The comment threads during games are both entertaining, and a chance to expose a fan's angst for their favorite team. The NFL preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns was interesting to watch. While the Browns came out firing with a HUGE portion of their playbook on offense and defense, the Rams game plan was vanilla at best, and rightly so.
First, let me say right here that I'm a fan of Cleveland's new head coach Rob Chudzinski. I think his "rookie" debut showed his ability to coach, which doesn't shock me at all. Yet when you compare "Chud" to Jeff Fisher, you can see a difference. The Browns played a wide open game, and their players responded to it by having a great night overall. Fisher took what I believe is the smarter approach, and it will pay dividends when the regular season starts. Confused? Let me explain...
The preseason has little or nothing to do with the final score of a game. This is the new car road test before you buy. It's about kicking the tires on a brand new model. When you ease a racy new machine out onto the highway, you have to fight the urge to mash on the gas pedal. When you finally do, you glance first at the salesman sitting in the passenger seat and hope he doesn't scream as the car hits MACH2 in the blink of an eye. What you don't know, is the salesman is cringing inside, hope his potential commission won't disappear if the new-fangled model you're driving has a hiccup along the way. This actually happened to me once. I took a new car out for a drive, hit the gas and the engine gave a half lurching belch before taking off. I glanced at the salesman, who pulled at his shirt collar and rolled into his stock excuse repertoire. But in truth, when you take a brand new model of car out, you really don't know what to expect. From drawing board to the wheels touching the ground for the first time, there are hitches and glitches that need to be ironed out, and some are missed. It's why some cars - like NFL players - are short lived in the marketplace.
The Rams faced a Browns defense led by Ray Horton. You may recall he was the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals last season? If "Blitz" isn't his middle name, it should be. He had his defense stunting and blitzing all night against the Rams - IN A PRESEASON GAME. If I were Chudzinski, I'd be slightly upset. While throwing his defense wide open for a quarter or two is OK, doing it the entire game may have been a mistake. There's a fine line experienced NFL coaches don't like to cross when it comes to unveiling their offensive and defensive battle plans for the coming season. Horton showed the entire NFL what he plans to do, and gave 31 offensive coordinators the film to study. Now it will be up to the Browns players to maintain this high tempo, which, by the way, they did well last night.
Jeff Fisher is in a unique situation, and I have to thank second year wide receiver Chris Givens for reminding me in his post game interview. The Rams are absurdly young, and for quite a few of their players who took the field in Cleveland last night, it was their first NFL game of any kind. While the same can be said for some of the Browns' players, it doesn't come close to how many rookies the Rams previewed. But if I were to judge Fisher's tack taken in the game against Chudzinski's, I'd have to give the win to the experienced, second year Rams' head coach. This game was about riding herd on a group of barely broken mustangs, not throwing open the gates, saying "Stay" and hoping it works. This game held a single purpose for Jeff Fisher: Let his young charges soak in what it is to be in the NFL. Chudzinski made a rookie head coach mistake I've seen time and again. He played the game to win, which is OK to a point. Everyone wants to win, but you need to be in control of the stage and it's players. In movie parlance, this was a script read-through. Chudzinski allowed Ray Horton to say "ACTION" as his players were receiving their first pages. If you don't think the "critics" in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were smiling as the Browns danced across the first preseason game stage, think again.
As I watched the Rams during the game, I took far more positives away than most of their fans probably did. The players who impressed me the most with their limited offerings? Chris Givens is - without a doubt - a future star at wide receiver. Stedman Bailey, the less talked about West Virginia rookie on the Rams roster, showed far more poise and route running skill than did his more heralded counterpart. Sam Bradford is going to have an absurdly great year if his offensive line stays healthy. James Laurinaitis looks more tuned in and physically fit than at any time is his career. Michael Brockers is flat out incredible, and Jo Lon Dunbar is the best kept linebacker secret in the NFL. Daryl Richardson has earned the #1 running back job, and I can all but guarantee he'll have over 1000 yards in the coming regular season. Whoever he worked with in the off season taught him to expand his point of contact vision - something he lacked in 2012.
You'll be shocked to read that I really didn't get a bad impression of any Rams players. True, Isaiah Pead had a rough night, but ease up on the second year running back. He needs to calm down, and play less frantic, but the skill-set is there. Someone needs to tell him he's on a team, and not approach every play like it's him against the world. Fans love to swing the "He's a bum" axe far too early. Alec Ogletree played "rookie slow", but with time he'll use his incredible physical talent to speed up to the NFL level. I caught him watching a bit too much before reacting last night. In fact, if the defense showed a weakness last night, it was in tight end pass coverage; something Jeff Fisher will be working on in practice this coming week. Safety is still an issue for the Rams, but the problem is farther along being fixed than I'd have thought before the game. Is it just me, or did it seem like both safeties on the field for the Rams were playing pass intense, and a bit too deep to be able to help out in the run game?
The Rams need to work on turnovers on both offense and defense. They missed opportunities on at least two potential interceptions. Wide receiver coach Ray Sherman should reach into his bag of tricks to find a solution for the numerous dropped passes in the game too.
Thursday night was a tough night - on the scoreboard - for two NFC West teams. Both the Rams and 49ers lost, and Seattle - though they won - looked rocky out of the gate. But this is the time of year you want to see the titches and glitches, and I have no doubt the NFC West will prove to be the division to try and beat this season.