Jeff Fisher spent part of his NFL sabbatical climbing mountains halfway across the world. What else is a life-long competitor supposed to do while taking a break from work?
The St. Louis Rams head coach is motivated by a challenge, and none may be bigger than the one he accepted from Rams owner E. Stanley Kroenke, a Columbia, MO native: Return the once proud St. Louis Rams franchise to prominence.
Never is building a winner in the NFL an easy thing, but the challenge was even more daunting with this particular organization. Nearly a decade of horrendous -- borderline criminal -- mismanagement had the Rams in the deepest crevices of the National Football League. Shortly after the last remnants of the Greatest Show on Turf left town, the Rams suffered an all-time worst NFL malaise. From 2007-2011, the Rams were 15-65. That is the worst 5-year record for any team in the NFL. Ever.
There were some cornerstone pieces to work with (Sam Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis) when Fisher took the job. Those, in fact, were part of the attraction for the former Titan head coach to resume his career in St. Louis. But clearly, the talent cupboard was relatively bare.
After one full year on the job (along with GM Les Snead and COO Kevin Demoff) the Rams have already taken a seismic leap in credibility. Last year the Rams had the best record in the NFC West, 4-1-1, a division containing the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, who made it to the Elite Eight of the NFL Playoffs.
Of course, that's not enough. No one cares if you beat everyone in your division but fail to make the postseason. Fisher knows that. And rest assured he is far from finished with his ascent to the NFL summit.
Coming off that promising 7-8-1 season, Fisher and the Rams front office are aiming higher. They spent their free agent dollars on two players: TE Jared Cook and LT Jake Long.
First let's look at Jared Cook. He's a 26-year old pass catching toy for Sam Bradford. A young, ascending talent, Cook is more like a wide receiver stuck in the body of a tight end. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Cook is a matchup nightmare in the middle of the field due to his blazing 4.4 speed. He's too big for defensive backs. He's too fast for linebackers. His numbers for his career in Tennessee -- where he began his career after Fisher drafted him there in 2009 -- are just OK. He was never a Pro Bowler. But Cook flashed serious potential and some scouts wonder if he was utilized properly in Nashville to fully take advantage of his athletic gifts.
Pro Football Focus statistics indicate that 18 tight ends were targeted more often than Cook was in 2012. PFF also has a statistic showing that Cook did more damage than any TE on deep throws (20+ yards in air) in the league. Clearly, Cook's greatest strength is creating the big play down the middle of the field. If the St. Louis Rams need one thing for their often plodding offense, it's the big play.
Now Jake Long. Usually 27-year-old franchise left tackles don't reach the free agent market. Scratch that, they never do. Not too long ago, Long was considered THE best left tackle in the NFL. Drafted with the first overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Long played in the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons in the league. The pass/run block ratings from Pro Football Focus backed up that notion. Long was among the best in the league in the running game, yet had the size and athleticism to stay in front of the league's most ferocious pass rushers. Two years ago, however, the Miami Dolphins switched to a zone blocking scheme and injuries started to plague the big bookend. Since 2011, Long has missed six games due to back and arm issues.
His blocking grades and analytic scores have declined from elite to average. Scouts and league personnel have taken notice. The Rams, however, are taking a calculated gamble (after thorough physical examinations) that the Dolphins let Long go way too soon. IF he's able to return to his 2008-2011 levels, Sam Bradford may enjoy the comforts of having his blindside protected by one of the best left tackles in the game for the next four years, at least.
The Rams are trying to reach the top the right way. Another strong draft in 2013-- remember, St. Louis is the only team in the league with four picks in the Top 100 thanks to the RGIII trade withWashington last year -- and the Rams could be climbing even higher. Jeff Fisher is the one leading the way.