(Note: Front paged by DouglasM - This is a solid read by a TSTer I'm fast becoming a fan of for his top notch articles)
The New Year is underway and a brand new St. Louis Rams regime will soon follow. Since the drop of the ball in Times Square, rumors and speculation have consumed our lives, and will continue doing so until direction is set in place. It's a painstaking process which causes fans to suffer.
Unfortunately, breaking news can only be arranged so quickly and it could be several weeks before we learn the next leadership of our beloved Rams. As they say, out with the old and in with the new, but change takes time. We can debate all that we want to about whom the next Rams head coach could and should be; however, I am almost as interested in whom will inherit the only obvious present strength of the team: the defense.
The St. Louis Rams have a foundation of speed, power and relentlessness in place on the defensive side of the ball. If the Rams team as a whole is a "top choice" destination for potential head coaches, then the Rams defense should also attract plenty of attractive suitors at coordinator.
Here we will take a look at several highly taught qualifiers whom any franchise would be considered lucky to have coaching for, in one degree or another. I won't commit to any single coach because they all have their strengths and downfalls; I'll leave that decision up to you. Here is your chance to play your dream role, operate the Rams franchise, be a head coach and pick an employee. Defense is becoming an established force for this team. Let's keep it that way.
Allow me to say, first and foremost, that this is never going to happen. Merely 24 hours after earning an NFL-worst loss 14 on the season, Spags has been sent packing, finished as a member of the St. Louis Rams. Nevertheless, I am still going to include him in this list because he is my top choice for defensive coordinator; however, think of it more as my final farewell to a good man than a case for moving forward.
Regardless of how you felt about his often conservative offensive approach and sometimes angering personnel decisions, one thing always remained in Coach Spagnuolo's favor: the man is a defensive genius. He can call plays, bring pressure and instill schemes with, or against, the best of them. He can also bring the best out of a player, as we saw several times in Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and undrafted no-name, Darian Stewart.
The biggest fault that we found with Spagnuolo was that his defense is built for playing with the lead, something we seldom ever experienced, yet somehow always foolishly relied upon. He believes heavily in his deep-zone, blitz-heavy system. So much so that he allowed it to constantly be featured on the field, and therein laid the problem: too much defense.
I think we are all pretty confident that if the Rams could have mustered 20 or so points per game, Spags' defense would have allowed them to contend for the playoffs. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Don't be surprised if you see Steve Spagnuolo back in the playoffs before the Rams are. He remains a red hot commodity despite recent struggles and will surely be snatched up soon. Teams everywhere are already ringing his phone off the hook. Look for him to land in Philadelphia, New York or possibly New England.
Good luck, Spags. Leave your playbook behind.
Jerry Don Gray
If you have been a Rams fan for any length of time predating the move to St. Louis then you are likely familiar with Jerry Gray. A four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the team in Los Angeles, Gray has arguably enjoyed even more success as a professional coach than he ever had as a player, falling just one game short of a Super Bowl Ring in 1999.
The first two years of his coaching career (1999-2000) were spent as a defensive backs coach for the Tennessee Titans under Jeff Fisher, a former coach heavily speculated to be the favorite for the Rams' head coaching vacancy. You see where I'm going with this.
From 2001 to 2005, Gray joined former Titans DC Gregg Williams with the Buffalo Bills. Williams became a head coach and Gray was his DC. The past decade hasn't been particularly kind to the Bills franchise, but they actually boasted one of the top defenses in the league during Gray's time there, ranking 2nd in both 2003 and 2004. Eventually the two went the way of most Bills coaches in recent memory, and were shown the door.
In 2006 Gray returned to position coaching defensive backs under Jim Zorn for the Washington Redskins, where he stayed until 2009. There he worked with All-Pro safeties LaRon Landry and the late great, Sean Taylor. He again found himself as a casualty of unsuccessful leadership, but Dan Snyder did think highly enough of Gray to interview him for head coach, all before Zorn was even let go.
In 2010 Pete Carroll asked Gray to join him with the Seattle Seahawks, again working as a defensive backs coach. Let the connections to the Rams continue. By far one of my most hated plays from that season was then rookie safety, Earl Thomas intercepting Bradford in the endzone. We won that day, but no thanks to him.
Jerry Don Gray is now the defensive coordinator for the Titans under Mike Munchak, having just signed a lucrative deal last offseason. Before you consider him simply jumping ship as farfetched, though, consider this. Last January Gray joined his alma mater, the University of Texas, as assistant head coach. Less than one month later, he agreed to terms with the Titans.
Longhorn fans were furious, but Gray sought greener pastures. Under the right circumstances, it could happen again.
If there was any more disappointing team this year than the St. Louis Rams, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year's "best in the NFC" found themselves on a downward slope of which only Rams fans can relate, losing ten games in a row and inevitably cutting ties with their young head coach. Raheem Morris and Steve Spagnuolo met on the unemployment line on the same day.
Morris has spent only one season as a defensive coordinator, and it wasn't even in the NFL. In 2006, he joined the Kansas State Wild Cats, who finished with a 7-6 record. Although the defense was much improved statically, the team never hit stride throughout the season, despite an impressive upset win over #4 Texas.
To date, Morris' entire NFL coaching career has been spent with the Buccaneers, split between two stints by his year with Kansas State. He was first hired in 2002 as a defensive assistant and quality control coach. This was the year the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII over the Oakland Raiders, the highlight of Jon Gruden's career. I hardly take Gruden seriously as a candidate to coach the Rams, but it has to be considered.
He had then spent four years working as a defensive backs coach under Gruden. I won't attribute future Hall of Famer, Ronde Barber's success to the work of Morris, but perhaps with proverbial knucklehead, Aqib Talib, I can. On the field, Talib is a much, much greater asset than when he is off of it.
We all know what happened next. Gruden was fired and, in 2009, Raheem Morris was named successor of the franchise. I don't much like the idea of inexperienced coaches joining the Rams, at this point, and I'm sure you don't either. However, there is one "fun fact" about Morris' one successful year as head coach that has an appealing sound to it.
The Bucs became the first team since the NFL/AFL league merger to start 10 rookies and finish with a winning record in 2009. Can it happen again? Probably not. But I'm hoping for as many new, young starters as necessary next year, preferably via the draft.
I hear your groans and jeers - I do - but maybe Mangini can recall the reason that he was ever a successful coach in the NFL. The man was the definition of a Bill Belichick protégé way before Josh McDaniels ever made it cool. He was practically the Hoody's adopted son.
After three years working as Bill's defensive assistant with the Jets, Mangini followed his master to New England in 2000. He worked as a defensive backs coach until 2004, and then spent one season in 2005 as the Patriots DC. Mangini's career has been short and tumultuous, much like my efforts to support him, but he has to find work again sometime, right?
You should have known that I would hit you with some wildcards, and Winston Moss could be an ace of spades. A former NFL outside linebacker of 11 seasons, Moss didn't skip a beat in continuing his already long defensive career by jumping immediately into coaching in 1998.
He first spent one season as defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks, then taking the next year off to assume the same role in 2000 for the New Orleans Saints. He would be promoted the following season, and work until 2005, as the Saints linebackers coach.
Winston Moss has achieved an uncommon sense of stability in the world of NFL coaches, landing, and sticking with the Green Bay Packers since 2006. He has been their linebackers coach since day one, but, in 2007, was promoted to assistant head coach under Mike McCarthy. Moss has experience coaching in both a 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes.
In 2008, an utterly disappointing season for the Packers, McCarthy fired every major assistant from his defensive coaching staff. Every assistant except for Winston Moss. Interesting, no?
Arguably, the Packers have taken a step backward defensively this year, but, let's not forget, they are one year removed from the best defense in the NFC - a year in which they won the Super Bowl. And let's be honest; when we think of the Packers' defense, we think of their linebackers.
Moss was said to be in the running for several DC positions last season, most notably the Philadelphia Eagles. He's another iffy candidate based on experience, or lack thereof, as he has yet to call plays in his career. My biggest question for him would be what front-seven formation he would likely bring?
For a man with so little credible information listed about him on the web, Todd Bowles may as well be the next big thing. A defensive back his entire career, he was once a starting safety in the NFL and has been a position coach since 2000. As of December 18, 2011, Bowles now has more experience as a head coach than a defensive coordinator.
The Miami Dolphins may elect to stick with their present interim coach, but I expect them to look for much more expensive options. Where does that leave Todd Bowles? As it stands, he may not have to look too hard for work after more changes to the Dolphins organization.
Jerry Jones had Bowles in for an interview last season before settling on Jason Garrett to take over the team; however, many people think he was more of an option for DC than HC. The Cowboys ultimately chose Rob Ryan to oversee the defense, a move now being scrutinized.
As reported recently by our own Ryan Van Bidder, Bowles may indeed be a consideration for the Rams. Per NFL rules, or the Rooney Rule, teams must interview at least one African American candidate for head coaching vacancies. Bowles would satisfy that requirement, but I have a difficult time believing he is truly an option for HC.
An interview is an interview no matter how you look at it. The Rams could kill two birds with one stone and, theoretically, speed up the search by having Bowles in for discussion without ever actually offering him full control of the team.
I'm going to end this post with another unknown candidate, and yet another with ties to St. Louis. Babich is 50-years-old, which is utterly amazing when you consider that he has been coaching since 1984. I won't go into every minute detail of his extensive career, but there are some things that you should know about him.
After years of bouncing around the college game, Bob Babich's professional coaching career began in 2003 with; you guessed it, the St. Louis Rams. He was the coach of our linebackers in what can only be described as the beginning of the end of the Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams defense; however, was improved that year.
In 2004, our then defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith, bolted to coach the Chicago Bears. Babich would go with him, and never look back. The two have been together in Chicago ever since, which leads me to the question: what about next year? The Bears have already fired their longtime general manager, and Smith, along with his entire staff, could soon be out as well. I doubt Mike Martz is simply taking a break; he quit on his own terms.
You need look no further than the Bears for the epitome of NFL linebackers, and defense, since the two have been there. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are absolute resume builders for any DC, a position which Babich inherited from Ron Rivera in 2007, and held until 2009. He remains in charge of linebackers, without play calling responsibility.
That all could change in coming weeks as more and more teams make staff and personnel changes. If Babich finds himself without a source of income, he may again find one in St. Louis.
If you have read this far, I applaud your effort. This is the longest article I have ever written. That being said, it may also be my favorite yet. I love defense and want nothing more than for the Rams' to be considered amongst the elite. They aren't so far away from that dream becoming a reality.
The Rams have bookend defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn, a soon-to-be Pro Bowl middle linebacker in James Laurinaitis and a strong duo of complementary safeties in Darian Stewart and Quintin Mikell. Those are five key starters out of an eleven-man group so, yes, there are grounds for much improvement, but those holes can be filled quickly with the right decision making and coaching.
There is no certainty when it comes to our cornerback position. Ron Bartell vows to play again and Bradley Fletcher will be back, but neither have any guarantee of performing at the same consistent level. Also, the outside linebacker position is an utter disaster and our pair of defensive tackles is elderly by football standards. These are the areas which the Rams must attack when the offseason officially begins.
Ideally I see the Rams trading down in the first round and acquiring several more picks come April. I expect at least one defensive starter to be drafted as soon as day two of the NFL draft, preferably more.
Let's get this done, Rams fans. We're not that far away from winning football. Our offense needs help beyond possibility of immediate dividends, but the counterparts on defense will continue doing what they do best. That is giving the offense every opportunity to take a win, forcing opposition into frenzy and, above all, demolishing quarterbacks.
Build us a defense that is Ram tough. It all starts with coaching.