For years, while living under the shadow of the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams lost games and fans through unfocused and uninspired attempts to become what they once were.
By finally choosing a new model, the feeling in Rams Park is that the franchise has finally gained some traction in the uphill climb back to respectability. Along with a major upheaval internally, the Rams have campaigned publically to reconnect with a baseball-first city.
The Rams’ annual Fan Fest, featuring a scrimmage that is free to attend, previously took place at the team’s practice facilities in suburban Earth City, twenty miles away from their home turf at the Edward Jones Dome. As the optimism grows underneath the Arch, the Rams brought Fan Fest to the dome.
What did the team show to fuel the flames of hope?
There must be something in the air, drawing a crowd of over 12,000 for autographs, air conditioning and access to players, coaches and even general manager Les Snead and his famous coif
. He told the fans that his mother had demanded he show off a more professional haircut.
During individual drills, 7 on 7 and a situational full-squad scrimmage, the Rams showed that a worst-to-first season is not in the cards.
But Fisher did not sign up to become a one-year wonder.
Notes on what we learned from Rams Fan Fest
Quarterback Sam Bradford
Shown by the loudest cheers behind affable running back Steven Jackson, locals still believe Bradford’s best days are still ahead.
His development depends on avoiding the Jim “Chris” Everett syndrome.
After the beating that Bradford took behind a porous offensive line in his career, Bradford could have understandably become jumpy in the pocket. With that kind of blocking, the long-developing routes in former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system can be detrimental to a developing quarterback.
In his return to new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s run-heavy West-Coast-based scheme, Bradford returns to the system in which earned him rookie-of-the-year honors. He made insightful reads at the line of scrimmage against Fisher’s blitz-heavy scheme, allowing him to find holes in coverage and decisively make passes.
His ball placement on short and intermediate routes was a return to what he does best. Often Bradford threw the receiver open, creating yards-after-catch opportunities. During red zone and two minute drills he impressed with his mistake-free, low-risk offense, a conservative mantra Fisher preaches as a winning blueprint.
It worked for Alex Smith and the division-rival 49ers.
His most impressive throw of the day, a 28 yard strike on a deep flag route by Brandon Gibson, was thrown in one of the few clean pockets that he had a chance to throw from. His deep throws did sometimes sail and were off-target, but they were often thrown under duress.
Adding to his usual pass-protection woes was the absence of starting left tackle Roger Saffold and free-agent-acquisition Scott Wells, a center lured away from the Packers. The Rams do, with Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn, present a unrelenting pass rush. With the pocket collapsing, Bradford was not able to step into his deep pass attempts, affecting his mechanics and accuracy.
His back-up, Kellen Clemens showed off his laughably weak arm, failing to put enough air underneath passes after receivers Greg Salas and Chris Givens ran past safeties over the top. Granted he suffered through the same pass-protection issues, but Bradford’s health is paramount to the team’s success.
Often labeled as a preseason star, Gibson spent the entire practice and scrimmage making jaw-dropping snags. Although he did not stand out in individual route-running drills, he grabbed two spectacular catches in situational drills, including a nifty adjustment to one of Clemens’s underthrown balls.
Will he finally parlay his preseason stardom into the regular season? He does not have elite speed, having posted a 4.59 time in the 40 as a rookie out of Washington State, but his ability to make adjustments on the ball and win the battle against defensive backs when the ball is in the air could land him a starting position.
During any route-running drills, No. 16 stood out. Last season, Bradford sorely missed his crisp routes, quickness out of cuts and soft hands that have garnered comparisons to fellow Texas Tech alum Wes Welker.
Working against cornerback Cortland Finnegan, the best slot corner in the league, Amendola bested him twice in red zone drills. He obviously has retained chemistry with Bradford
His precision play and consistency will carry the passing game.
He did play one snap as the point man in the Wildcat formation, which ended in a fumble. It might be some camp experimentation, trotting it out in a preseason game to put it on film. That forces opposing defenses to prepare for as many looks as possible.
More than likely it will be employed occasionally to further exploit the same skills that make Amendola a dangerous punt returner.
The second round draft pick looked as advertised: a developmentally raw project with outstanding athleticism. During individual drills, Quick often rounded off routes, and when he did try to make a proper cut he stumbled due to poor technique. This will come with time, but he must learn to develop his footwork at the top of the route stem and sink his hips to maintain balance.
While he is projected to become a starter in the future, Quick showed why the big, athletic receiver can contribute immediately. During red zone drills he made a highlight-reel, one-handed catch despite being held. He will undoubtedly find his way on the field during the season.
Although he faces a two-game suspension to kick off the season, Pettis displayed why he should be in the conversation to become a starter. He is blazing fast out of his breaks and has good hands. After showing flashes towards the end of last season, Pettis has the advantage over the competition from a fellow 2011 draft selection.
Although Salas did not benefit from the shoddy play of Clemens during the practice, he managed to beat coverage over the top and also down the seam. He also had a few drops to go along with a TD pass on a slant from Bradford to cap off the two-minute drill.
After an injury prematurely ended his rookie season, the second year player from Hawaii showed enough to make him a dark horse candidate for the second-receiver job, behind Gibson, Pettis and Steve Smith.
Which version of Smith did the Rams sign? After a disappointing season in Philadelphia in which he was slowed by a recovery from microfracture surgery, Smith inked a deal with the Rams to add a veteran presence to an unestablished receiving corps.
Camp reports have pointed to a career renaissance, but training camp reports are not the most reliable source. Has he really regained his old quickness, or is Schottenheimer trying motivate his group of youngsters by heightening the competition?
During the scrimmage, Smith looked largely ordinary running with the ones. He did not seem to separate from defenders as well as he did on the Giants Super Bowl run in 2007.
Smith will likely stick around at least through the first two games, but when Pettis returns from suspension Smith’s play will determine whether he is cut. If he is not starting-caliber, then the coaching staff will cut him in favor of a younger player that will contribute on special teams.
Also likely to be cut are Danario Alexander, who can not stay healthy and whose play suffered from a lingering hamstring issue, and rookie Chris Givens. Much like his career in St. Louis, Alexander followed up a spectacular play in the end zone with a drop. Givens showed that he has the speed to beat defenses vertically and stretch the field, but he would benefit from a year of seasoning on the practice squad.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson
Three cornerbacks are vying for snaps alongside Cortland Finnegan, and a rookie appeared to be the favorite to win that battle.
And it was not Janoris Jenkins.
The rookie corner out of Montana, Trumaine Johnson, saw the majority of snaps with the first team and produced the scrimmage’s only interception. He is big, physical and instinctive in coverage and outperformed the veteran in the competition, Bradley Fletcher.
Jenkins did not spend much time on the field, which leads to speculation that the cornerback might not have a strong grasp on the complex playbook. When he was on the field, he showed the ability to shadow a receiver that was promised coming out of Northern Alabama.
The defensive front four lined up in the wide-9 technique that Fisher and Jim Washburn used in Tennessee, but mostly in passing situations. Defensive end Robert Quinn responded very well, using his freakish speed to turn the corner on the pass rush.
The reason that Bradford had trouble stepping into throws was often due to rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers collapsing the pocket. He is still inconsistent, but was able to split double teams in the running and passing game.
Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein showed the leg strength that caused the Rams to take him in round six, nailing field goals 34, 39, 49, 54 and 59 yards before attempting a 64-yarder. He missed just wide to the left, but had plenty of distance.
Isaiah Pead showed off his big-play potential at running back and will ably step in if Jackson is injured.
Jackson, however, showed up in outstanding shape and still shows no sign of slowing down after years of carrying the franchise. During warm-ups he was practicing catching high-velocity throws from ten yards away. One-handed. He only had one drop.
Middle linebacker James Laurenitis was still great in run support, but during seven on seven drills he showed better instincts in coverage. He looks ready to make big strides this season, especially with Brockers occupying blockers and allowing Laurenitis to make plays.