ON THE first day of training camp, rookie guard Rokevious Watkins joined a member of the Rams' strength and conditioning staff on a small field tucked away from the rest of his teammates. The nearly 340-pound plow horse out of South Carolina had failed his conditioning test, which meant that he was stuck running drills before the official start of practice.
Then, just when it appeared that Watkins might be struggling to complete his sideline-to-sideline sprints under the scorching Earth City, Mo., sun, veteran running back Steven Jackson came over and ran with him. "The young man looked like he could use some help," Jackson explained matter-of-factly.
Which is funny, because if there's one Ram who could use a little help, it's Steven Jackson. Since entering the league in 2004 as the 24th overall draft pick, he has done everything in his power to lift this struggling franchise, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past seven seasons. But his feats have yet to produce a winning record for the Rams, who set a league high for losses in a five-year span with 65 from '07 to '11.
"That's why he's seen as such a leader," says quarterback Sam Bradford of his teammate. "He hasn't let the past affect how he prepares. He understands that every year is a new year. It would be really easy for him to say, Get me out of here. But he takes pride in the fact that we have a shot to get things turned around."
The reason for Jackson's optimism starts and ends with new head coach Jeff Fisher, who had only five losing marks in 16 full seasons as coach of the Oilers and the Titans. If there is cause for skepticism, it is this: Fisher is also the sixth coach, including interims, that Jackson has played for. The difference is that Fisher is the first newcomer to walk through the door with instant credibility.
"It's like my rookie year again; I want to go out and impress someone," says Jackson. "Before, it seemed like I was in a marriage. I had a long-term contract, and I knew I was the guy. But there is some uncertainty this time: Am I going to be here; are they going with another guy? A whole new hunger came to me."
And Fisher plans to feed that hunger. The 54-year-old coach has always built his teams around a strong running game, and his choices in hiring supporting staff in St. Louis suggest more of the same. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer previously led a Jets ground-and-pound rushing attack that ranked first in the NFL in 2009 and fourth in '10. Line coach Paul Boudreau hails from Atlanta, where in four seasons his Falcons ranked 11th or higher in rushing attempts, twice in the top five. And tight ends coach Rob Boras spent the past two seasons in Jacksonville, where Maurice Jones-Drew finished first ('11) and second ('10) in rushing.
Together, that staff is expected to bring a more conservative approach—expect plenty of 17--14 games—than the one implemented by departed coordinator Josh McDaniels, who often left struggling linemen in one-on-one situations against superior pass rushers. We all know how that turned out for Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. According to the website Football Outsiders, the former Heisman winner was on pace to be sacked or hit 122 times last season before an ankle injury on one of those sacks sidelined him for six games. (Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson led the league with 102 knockdowns.)
And to be clear, it will take a greatly improved and protected Bradford (free-agent center Scott Wells, a Super Bowl winner with the Packers, will be a blessing here) to help Steven Jackson alter this equally important stat, from footballperspective.com: Jackson has the alltime lowest winning percentage (.292) among running backs who've gained at least 5,000 yards rushing and 7,500 yards from scrimmage.
Jackson laughs at that stat. But perhaps it could be viewed as a compliment that he has accomplished so much with so little around him? Jackson shrugs at this notion and chuckles, "Athletes, we're quirky. We look for any edge."
Jackson doesn't need an edge. Just a little help. And in Fisher, he finally may have it.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 31
right, take coaching and play at a fast speed," he says, "I'll be O.K."
Combined sacks, hits and hurries compiled in 2011 by fourth-year defensive end Chris Long, more than any other player in the league.
Yards allowed per snap by Cortland Finnegan when used in nickel packages (358 snaps) by his 2011 team, the Titans, the best such coverage in the NFL.
Percentage of passing snaps (11 of 359) on which left tackle Rodger Saffold allowed a sack, the worst rate of any tackle who played at least 200 snaps.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (JACKSON)
Jackson's 83.5 rushing ypg since 2007 ranks third in the NFL—behind two guys who've made the playoffs.
TOM DIPACE (FINNEGAN)