Part 2 of 5:
An NFL football team is all about the "pieces-parts". Each team is built from the ground up with a football philosophy fairly unique to each NFL franchise. It's why many teams have a legacy of extrordinary players at certain positions. The Chicago Bears are synonymous with great linebackers. The mere mention of the Baltimore Ravens brings "Great defense" to mind. The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys have had some of the most famous quarterbacks in NFL history. The St. Louis Rams? Believe it or not, the Rams are famous for offensive tackles and great offensive and defensive lines as a whole.
No matter your previous thoughts on the subject, head coaches in the NFL do NOT build these teams for the most part. That duty falls to front office management, specifically, the team's General Manager. A coach may have a preference when it comes to a player, but the decision of who is picked in the NFL Draft belongs to upper management and ownership. The person who has the most say as to which players join the roster is the General Manager and his internal crew of player scouts. A player doesn't perform on the field? It's on the coach. Which player to spend money on? It's the GM all the way...
...You've heard the term "Brain Trust" before? If not, it doesn't have anything to do with where Ted Williams' family stores his frozen head. I'm talking about a group of individuals with expertise derived from experience in a given field or superior analytic skills. The St. Louis Rams have a brain trust, and it is led by William Joseph Peter Francis Devaney. Known as "Billy" by his friends and colleagues, he has been at the helm of Rams operational management since February of 2008. His first hire as Rams general manager was Steve Spagnuolo as the team's head coach.
Billy works in conjunction with Kevin Demoff, COO and Executive Vice President of Football Operations, John Mancini, Director of College Scouting and a host of area, regional and combine scouts. Together, they build profiles and analyses of potential draft picks and available free agents. Large scale expenditures, I'm sure pass through team owner Stan Kroenke before committing large portions of the player budget to any one player. The Rams have spent an enormous chunk of the 2011 salary cap ($120 million). If fact, as of August 29th of this year, the Rams are only $756,538 under the cap, giving them the third highest cap number in the NFL. Only Detroit and Minnesota have greater payroll liability this year. Interestingly, two of the highest cap number teams for 2011 possess 0-4 records currently. While arguably one of the top NFL teams, the Detroit Lions have the second highest cap number, with only $736,714 of cap space remaining... Hmmm?
The monetary comparison shows me a few things. First, professional football players make ridiculous amounts of money. Second, money spent isn't a viable barometer when it come to creating a winning team. Third and finally, the people who negotiates these enormous salaries have the potential to cripple a team if they pay too much money to the wrong player(s). This gets us back to player evaluation, and the ramifications of draft or free agent miscues. The General Manager of an NFL franchise is more akin to a high stakes poker player than a business manager. The unique aspect of this gamble is that the cards one GM reads, may not be the same as how another GM may read the same cards. The free market in football allows specific need to out weigh intrinsic talent. A player that is allowed to leave one team, may, and often does, make more money from an acquiring team. It all comes down to the financial card the General Manager decides to play when he decides on a player he absolutely must have on his team.
Here is where Billy Devaney (and quite a few former Rams General Managers) looks less like Howard Lederer and more like me at my monthly poker game. You need a good hand to play in the World Series of NFL poker. A pair of fours just won't cut it. Unless Billy is bluffing...?
The Rams have never been huge players in the free agent market. This has to have more to do with team ownership in the past and their being shell shocked over incredibly dubious moves from long ago. Remember when Georgia Frontiere agreed to pick up Bert Jones and Joe Namath? She never lived that down, hence the shyness to dabble in high profile free agents that lives on today. The ownership change to Stan Kroenke may shift this trend, but in my experience, billionaires don't really like parting with their gobs of cash.
Instead, the Rams and Billy Devaney have focused on the draft and inexpensive (re: cheap) free agents. Devaney and his scouting staff are not building any legends for themselves in either arena. The free agents Devaney has acquired this season are a perfect example. It's as if he went out to buy a car based on the paint job, not the ability for it to actually drive down the road? Though Harvey Dahl and Quintin Mikell were sound acquisitions, and Ben Leber is serviceable, all three mark instances where he filled holes to exist, not excel. He is now hamstrung by the salary cap, so additional moves are not likely unless he can convince players he paid mountains of money to that he was kidding. Consider Steven Jackson, Sam Bradford and Chris Long's contracts. This year, these three will account for one third of the salary cap with a combined total of $40,272,332. Don't get me wrong, all three of these guys are great players, but it definitely seems the future options in free agency were marginalized by paying so much? Now add in the bust salary of Jason Smith of $8.5 million this year. See a trend yet? If not, I'll spell it out a bit more clearly: Salary Cap miscues can absolutely kill a team.
Just to be fair and add to our potential worries at the same time, James Laurinaitis is the absolute bargain of the past two decades for the Rams. His base salary for 2011? $500,000 ($1,332,500 against the cap). He makes a third of what James Hall and Fred Robbins each make. The worry part is that the Rams will have to address his contract situation this off season in some way. Sure, some players can be released to create the money needed to keep him, but then we get into a one step forward, two steps back situation that appears unending. It means Devaney will be bargain shopping to fill voids left. The draft can fill some spots, but at some point we as fans have to get over the hope of a rookie performing their first year as being any kind of norm.
If you haven't figured out the tenor of this article yet, it's that I feel Billy Devaney lacks the "salary cap management gene". The scouting department is hamstrung by the lack of financial latitude, not to mention a weak bladder in team scout Luke Driscoll (I had to throw that in). While I'm sure Josh McDaniels convinced all concerned he didn't need a high priced #1 wide receiver, their wasn't any money left to pay for one when they realized Josh was ever so wrong.
I have very little doubt that Billy Devaney is a smart, football knowledgeable man. While I do think he is a bit too fond of hiring colleagues from his days with the Atlanta Falcons, he has shown flashes of why he was brought in in the first place. The man knows football. Where he becomes an immediate also-ran is in Salary Cap management. True, the new rookie salary cap will help him down the road a bit, but in the high stakes game that is the NFL, knowing where and when to spend money is a relative thing. If he doesn't give too much to a rookie, he can easily give too much to a free agent and the cycle will begin again.
Building team depth take years, we all know this, but at some point the Rams have to create the foundation to build a truly strong team. Currently, the team is stuck in rebuilding that I just don't see ending in the next five years. The Rams need a builder that knows both hammer and nail, as well as how to envision a solid blueprint and pay for it in the future. Billy, Billy, Billy... The roof is leaking, the foundation is sagging and what will you do?
Tomorrow in Part 3, I"ll take a look at Team Owner Stan Kroenke. Until then I'd like to read your opinion on player choice miscues and players that could have been had in their stead. We'll get to a #1 WR in part four, not to worry...