EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Late in his rookie season, Rams receiver Chris Givens had something of a revelation.
Surrounded by a group of wideouts not much older than himself with no clear-cut top target for quarterback Sam Bradford under contract beyond the 2012 season, Givens realized that one of the most important roles in the offense was there for the taking.
“I really have been waiting on an opportunity like this since I can remember,” Givens said. “I am really just excited to be able to go out and perform on a stage like this with an opportunity like this because it’s something I have always wanted.”
To get what he’s always wanted, Givens has had to give up things he’s always known.
By his own admission, Givens wasn’t much different from most 22-year-olds entering the NFL. He was immature and not quite ready to take on the responsibilities that go with the profile of the job.
Givens said he made a lot of “childish” decisions as a rookie and had trouble saying no when people asked him for things. It wasn’t until after a one-game suspension cost him a game and a check against San Francisco on Nov. 11 that Givens began to see what could slip away if he didn’t grow up in a hurry.
“Really I just worked on things off the field and really just tried to simplify my life as much as possible so that I could focus on football,” Givens said. “I felt like if I could improve myself as a person then my football game would just fall right in line.”
It wasn’t just lip service. Givens began leaning on a mentor, former Rams defensive back Aeneas Williams, who is now a pastor at a local church. Williams helped show him how to focus on his spiritual side and let the pieces fall into place.
Givens also took it upon himself to begin using the word "no" on a regular basis, perhaps the hardest lesson to learn for any young person coming into sudden wealth and fame.
As Givens explains it, he said it took a bit to realize that it’s impossible to please everyone and he had reached his NFL dream by putting in the hard work needed. The way he sees it, anyone asking for a handout could simply do the same thing and then wouldn’t need to ask for help.
“It’s definitely a hard thing to do because you love those people so much and you care about them. But when you get to a certain age, it was time for me to start thinking about me and what was best for me,” Givens said.
Upon his return to Rams Park for the offseason program, Givens’ offseason maturity was quickly evident to the coaching staff.
Givens’ focus for improvement wasn’t limited to what he could do off the field. He also put in work to make himself a more complete receiver.
As a rookie, Givens put together a solid season, emerging as a dangerous deep threat and showing the ability to work in the short areas with good catch-and-run skills. His biggest deficiency came in the intermediate areas, running what Isaac Bruce would call “herky jerky” routes that made it hard for Givens to consistently get separation.
Givens, who also added some muscle to his 198-pound frame, set about correcting that with the help of guys like Bruce, Torry Holt and receivers coach Ray Sherman. He even worked out with his fellow receivers and Terrell Owens in Los Angeles once or twice over the summer.
All of those things led to a strong preseason and training camp that have many believing Givens is a breakout candidate in 2013 and a potential No. 1 wideout for an offense that hasn’t had one since the days of Holt and Bruce.
“I think he’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster,” Sherman said. “He’s a little more aware of what’s going on around him. He’s got a better idea of how to run certain routes whereas before he was just kind of feeling his way and finding his way now he has a better understanding.”
Sherman has put Givens to work on refining the smaller details of the game during the summer, things like techniques for coming out of breaks, how to release from the line against certain coverages, taking the proper number of steps in a certain route or staying straight in his stem on others.
“I’m a lot more crisp, tighter,” Givens said. “My breaks could be a little wild because I wasn’t used to the speed and having to come out of my breaks as fast as I did so I just kind of rushed. I am taking my time, understanding my talents and knowing what I need to do to get open.”
The way the Rams have rebuilt the offense into what figures to be a more pass-first philosophy should serve Givens well and help him build on the 42 catches, 698 yards and three touchdowns he posted as a rookie.
In an ideal world for St. Louis, Bradford will be able to spread the ball around to all of his receiving options. But any quarterback likes having one or two guys he can always count on. It’s a role Givens has long yearned to have.
Entering his second year in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme and with a strong preseason in his rear view, Givens’ chance is here. His time is now.
“I’m a lot further ahead than I was last year at this point,” Givens said. “I have a better grasp of what’s going on, so that made it easier for me to come out here and be comfortable. I have stepped my game up this year.”