One position that's been relatively overlooked for their poor play on the offensive side of the ball for the St. Louis Rams is the Tight Ends. Inconsistencies, in both blocking and passing, have made them just another cog in the disappointments we've seen from our offensive line and wide receiver corps over the past couple of seasons. While other teams, a la Patriots and Saints, are producing tight ends that tally over 1300 yards and score double digit TD's in a season, the Rams top TE amassed 352 yards and zero touchdowns in 2011.
It's clear the TE position has evolved in the NFL. Exploiting match-ups against smaller safeties and slower linebackers, NFL teams are turning to tight ends who look more like basketball players. Given the right player - with the right athleticism - and proper coaching, the tight end can be an advantageous as playmaker in any offense. We may have the right player, and he may have the skill-sets, but adequate coaching for our tight ends has been non-existent for the past three years. That's all about to change...
Would it surprise you to know our previous tight ends coach - if you were even aware we had one - was a friend of Steve Spagnuolo's and had NO professional coaching years under his belt? I didn't think so. Frank Leonard had over two decades of coaching at the collegiate level. He spent only one year as tight ends coach at Kansas State University - from 2007-2008 - one year prior to being awarded the same position by the St. Louis Rams. In hindsight, and knowing what we know now, this decision, like many others made by Spags, was poor.
It seems like each offseason the Rams are referred to for their less-than-average performances by the tight end bunch, but little has been done to address it. In 2010, Michael Hoomanawanui was our hope for change. His rapport with Sam Bradford took us into the season with a sense of optimism. Two seasons later - with only 16 games played - he has 20 total catches, for 229 yards. There is very little to be optimistic about when it comes to "Illini Mike", as we wait and watch for his next - seemingly imminent - season-ending injury. In 2011, in yet another Spagnuolo head scratcher, the Rams used the #47 overall pick in the draft on Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks. He offered more of the same - great offseason, great preseason - then many to painful-to-watch dropped passes in the regular season. He finished 2011 having played 15 games, and chalked up a whopping 28 catches for 352 yards. Injuries aside, our TE's looked clueless, and their performances were proof they weren't up to the challenge.
Tean owner Stan Kroenke swept in for a much needed 'house cleaning' of the coaching staff in January of this year. It's provided the Rams, and their fans, with a renewed sense of optimism, as a talented coaching staff, calculated free agent acquisitions, and a promising draft have brought hope for a speedy about-face from an awful 2-14 record of the previous season. Coach Jeff Fisher has provided the team with an experienced, and more importantly, proven Tight End coach: Rob Boras.
Boras' professional career began with the Chicago Bear in 2004. In his time there, he was able to assist in setting career high numbers, franchise records, and produce a pro-bowl tight end. Though production from tight ends gradually increased from year to year, it was in the 2008 and 2009 seasons that the TE's in Chicago truly caught fire. In 2008, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark combined for a total of 95 catches - the highest combined total for tight ends in franchise history. The same year also marked the second consecutive year that both TE's surpassed 300 yards receiving (Clark 367, Olsen 574), only the second time in the history of the franchise it had occurred. 2009 proved to be even better with the addition of Kellen Davis. The Bears tight ends lead the NFL in TD catches, with 13. Clark suffered a back injury early in the season, which brought about the true emergence of Greg Olsen, who went on to make 60 catches, for 612 yards, scoring 8 TD's, and earning a Pro-Bowl birth along the way.l.
Productivity aside, the Bears had missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, and the organization deemed it a time for change. Though Lovie Smith was retained as head coach for the 2010 season, Boras, along with three other offensive coaches were fired. Clark, who showed a great appreciation for what Boras had done for him in his tenure there, said:
Rob Boras is a great coach, and I'll be interested to see why they let him go...I think I just owe it to him to let people know what type of coach he was. He never stepped out in the media and said anything. He wasn't a self promoter. He was a quiet guy who came in early in the morning and got his work done and left late at night...I don't think it was a surprise to him. It was more of a surprise to me. I thought they knew what kind of coach they had in Rob Boras, and I thought they would go the extra mile with at least letting him interview for the coaching position once we got a new offensive coordinator.
Needless to say, Boras was not on the market for long. The Jacksonville Jaguars quickly jumped at the opportunity to bring him on board in 2010, where he would work closely with Marcedes Lewis for the next two seasons. In his first season with the Jags, Marcedes hauled in 58 catches for 700 yards, and team-high 10 TD's. Again, under the tutelage of Boras, a tight end was headed to the Pro Bowl. Another positive from the season was the improved blocking by the tight end group, which helped anchor the offensive line and factor into the teams 3rd best rushing attack in the NFL. Lewis' numbers dropped off in 2011, but many believe it was due, in part, to him signing a hefty 5 year, $35 million contract. Holding out before training camp, solely for the purpose of getting Vernon Davis and Antonio Gates type money, is probably not a good sign. Ultimately, he was rewarded, and the Jaguars were not.
Jeff Fisher was able to hand select his coaching staff for 2012. Ram's fans can take solace in the fact most acquisitions - both player and coach, -have been intelligently chosen (sans Gregg Williams). The group at tight end will have some familiar faces going into the 2012 season. The Rams did not address TE in this most recent draft, which one would think means the coaching staff is satisfied with the potential they see. Bajema is out, and Matthew Mulligan is in. Quid pro quo, as far as I'm concerned. The true question is, will Rob Boras be able to make Lance Kendricks into a perennial receiving threat for the Rams? Discussing his ability to become a pro-bowler seems a bit far fetched at this point. Let's see him execute basics (i.e. make catches) and we'll discuss pro-bowls (if there are any) another day. One thing is for certain though, with the mass exodus of the old regime went the lack of coaching experience we've needed, for several seasons now. I, for one, welcome Rob Boras to the organization. I'm optimistic we'll see marked, and immediate, improvement in the upcoming season.