Being the youngest team in the NFL, the St. Louis Rams have a problem. No, not the bad kind! This is a quality problem to have, and head coach Jeff Fisher is smiling from ear to ear. There's an energy in young players, and while at times it can seem to an NFL head coach more like trying to herd cats in a straight line, the challenge of developing young prospects is a welcome one.
When Jeff Fisher left the Tennessee Titans, his tank of coaching mojo was running on empty. Saddled with a declining team, and a franchise owner who was entranced by an ego-maniacal Vince Young, his time came to an end with the Titans after 17 seasons ( Houston Oilers - 1994 to '96; Tennessee Titans - 1997 to 2010). Taking a year off, he traveled, rested and most likely dreamed about what would come next. I'm sure he had offers from networks due to his store-house of NFL knowledge, and he may have even been trolled for a college coaching job or two? Only Jeff Fisher knows, and he isn't sharing everything that transpired as he considered whether to return to coaching or not. The one thing we know for sure, is Fisher is known as a "players coach". To me, this means he's into not just the talent of a player, but the personal chemistry. A former NFL player himself, his memory is filled with the highs and lows of being in the NFL
In hindsight, it shouldn't have shocked anyone when he chose the St. Louis Rams' head coaching job. During his time off, we know he took in quite a few college football games, most involving his son Trent who's currently a defensive back at Auburn. Now, this is pure conjecture, but I think Fisher found what he needed watching these games. Simply put, he saw young players who enjoyed the game of football at its essence. These young players were trying to find themselves, soaking up knowledge of the game while they tried to master their ever changing bodies and minds.
When he arrived in Rams Park after the firing of Steve Spagnuolo, he knew where he wanted the team's future to be. I have little doubt Fisher weighed in heavily on the choice of Les Snead as general manager, and I think the youthful zeal of whiz kid from the Atlanta Falcon's front office was a huge factor in his being hired. Forming a trio with team COO Kevin Demoff - the youthful money wizard - they set a new course for a franchised that had spent far to long traveling down the wrong road. They gutted the team's roster, and in the 2012 season, 37 of the former 2011 Rams were out of the NFL completely. If there's one thing Jeff Fisher knows, it's dead wood...
Next, he focused on a young - and possibly scarred - Sam Bradford. I believe Fisher when he stated one of the biggest factors in his choice of the Rams was the former #1 overall draft choice. If what I think is true, Bradford represented a perfect challenge for Fisher's scheme to re-light his coaching fire. Misused and under coached, the former Oklahoma University star had all the tools and talent to succeed in the NFL. He also lacked one thing Fisher had to have high on his "don't want" list - a huge ego. Bradford, after being pummeled into the turf time after time in 2011, was on the verge of being shell shocked. He'd been the innocent victim of a Josh McDaniels offense, which not only didn't match the talent pool of the Rams' roster, but also left Bradford without a true quarterback coach. His development stalled, and Rams fans began to whisper the word "bust".
One of the first things Fisher did when he interviewed for the Rams' head coaching job, was to sit down with Bradford. Again, we don't know the course of the conversation or what transpired, but Fisher came away seeing what he needed too - a young man willing to learn. After building one of the best coaching staff's I've seen in record time, they got to work. Time was short, since the 2012 NFL Draft was only a couple months away. The Rams possessed the #2 overall pick in the draft, and the Fisher-Snead-Demoff gang formulated a plan. They traded the pick to the Washington Redskins for a boatload of high picks. Fisher unleashed the wheeler-dealer Snead, and as draft day came and went, St. Louis had not just new, promising players, but a new philosophy. Fisher has never been one to shrink from a college player's personal red flags, and he brought this attitude with him to his new team. This speaks volumes too, since it would've been understandable if the former Titans' head coach had become a bit gun-shy. After the Vince Young debacle, he could have chosen to create a set of personal "never again" guidelines, but Fisher stayed true to the belief in his ability to develop players. When you come right down to it, it's a balancing act, with equal parts football mentor and semi-father - or favorite uncle? - figure. The stick is never far from the carrot, and vice-versa.
Following the "gamble" the FSD gang took with the second round selection of red flag Janoris Jenkins, they grabbed another "potential problem" in the fourth round - Trumaine Johnson. Both defensive backs, Fisher's time at the position as a player in the NFL had taught him a few things. He knew - for a corner back to be successful in the NFL - he has to be a bit of a wild card, juxtaposed with a high skill set. Both fit the bill, so he turned to the first phase of their possible development - It's time to grow up. He most likely sat them down, and explained the ways they could succeed or fail, but also instilled the idea he and the entire Rams organization would have their backs. It worked, and suddenly the Rams had a top tier defensive secondary.
Young players can be a scary thing to an NFL coach. Some avoid playing rookies like the plague. Former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt had a quiet policy of not playing rookies if at all possible. The list of successful head coaches who shy away from playing rookies is a long one too. The New York Giants' Tom Coughlin edges away from using first year players, but not Jeff Fisher.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rams have - potentially - one of the youngest teams in the NFL for 2013. Salary caps, and the newest NFL collective bargaining agreement, are key factors in some teams' youth movements. While fiscal practicalities are a concern for Jeff Fisher, I don't think that's why he isn't afraid to give a wide-eyed rookie a chance to play. I think it goes back to the year he took off away from coaching. Youth is a past we all share. If someone could bottle the joys of youth - the ups, downs and adventures; the first kiss, and that bemoaned swing and a miss - it would sell like hotcakes. Jeff Fisher knows there's something special in helping young men grow up and realize their dreams. He also realizes there's something redeeming and rejuvenating in being willing to take a leap of faith. Some think living life without a net is crazy. Others, like Jeff Fisher, find a way to enjoy the crazy, head spinning, laughter generating - and oft times frustrating - ways of rookies as a way of finding never ending joy. Don't believe me? Go watch your kids play. Revel in how they laugh, cry, fall down and get back up to try again. Then smile, because I know young players make Jeff Fisher grin from ear to ear in the same way...