That's right, you heard it here for the umpteenth time - the St. Louis Rams are the youngest team in the NFL. While that is old news, no pun intended, I'm here to remind everyone that, like it or not, the youth of our favorite team is directly related to their on-field performance thus far. I know - earth shattering commentary here. But, this situation is a bit more complex than just being the youngest team in the NFL. Having a lot of young players on a roster is one thing. Having a lot of young players starting at almost all of the offensive skill positions is quite another.
I want to tell a story from my own experiences to relay how youth and inexperience can impact the performance of young players learning their way in the highly competitive and unforgiving world of the NFL.
But first, I want to address the most common response I see when someone mentions the Rams being the youngest team in the NFL - that the Seattle Seahawks roster is only about a year older on average than the Rams, but they're winning and the Rams aren't. This is where my point above comes into play.
Yes, the Seahawks are a young team. But take a look at where that youth is - or should I say isn't? The Seahawks WR corps averages roughly 3.8 years of experience (not counting Percy Harvin, which would increase this number). The Rams WR corps averages a mere 1.8 years of experience. Sidney Rice, who is now gone for the year but played in all but the last game for the Seahawks, has played in more NFL games (86) than Austin Pettis, Chris Givens, and Brian Quick combined (83). Hell, if you throw in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, the entire Rams WR corps combined has played only 15 more games (101) than Sidney Rice has. Now let's look at production. Sidney Rice has 243 receptions for 3,592 yards and 30 TDs for his career. The Rams WR corps combined has career totals of 207 receptions for 2,522 yards and 16 TDs. In total, Seattle's WR corps (excluding Harvin) has played in 202 games, hauling in 507 receptions for 7,297 yards and 56 TDs. Big difference, no? Oh, and there is that thing where Rice was the #1 WR for a HOF QB (Favre) on a team that made it to the NFC Championship game. That kind of experience is extremely valuable. Take out Rice if you like, since he's out for the year now. That still leaves Seattle with a WR corps that averages roughly 3.2 years of NFL experience and has played in 116 games, with 264 receptions for 3,705 yards and 26 TDs. And they have help on the way in the form of Percy Harvin, a fifth year veteran with 280 receptions, 3,302 yards and 20 TDs in his 54 games played. Let's go a little further and note that Pettis, Givens, etc, are currently in their first year as "the guys" for the Rams WR corps. Last year the leaders were Gibson and DA. This is their first year as the "headliners" if you will. Let's put the icing on the cake, shall we. The Rams WR corps as a group averages 23.2 years of age, while the Seahawks WR corps, not including Harvin or Rice - their two most experienced WRs - averages 25.2 years of age. So not only do they have more NFL experience as a group, but they also have more general life experience as a group as well. More years to mature both as players and as people, gain perspective, learn, etc... That is significant. While both teams are young, there is a huge difference between the two teams when it comes to the wideouts, as the Rams are extremely young at WR and don't have anyone even remotely resembling a proven veteran presence in the WR corps, while the Seahawks are older and do have that proven veteran presence in their WR corps.
How about the backfield? The Seahawks rely on Marshawn Lynch, a 27 year old veteran power back that has played in 97 games over the course of his 7 year career, and has amassed 6,858 rushing yards over that span. His primary back-up is a 23 year old, 2nd year power back with 25 games under his belt, in which he carried the ball 114 times and caught 24 passes. The Rams rely on 22 year old rookie Zac Stacy, who has played in exactly 7 games and has totaled 475 rushing yards so far. His primary back-up is a 23 year old, 2nd year "change of pace" back with 24 games under his belt, in which he carried the ball 167 times and caught 38 passes. It's pretty clear that Seattle has far more experience in their backfield than do the Rams. Experience matters.
Hmm, Experience matters. Another earth-shattering revelation. Granted, it matters to varying degrees for each individual and profession, but it does matter. It matters in life, and it matters in football. Sometimes youthful exuberance can overcome a lack of experience, at least for a while. Sometimes pure talent overcomes the obstacles presented by a lack of experience, allowing an individual to flourish, or at least be competent, while gaining experience. But more often than not in order to be successful an individual has to gain experience the hard way, by putting in your time and finding your way, by putting in the hard work now with an eye toward the future - with a few bumps and bruises, triumphs and failures along the way. This leads me to the story I'd like to share.
I was born and raised in a tiny, remote fishing village along Alaska's rugged coast. To this day the only way in or out is by spending several hours on a small plane (9 passengers max) or a day or more when traveling by boat. In this village, commercial fishing is everything. You eat, breathe, and sleep fishing. My family has been fishing there for well over 100 years. I was immersed in the local fisheries from a very young age - 4 years old to be exact. I would go along and watch at first, then as I aged I would get to help out here and there. My role expanded as I grew older. By the time I was given a full crew position I was 13 years old and deemed ready to pull my weight like a full-grown man. And I was ready - well as ready as any 13 year old could be. I knew how everything worked, where the fish were, how to do my job, and how the other jobs needed to be done. I was also touted as the next great fisherman by friends and family alike, the kid who was going to carry on my family's legacy of "highliners". (A "highliner" is a term used in Alaska to describe a top producing fisherman)
Then the season started. It was a shock to the system. The step up in workload and expectations were jarring. No more passing on the fishing trips when really bad weather was forecast. No more extra sleep if I was tired. I was one of the crew now and had to be there at all times. It took some time to get used to it all, to get comfortable "playing with the big boys" so to speak, even though the job was pretty much second nature to me. There were times when exhaustion would lead to mistakes, or something rare would happen that I hadn't experienced before and it would cause a problem. But in time I adjusted and got used to things and I excelled at my job.
Over the years I was given more and more responsibility in preparation for the day I would start running my own boat. That day came when I was 25 years old. I had been preparing for that moment my whole life. I was ready. But at the same time, there were a lot of adjustments that I had to make. No longer was I just one of the guys - I was the boss now. I was the one responsible for my crew's safety, for making the ultimate decision on where to go to catch the most fish, for paying all the bills associated with owning and maintaining a boat. I had to decide when and where to set my net, when to stop fishing because the weather was too bad, etc... Then there were the expectations. My dad and grandpa are famous in my community. They were known for their ability to catch fish, but were also highly respected for their amazing work ethic, morals, and community leadership. I put extra pressure on myself to be a "highliner" in my first season.
The season started and the fishing was poor. I worked harder than anybody, going without sleep for days at a time. I felt like I had to prove I could work as hard or harder than the next guy, and I worked my crew so hard they were completely exhausted all of the time. So was I for that matter. I was so focused on working hard that I ignored a common sense rule my dad and grandpa had passed on to me as a boy - you can't make fish. The idea is that no matter how hard you work, if there aren't any fish around you won't catch anything. The main point of the saying is that you should work hard but work smart too. No sense grinding your crew and equipment into the ground for nothing. My boat was an older boat, and I started having problems with it here and there, costing me fishing time (time=$$). I just tried to work harder. Several times I made the right call and was in the right area to catch fish, but I'd have a mechanical problem, or the weather would flare up and stop us from fishing. Two-thirds of the way through my first season as a skipper I had already overworked my crew so much that one of them quit. At that point I realized that, while I was a natural at finding fish and catching them, I wasn't so good at managing my crew. Being together in cramped quarters for days on end can put a strain on any working relationship, especially when you add in a lack of sleep and utter physical exhaustion. It quickly dawned on me that managing people was part of the job description, and I didn't really have a lot of experience in that area. Crew trouble, a few mistakes in choosing where to fish, and some good old fashioned bad luck sprinkled in for good measure, and boom! - I was a middle of the pack fisherman at best. I was extremely disappointed, embarrassed, and had lost confidence in myself.
That was the low point of my first season. I analyzed what I was doing and made some changes. I quit worrying about what was expected of me. I quit pressing. I lightened up on myself and my crew. Don't get me wrong, we still worked like dogs, but we went about it differently. My crew and I knew each other prior to them fishing with me, but we had never worked together. It took some time for us to figure each other out and form a cohesive team that worked smoothly to get the job done. We also worked the kinks out of the boat as the season went on too. In that last third of the season things just started clicking and we went on a tear. Everything came together and we absolutely clobbered some fish - We were "in the zone" so to speak. By the end of that season I had regained my confidence and have never doubted my abilities since. I've had some tough seasons in the 18 seasons since that one, had some bad breaks, etc... but my experiences through the years, and in that first season in particular, helped me to keep things in perspective and make the most of any situation.
So what the hell does this boring pile of drivel have to do with the Rams being the youngest team in the NFL you ask? Just like I had to do, and you have done or will do, these kids are taking a major step up in the world. No matter how prepared someone may be, when you take that step up to the highest, most demanding level your profession offers, it is going to take a little bit of time to get your feet under you. For these kids, just moving from college to the NFL is hard to do. A select few can do it, and even fewer make any real impact. Some have been playing football since they were little kids. Some have only been playing for a few years. Some have never been "the guy" on such a big stage, if at all. Some have high expectations placed on them they may feel they have to live up to, some have little to no expectations placed on them at all. Some get ample opportunities to make it while some get one shot. They come from all over the country, raised in different towns, some by two parents, some by a single parent, and some by grandparents, or aunts and uncles. Some come from wealthy families, some from very poor backgrounds. Regardless of all their differences, all of them have to learn to work together as a cohesive unit in order to succeed. Along the way each will find their place on the team, learn and refine what their strengths are, recognize their weaknesses and, if they want to stick around, work to correct them. All young players go through this. For some it is a more daunting task than it is for others. The more youngsters you have going through the same things the more growing pains you're going to see. The Rams are a really young football team, period. But especially so at the offensive skill positions, and in the defensive backfield. It takes everybody being on the same page to be a successful NFL team. It takes everyone being on the same page consistently to be a consistently successful NFL team. The Rams aren't there yet. But these young kids are learning, gaining experience every day. Some will wash out, some will make it big. Pretty soon these kids will grow up. I'm looking forward to that day.