For all its enormity, the NFL is a small world at times. That seeming contradiction will be on display this weekend, when the St. Louis Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons. This is a big game for the Falcons; no 2012 playoff team started the season 0-2. Conversely, a victory on the road, against a top-tier team like the Falcons, could be a big confidence booster for the Rams, and give them a lot of momentum.
Former NFC West rivals [before realignment prior to the 2002 season], the Falcons and Rams have not met in the regular season since a 34-18 Atlanta win in November, 2010, at the Edward Jones Dome.
Since their last meeting, the destinies of the two teams have been inextricably linked:
On February 10, 2012, the Rams hired Les Snead away from the Falcons, to be their General Manager. Snead had been with the Falcons for 14 years, before being hired by the Rams. Snead was one of the architects of the spectacular 2011 draft-day trade that brought WR Julio Jones to the Falcons.
On March 14, 2013, Atlanta signed free agent running back Steven Jackson to a 3 year, $12 million contract, ending his stellar 9 year career with the Rams.
During the 2013 NFL Draft, the Rams traded the #22 selection to the Falcons, for the #30, #92, and #198 picks in the draft. The Falcons went on to select CB Desmond Trufant with the #22 pick. The Rams selected LB Alec Ogletree with the #30 pick, WR Stedman Bailey with the #92 pick, and traded the 6th round pick (along with their other 6th round pick) to secure RB Zac Stacy in the 5th round.
A small world indeed...
Earlier this week, Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith participated in a conference call (on the Rams' official website) (link). The following are excerpts from the call, fascinating for their linkages to the Falcons' recent history with the Rams:
Jeff Fisher's September 11 press conference (link) was revealing; for his thoughts and feelings about Steven Jackson, and for his analysis of the Falcons young corner backs:
Sunday's game has increased significance, for those associated with the transactions involving the two teams over the past 2 years. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions that each of them will have, once the game begins.
What emotions will run through the psyche of Steven Jackson, as he is tackled for the first time by a horn-helmeted St. Louis Ram? Will he be pumped, and ready to steamroll through the defense, like in the old days? After getting past his initial shock, will James Laurinaitis greet Mr. Jackson with a smile, then a bone-jarring hit? How about Daryl Richardson, who is still close to Jackson, and is still mentored by him, to this day?? As he bursts through a hole in the line, will he keep SJ39 in the corner of his eye...and the back of his mind. The connection between Daryl Richardson, the Rams, and Steven Jackson, remains poignant to this day...as articulated by Brandon Bate, in his excellent article on Friday, for TST (link).
As Chris Givens lines up across from him, will Desmond Trufant feel the pounding of his own heart, knowing that the Falcons traded up with the Rams to select him?
Will Alec Ogletree be carrying a big chip on his shoulder, filled with the adrenaline of a young player taken 8 spots lower in the draft, because of the Falcons/Rams trade? This is a homecoming of sorts for Ogletree, who played his college ball at Georgia. The whole state will be watching him. How's that for motivation? And pressure? If Tony Gonzalez wasn't enough...
Tom Dimitroff and Les Snead. The mentor and the disciple. They will be watching, no doubt with mixed emotions. The mentor, signing Jackson, making a big (desperate?) push for a Super Bowl trophy. All the while remembering Les Snead, what he meant to Atlanta, and what he means now to a young, budding dynasty. The disciple, Les Snead, smiling broadly as Julio Jones jukes for a first down; then smiling even more broadly, as Tavon Austin returns a punt for a large gain. A smile of satisfaction, knowing that he was a significant factor in the development of both teams. Watching the game, knowing that no matter how hard he might try, Dimitroff will never out-style him with the hairdo.
The words of Les Snead lend insight into the deeper connections that run through this weekend's match up:
“Hey, I owe a lot to the owner Arthur (Blank), Thomas (Dimitroff), Mike (Smith),”
“The success Mike and Thomas are in the midst of is one of the reasons I’m sitting here in this chair. The stuff I learned that kind of helped get them on this roll is helping me here today, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m here today.”
“I think what’ll be different about this game is as you walk the quarters of the stadium, you’ll see people in support roles that maybe aren’t necessarily on stage as coaches, owners, GMs, (people) that you’re not expecting to see. Or you’re not thinking that you’re gonna see. And all of a sudden there they are, and you’re like wow. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of those. So that’ll be cool.”
The NFL is an enormous, cold, business conglomerate, for the most part. Football is a violent, ultra-competitive team sport. Yet the ties that bind, the human element, can transform the NFL into a much smaller, gentler, and more intimate world at times. Les Snead, Tom Dimitroff, Desmond Trufant, Daryl Richardson, Alec Ogletree, and Steven Jackson would all agree...