AL SAUNDERS runsfor an hour every day, and while he runs he thinks. Saunders, who was hiredlast January as the St. Louis offensive coordinator after running the Redskins'attack for two years, thinks about his new team's performance in practice,about revisions to his 700-plus-page playbook, and about his time as the Rams'receivers coach in the late '90s, when they were the Greatest Show on Turf andwinners of Super Bowl XXXIV. Mostly, Saunders, 61, thinks about how he can getthis year's attack to resemble that one. He has a lot of thinking to do.
The Rams were infree fall last season, as player after player succumbed to injuries. By year'send, 12 Rams, six of them starters, were on injured reserve, and St. Louis was3--13. This season the hope is understandably to keep healthy bodies on thefield, specifically the offensive and defensive linemen. "Those guys in thetrenches decide our fate," says third-year coach Scott Linehan.
The disasterstarted in Week 1, when Orlando Pace, the seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, wentdown with a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. That left quarterback MarcBulger more vulnerable; he was sacked six times against the 49ers in Week 2 andsuffered broken ribs, eventually missing two games. In Week 12 he suffered aconcussion and missed two more games. In the 12 games he did play, Bulger, whohad a Pro Bowl season in 2006, was sacked 37 times and threw only 11 touchdownpasses, with 15 interceptions. Linehan brought in former Chiefs quarterbackscoach Terry Shea to repair Bulger's form and, more importantly, his psyche.
"With all theinjuries I lost my fundamentals and got happy feet," says Bulger."Terry takes a detailed approach to the game, which helped me a lot. Inever had a season like last season'it was just a terrible, terrible year. ButI worked hard to get straight this off-season, so whatever happens won't be forlack of effort."
Pace, 32, hadshoulder surgery September 2007 and early in camp estimated he was back to 90%effectiveness. Then in the second preseason game he banged up the shouldermaking a tackle on an interception, although there were no tears to the labrumor rotator cuff. To boost his flexibility, Pace added yoga to his midweektraining regimen, as did middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, one of the brightspots last season with a team-high 110 tackles.
While theoffensive line lost its top player, the defense also had to scramble withoutend Leonard Little, who had a nagging toe injury that ended his season afterWeek 7. Little, who had 13 sacks in 2006 but only one before he was hurt lastseason, is expected to get significant help from top draft pick Chris Long, theVirginia standout and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. Noted for playing withmaximum intensity on every down, the 6'3", 263-pound Long is adjustingquickly to coordinator Jim Haslett's aggressive, blitz-heavy system.
"When he gothere he was running all over the place, but now he's getting the scheme down,and we're seeing flashes of the true Chris Long and realize why he was draftedso high," says linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. "I'm hoping to tap thatreserve because his potential can pay dividends quickly."
While Longprovided reason for hope, the best news of camp was that Steven Jackson'scontract dispute was resolved. The Pro Bowl running back, who has averaged morethan 100 yards per game from scrimmage since entering the league in 2004, washolding out for a renegotiation of the five-year, $7 million contract he signedas a rookie. The deal finally got done on Aug. 21: six years at $44.8 million,with just over $20 million guaranteed.
The Rams couldonly hope Jackson would quickly work himself into playing condition'and, likehis teammates, stay in playing condition. "Well, if anything, he'll befresh," says Saunders. Just more for him to think about on those longruns.'
PROJECTED STARTINGLINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH ERIC MANGINI (11-21 in NFL), third season theRams
Dan KREIDER [NewACQUISITION]
Jacob BELL [NewACQUISITION]
Josh BROWN [NewACQUISITION]
SACKS 3 1/2
Chris LONG (R)
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 3-13NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 25/19/24 DEFENSE 20/21/21
7 at Philadelphia
14 N.Y. GIANTS
21 at Seattle
12 at Washington
26 at New England
9 at N.Y. Jets
16 at San Francisco
7 at Arizona
21 SAN FRANCISCO
28 at Atlanta
NFL Rank: 17
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .488
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Rams' units.
If Bulger gets protection, he canbe very effective.
Jackson is great, but there's very little behind him.
Holt can't carry entire load; no longer the fastest show on turf.
McMichael is a solid route-runner who can make plays.
Even with Pace returning, they have a ton of questions.
Long is a nice addition; Carriker looked good as a rookie.
Ball-hawking Witherspoon could use some support.
Veteran Chavous still makes plays; big year is needed from Hill.
Lack of roster depth weakens the return teams.
One of Marc Bulger's favorite targets this summer, theseventh-year vet has impressed coordinator Al Saunders with his vertical-threatpotential. Extensive O-line injuries in '07 forced McMichael to block more, andhe had 39 catches, tying a career low. He'll get more chances with the arrivalof blocking specialist Anthony Becht.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
February 7, 2000
HE IS a family man and a man of God, an out-of-nowheresensation with a story too schmaltzy for Hollywood. But on the field KurtWarner is the quintessential quarterback. With the Super Bowl slipping out ofthe Rams' grasp, Warner, enduring the pain of strained cartilage in his ribs,jogged onto the field, inhaled gingerly and thought, It's time for me to winthis game.
Free access to all RAMS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
ROOKIE MONSTER Long brings an aggressive mentality to a team that needs a spark.
PETER NEWCOMB/ICON SMI
JOHN BIEVER (COVER)