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Illustration by Danny Elchert
The numbers are hard to swallow: During the past three seasons, the St. Louis Rams have posted an unsightly 6-42 record. Last year, the team’s sole win came against the hapless Detroit Lions. The offense scored a total of 175 points all season—by far the league’s worst.
Faced with the challenge of rebuilding the Rams is Billy Devaney, a veteran NFL personnel guru who’s worked in the front offices at Washington, San Diego, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Devaney was named the team’s general manager on Christmas Eve 2008, just 11 months after being hired as vice president of pro personnel. Devaney admits he didn’t walk into an optimal situation, but says he looks forward to turning the team around.
“We’ve kind of set position specifics and character specifics that we’re looking for in players, and I don’t view this as, ‘God, this is going to be hard,’” he says. “I look at it as a great opportunity to build something not just for the short term, but for the long term. That’s been our goal from Day 1.”
The first step: Devaney hired head coach Steve Spagnuolo last January. Despite the fact that the Rams were 1-15 in Spags’ first season here, Devaney believes he’s found a resilient coach. “He’s an outstanding Xs and Os guy, and he’s great with people,” says Devaney. “He’s tough on the players, but he’s fair with everybody.”
This off-season, the GM’s primary objective was to replenish the team’s talent base. The Rams’ depth was so thin last year that when injuries began to mount, he seemed forced to sign any warm-blooded male who could pass a physical. Indeed, things got so bad that the Rams were signing “street free agents” like Jordan Kent and Danny Gorrer—players who even ESPN sports analysts had never heard of.
The only positive to losing 15 games last season was that the Rams received the No. 1 overall draft pick in April. Devaney knew the pick would ultimately define his tenure as the Rams’ GM; a blown selection could almost certainly cost him his job. Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford likely would have been a lock in the previous year’s draft—until he opted to return for another year with the University of Oklahoma Sooners. When Bradford suffered two injuries to his throwing shoulder that ultimately required season-ending surgery last October, it looked as if his decision might have disastrous consequences. Despite the setback, however, NFL execs still viewed him as a potential franchise quarterback if he could prove his shoulder was structurally sound. On March 29, during a sparkling pro day workout, he did just that. The world knows the rest: The Rams selected Bradford as the draft’s top pick on April 22.
Of course, it’s not the first time Devaney’s taken a chance on a rising young quarterback. During his days in San Diego, the Chargers’ brain trust traded up a spot in the 1998 draft to select Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf second overall—a decision that still causes NFL scouts to cringe. Yet Devaney says he had no reservations this time. “When we started researching Bradford, it was obvious he had all the traits you were looking for,” Devaney says. “I never had cold feet saying, ‘Gosh, it didn’t work out with Ryan Leaf in San Diego, maybe I shouldn’t take a quarterback here.’ That never crossed my mind.”
In hindsight, Devaney can easily discern the differences between Leaf, one of the biggest busts in NFL history, and Bradford, whom he hopes will be the league’s next great signal-caller. “They are both big, strapping right-handed quarterbacks with big-time arms,” Devaney says. “The difference is the intangibles. Ryan would be the first to admit that, for whatever reason, he stopped working. His work habits were poor, and he didn’t carry himself like a professional. Sam Bradford is the exact opposite. He’s an extremely hard worker. He loves playing football. He’s respectful of the NFL and of his peers. The stuff that you look for in an NFL quarterback, Bradford has it all.”
Neither Devaney nor Spagnuolo will commit to exactly when Bradford will line up under center for the Rams. The team signed veteran backup quarterback A.J. Feeley to a two-year, $6 million contract in March and have held to the “we’ll play the guy who gives us the best chance to win” company line since Bradford was drafted. Still, there’s little doubt that Bradford will see significant action in 2010, barring an injury. One theory Devaney immediately shoots down is that the team is leery of throwing its new franchise player behind a questionable offensive line; he doesn’t see the unit as a weak link. “Our offensive line is going to be a strength of our team,” he says. “Spags and I really want to build this roster inside out. We started with the offensive line last year by signing [center] Jason Brown, who was a Pro Bowl alternate, and drafting [left tackle] Jason Smith. We drafted [right tackle] Rodger Saffold this year in the second round. Most people had first-round grades on him, and he’s going to be a hell of a player. I think we’ve got good players on the offensive line, and we’ve got some depth there.”
The Rams’ offense continues to rest on the heels of running back Steven Jackson, who finished second in the NFL last season with 1,416 rushing yards. He’s fully recovered from an April surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and should continue to see an enormous workload in 2010. Unfortunately, Jackson is the lone evergreen in a field of annuals. The Rams’ ranked 28th in passing offense last season, primarily because of a receiving corps considered worst in the NFL. While Devaney didn’t address the position with a flashy free agent signing during the off-season, he did draft speedy University of Cincinnati wideout Mardy Gilyard and hopes some of the team’s enigmatic receivers can reach their full potential.
“Donnie Avery is a home-run threat when he’s healthy; Laurent Robinson showed before hurting his knee last year that he has plenty of ability to be a good receiver in this league; Brandon Gibson had 30-plus catches after we got him from Philadelphia midway through the year,” Devaney says. “We’ve got numbers at this position, but until these players step up and do it, I don’t blame people for having questions.”
Another work in progress: the team’s defense, which surrendered 436 points last season. Fortunately, there are several highlights: Defensive end Chris Long, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2008 draft, played well down the stretch last season. Ball-hawking safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who has the fourth-most interceptions (19) in the NFL since 2006, was signed to a five-year contract in June and is the highlight of a non-descript secondary. And linebacker James Laurinaitis had a terrific rookie campaign, leading the team with 102 tackles. Still, Spagnuolo has acknowledged a need for more talent on D. The Rams couldn’t possibly fill all of the holes in a single off-season, but Devaney believes the defense will improve to some extent because the players will be entering their second season under defensive coordinator Ken Flajole.
“We’ll be light years ahead on defense just because we’re in the same scheme,” Devaney says. “The players are comfortable now. It takes a while before players can just go out there and play and not have to think about their responsibilities on every play. Spagnuolo will also be able to expand because he understands the strengths and weaknesses of the players better.”
Nobody, including Devaney, expects the Rams to be playoff contenders this season, but there’s reason to believe the team will show at least incremental progress. “There’s going to be a big step up,” says Devaney. “With the stability of the coaching staff and the schemes. We’re excited about the new players that we’ve added; we think this draft class is going to be outstanding. Hopefully, things come together quickly, and we get out of the gate fast.”
Mike Rainey is a former contributor to SLM, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, CDM Fantasy Sports, and The Journal Times in Racine, Wis.