Wilson this season.

4. Texans will regret QB approach

The Houston Texans made the right call in bypassing Manziel at No. 1 overall, despite the pleading of some fans. But they'll rue both the day they allowed the Minnesota Vikings to leapfrog them for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall and the day after, when they passed up Derek Carr at No. 33.

There is no more important job for a new coach than to identify his quarterback, and Bill O'Brien almost certainly won't do that in his first season. Evidence of concern surfaced last week, when the Texans acquired the mildly touted Ryan Mallett to join a mix of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and could-miss prospect Tom Savage. In all likelihood, the Texans have pushed this critical question into O'Brien's second year. Texans fans should prepare to hear a ton about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley, the quarterback trio that should lead the 2015 draft.

5. A big-time coach is in his final season

I'm just not sure who yet. Will it be Tom Coughlin, the 68-year-old New York Giants coach whose team might need a rebuild? Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but he has also missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Would the Giants move on if that streak becomes five of the past six?

What about Marvin Lewis? In resurrecting the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis has made the playoffs five times but now holds the NFL record for coaching the most games (176) without a postseason victory. The Bengals will have their hands full in a tougher AFC North, and Lewis will be coaching without two treasured coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Is this the year Lewis must win a playoff game to keep his job?

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezWill Jim Harbaugh's supernova personality explode in San Francisco?
Then there's Jim Harbaugh, whose contract negotiations with the 49ers have been put on hold until after the season. Plenty of smoke arose this offseason about internal discord and even a potential trade to the Browns. Some consider Harbaugh's personality to be a supernova -- burning brightly for a short time before it explodes.

Jeff Fisher might be facing the biggest challenge in St. Louis. After consecutive seven-win seasons in the game's toughest division, Fisher has again lost his starting quarterback for the year. Has he built his defense into a strong enough group to carry the Rams into the playoffs? Otherwise, he's headed toward his fifth consecutive non-playoff season. The most recent time a Jeff Fisher team won a postseason game? The 2003 Tennessee Titans.

6. Marc Trestman's reputation as a "quarterback whisperer" will swell . . .

. . . when Josh McCown goes back to being Josh McCown, when Jay Cutler continues his refinement and when Jimmy Clausen (!) survives as the Chicago Bears' backup.

McCown had an undeniably great season in 2013. He finished with the NFL's top Total Quarterback Rating (85.1) and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance got him a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Trestman blip in McCown's career is too obvious to ignore.

Before teaming up with Trestman, McCown was a 58 percent passer with a 13-20 career record as a starter and seven more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37). What's more likely: that he suddenly figured it all out in his 11th season, or that Trestman found a special connection?

McCown's performance overshadowed what turned out to be the best season of Cutler's career (66.4 QBR, 89.2 rating). With a settled offensive line and the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery receiving duo, Cutler has every opportunity to continue blossoming under Trestman. And if Clausen -- who was out of football in 2013 -- proves anywhere close to a credible backup, as the Bears are counting on, then it'll be time to recognize Trestman as the NFL's top quarterback guru.

7. This will be the last season of the extra point as we know it

Enjoy it while you can. League officials were pleased with an experiment that called for 33-yard extra points in the first two weeks of the preseason. It resulted in eight misses, albeit in some cases by place-kickers who won't be in the league in 2014. At this point, however, the NFL wants something other than a sure thing moving forward -- and the past season's 99.8 conversion rate was pretty darn close.

One alternative to keep an eye on: Some coaches and players want to see the spot moved from the 2- to the 1-yard line. That shift, as the theory goes, would encourage more teams to go for two points -- a decidedly more exciting play than an extra point from any distance. In either event, start getting your autographed prints now. The closeout sale has started.


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