The names may have changed, but the storyline is sadly the same for the St. Louis Rams in regards to their 2012 season.
For the third time in seven years, the moribund franchise will be undergoing a massive makeover spearheaded by a new head coach, with former Tennessee field commander Jeff Fisher lured back to the sidelines after a brief exodus from the NFL to attempt to restore a team that's mustered a league-low 15 victories since 2007 back to respectability.
Fisher does come with considerably more credentials than predecessors Steve Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan, who combined for a woeful 25 percent winning percentage (21-63) in their failed efforts to return the Rams to their glory days of the late 1990's and early 2000's. The coveted coach amassed a 142-120 record over 17 seasons with the Titans/Houston Oilers while guiding the organization to six playoff trips, and was on the opposing side when St. Louis captured its only Super Bowl title with a thrilling victory over Tennessee to cap the 1999 campaign.
Needless to say, it's a move that's been an instant hit with both the fans and players.
"The other coaches that I've had after Mike Martz were all successful at the time and trendy and hot, but Jeff brings stability, he brings credibility," said running back Steven Jackson, the Rams' longest-tenured member. "He's played in the league. He was one yard away from winning the Super Bowl."
Fisher and new general manager Les Snead, who helped oversee a stark turnaround to prominence in his previous stop in Atlanta, will surely have their work cut out for them at the start. St. Louis had one of the NFL's most anemic offenses during a 2011 season that began with high hopes but morphed into a 2-14 debacle, while the defense finished 31st in the league against the run and managed a lackluster 18 takeaways.
As expected, the pair engaged in an extensive offseason housecleaning of the three-year Spagnuolo era. Half of the Rams' projected 22 starters in 2012 weren't on last season's roster, with the team utilizing the avenues of both free agency and the draft to find expected upgrades.
St. Louis was able to land a few accomplished veterans on the open market, signing feisty cornerback Cortland Finnegan, Pro Bowl center Scott Wells and onetime 100-catch receiver Steve Smith during its spring spending spree. The team's biggest free-agent catch, however, may have been Fisher, who spurned a reportedly more lucrative offer from deep-pocketed Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to join the Rams.
Fisher said a deciding factor in his decision was the presence of quarterback Sam Bradford, who stamped himself as one of the league's rising young stars after throwing for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns while nearly getting the Rams into the playoffs during a strong 2010 debut. The former No. 1 overall pick experienced a major and injury-induced sophomore slump last year, however, producing just six scoring passes in 10 starts and missing six games due to a lingering high ankle sprain.
"This [past] year was difficult [for him]," Fisher said of Bradford. "I think you have to look back at his success and his production in his first year. Difficult for a lot of reasons, the lockout and lack of time together in the offense, but I think he has the chance to be a top quarterback in the National Football League very, very soon."
Bradford will try to bounce back while operating with his third offensive coordinator in three years, with ex-Jets play-caller Brian Schottenheimer now in the position after both Pat Shurmur and Josh McDaniels left for greener pastures following short stays.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the St. Louis Rams, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 2-14 (4th, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to Atlanta in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Jeff Fisher (first season with Rams, 142-120 in 17 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Schottenheimer (first season with Rams)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: none
OFFENSIVE STAR: Steven Jackson, RB (1145 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 6 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Chris Long, DE (37 tackles, 13 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 31st overall (23rd rushing, 30th passing), 32nd scoring (12.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 22nd overall (31st rushing, 7th passing), 26th scoring (25.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Steve Smith (from Eagles), TE Matthew Mulligan (from Jets), LG Quinn Ojinnaka (from Colts), C Scott Wells (from Packers), RT Barry Richardson (from Chiefs), DT Michael Brockers (1st Round, LSU), DT Kendall Langford (from Dolphins), SLB Mario Haggan (from Broncos), WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (from Saints), CB Cortland Finnegan (from Titans), CB Janoris Jenkins (2nd Round, North Alabama), K Greg Zuerlein (6th Round, Missouri Western), P Johnny Hekker (free agent), QB Austin Davis (free agent), RB Isaiah Pead (2nd Round, Cincinnati), WR Brian Quick (2nd Round, Appalachian State), WR Chris Givens (4th Round, Wake Forest), C Robert Turner (from Jets), OT Wayne Hunter (from Jets), DE William Hayes (from Titans), DT Matt Conrath (free agent), OLB Rocky McIntosh (from Redskins)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Brandon Lloyd (to Patriots), TE Billy Bajema (to Ravens), LG Jacob Bell (retired), C Tony Wragge (to Ravens), RT Jason Smith (to Jets), DT Justin Bannan (to Broncos), DT Fred Robbins (released), DE James Hall (released), SLB Brady Poppinga (free agent), WLB Chris Chamberlain (to Saints), CB Ron Bartell (to Raiders), K Josh Brown (to Jets), P Donnie Jones (to Texans), QB A.J. Feeley (free agent), QB Kellen Clemens (released), RB Cadillac Williams (free agent), RB Jerious Norwood (free agent), RB Quinn Porter (released), C Jason Brown (released), WR Mark Clayton (free agent), WR Danario Alexander (released), WR Greg Salas (to Patriots), WR Dominique Curry (to Lions), WR Nick Miller (released), TE Stephen Spach (free agent), OT Adam Goldberg (free agent), OT Mark LeVoir (free agent), OT Thomas Welch (to Eagles), DE C.J. Ah You (not tendered), DT Gary Gibson (to Buccaneers), OLB Bryan Kehl (to Redskins), OLB David Nixon (to Panthers), CB Justin King (to Colts), CB Al Harris (retired), CB Rod Hood (free agent), CB Nate Ness (to Panthers), S James Butler (free agent)
QB: Bradford (3512 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT in 2011) was everything the Rams were hoping for when the previous regime made the former Heisman Trophy recipient the top overall choice of the 2010 draft, setting league records for completions (354) and consecutive passes without an interception (174) for a first-year player and leading the team to a six-win improvement to claim NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. His second season was a nightmare, however, as a nagging ankle sprain and poor protection up front caused the 24- year-old's accuracy to drop dramatically and often rendered him ineffective. Bradford did display some signs of his 2010 form in the preseason, and St. Louis will need him to get back to near that level in order to put out a competitive product. Kellen Clemens was re-signed in the spring to presumably be the backup after performing decently in three late-season spot starts for an ailing Bradford last year and having a history with Schottenheimer from the Jets. However, he was surprisingly released at the final cutdown, leaving the No. 2 job at least for now in the untested hands of Austin Davis, an undrafted rookie who broke all of Brett Favre's school records as a four-year starter at Southern Mississippi. Considering Bradford's injury history, the Rams will likely be on the lookout for a more experienced veteran prior to the opener.
RB: Jackson (1145 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 6 total TD) has been St. Louis' one constant source of consistency during the franchise's down period, with the powerful ninth-year pro eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing barrier and catching over 35 passes for a seventh consecutive season in 2011. Though still one of the league's better all-purpose backs, he turned 29 in July and is getting closer to the end of the line, so the Rams brought in a possible heir apparent with their second-round selection of Isaiah Pead in April's draft. The Cincinnati product is a slasher with excellent burst and cutback ability, though he may be best suited as a complementary player due to a slender frame and lack of strength. Snead also added another slightly built speedster in the draft's seventh round by plucking Abilene Christian's Daryl Richardson, who actually looked more pro-ready than his more-regarded rookie teammate in the preseason and could carve out a role in the offense. Fullback Brit Miller is only a marginal lead blocker but shines on special teams, which enabled the former college linebacker to hold off onetime Pro Bowler Ovie Mughelli and retain his roster spot.
WR: Another explanation for Bradford's 2011 regression was that the talented quarterback didn't have favorite receiver Danny Amendola for virtually all of the season, with the shifty slot specialist missing all but one game after tearing his triceps in the opener. He had a team-high 85 catches during Bradford's rookie year and is now back to rejoin a remodeled cast that includes another rehabbing veteran in Smith (11 receptions, 1 TD with Eagles), who set a Giants club record with 107 grabs in 2009 but has been dogged with knee problems the last two years. The sixth-year pro has been both healthy and sharp this summer, however, and lends some needed seasoning to a group that's otherwise painfully young. Second-year man Austin Pettis (27 receptions) could be the No. 3 receiver after showing well in camp, though the 2011 third- rounder will sit out the first two games due to a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancers, and holdover Brandon Gibson (36 receptions, 1 TD) may get a look there as well if he can become more consistent. He appeared on the verge of a breakthrough with a 53-reception season in 2010, but struggled with drops and saw his production wane last year. The team's future at the wideout spots comes in the form of high 2012 draft choices Brian Quick (2nd Round, Appalachian State) and Chris Givens (4th Round, Wake Forest), though both may need more polish before becoming significant contributors. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Quick has great size and the most upside of the receivers, but is in the process of adjusting from playing in a pure spread system in college and faces a steep rise in competition. Givens is a blazer who'll likely begin his career utilized as a situational deep threat on a corps that doesn't offer much in the way of speed. A crowded mix was pared down when St. Louis waived the notoriously brittle Danario Alexander and traded young slot man Greg Salas to New England.
TE: The Rams believe they have a real impact player at the tight end position in 2011 second-round choice Lance Kendricks, a versatile move player who can both block and stretch the field down the seam. He only recorded 28 catches while learning on the fly as a rookie, but figures to hold a more prominent role in the game plan this year. Kendricks will be the receiving option in a two tight end-based model in which free-agent signing Matthew Mulligan (5 receptions), a Schottenheimer favorite who comes over from the Jets, will serve as an in-line blocker. Also still in the fold is Michael Hoomanawanui (7 receptions), a solid all-around prospect whose progress has been stalled by injuries that included a torn ACL that ended his second NFL season after only seven games. Kendricks' main backup will be Missouri native Mike McNeill, a former wide receiver at Nebraska with good hands who was signed off the Colts' practice squad in December.
OL: A subpar offensive line that surrendered a league-worst 55 sacks and was ravaged by injuries last season didn't give Bradford much of a chance to duplicate his outstanding rookie numbers, and wholesale changes have taken place in the wake of that poor performance. Three new starters were brought in through free agency, the best of which is Wells, a sound pass blocker who went to his first-ever Pro Bowl in 2011 as the anchor of a sturdy Green Bay front wall and owns 100 career starts over eight seasons. Kansas City castoff Barry Richardson is the new right tackle after beating out colossal draft bust Jason Smith, with the 2009 No. 2 overall pick in turn traded to the Jets for the equally maligned Wayne Hunter in August. Quinn Ojinnaka, a journeyman who will be on his fourth team in four years, will begin as the left guard but may be only keeping the seat warm until the team deems raw but promising rookie Rokevious Watkins (5th Round, South Carolina) ready to step in. The lone returnees are left tackle Rodger Saffold and scrappy right guard Harvey Dahl, the only member of last year's line to start all 16 games and who graded out as the unit's best player. Saffold had a good rookie year as Bradford's blind- side bodyguard in 2010, but really struggled with speed rushers in his follow- up before sustaining a season-ending pectoral tear in mid-November. He may be the biggest key to the offense's success in Fisher's debut. Hunter, another familiar with Schottenheimer's system, could push Richardson down the road but will start out with center/guard Robert Turner -- also an ex-Jet -- as the top reserves.
DL: The Rams' greatest source of strength may be in the formidable edge- rushing duo of ends Chris Long (37 tackles) and Robert Quinn (23 tackles), two former first-round picks who should present problems for enemy passers. Long was a season-long terror in compiling a career-best 13 sacks while exhibiting a non-stop motor last year, earning the impending free agent a well-deserved contract extension in July. Quinn, the 14th overall choice in last year's draft, posted five sacks as a situational player as a rookie and could easily boost that total in an every-down capacity this year, and he's got the athletic gifts to be a dominating force. The aging tackle combo of Justin Bannan and Fred Robbins was serviceable last year, but St. Louis moved on from both by obtaining two players with far greater long-term potential. Snead's first draft selection was LSU wide-body Michael Brockers, a long-armed 322- pound physical specimen who's only 21 years old. Though still developing as a pass rusher, his size and strength alone could bolster what was a porous run defense a year ago. Brockers will be situated next to Kendall Langford (20 tackles), a free-agent acquisition from Miami who'll bring better quickness to the interior once he gets accustomed to playing as a three-technique tackle after working as a 3-4 end with the Dolphins. Fellow newcomer William Hayes (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who previously played under Fisher in Tennessee, was added to spell either Long or Quinn on run downs, with third-year pro Eugene Sims (19 tackles) reprising his duties as a reserve end and core special- teamer. Darell Scott (18 tackles) and Jermelle Cudjo, out all of last year with a back injury, are a couple of Spagnuolo holdovers supplying depth at tackle, while undrafted rookie Matt Conrath (Virginia) will help out as well after making the roster.
LB: St. Louis only returns one regular from last year's linebacker crop that was overall unspectacular but sports a standout in middle man James Laurinaitis (142 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT). The former Ohio State All-American has led the Rams in tackles in each of his first three seasons in the league and also gets very high marks for his coverage skills and respected voice in the huddle. He'll be working with a new set of wingmen after the team tabbed Mario Haggan (23 tackles, 1 INT with Broncos) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (79 tackles, 1 sack with Saints) to be starters through free agency. The veteran Haggan is a onetime defensive end who'll be asked to set the edge in run support, an area that neither Long nor Quinn are adept in, while the undersized but quick Dunbar brings a knowledge of the scheme new linebackers coach Blake Williams (son of suspended coordinator Gregg Williams) will employ from their time together in New Orleans. An experienced backup was also added with the signing of ex-Redskin Rocky McIntosh (65 tackles, 1 INT), who started 69 games over six seasons with Washington and can play inside or out. Injury-prone Josh Hull will again serve as Laurinaitis' seldom-used backup while helping out on special teams along with Justin Cole.
DB: Injuries hit the Rams very hard at the cornerback position during last year's fiasco, with starters Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher (23 tackles) appearing in only five games combined, but the team should be in better shape this season after snaring big-ticket free agent Finnegan (75 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD with Titans) for a reunion with Fisher and taking a gamble on controversial rookie Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama) in the draft's second round. The latter was arguably considered the best corner of the 2012 class, but slipped all the way to the 39th overall selection due to a litany of off- field issues that caused his dismissal from the University of Florida program. If the 23-year-old can keep his head on straight, he's capable of forming a terrific tandem with the edgy Finnegan, a highly crafty player and fearless tackler who'll be counted on as much for his mentoring skills as his coverage abilities. Free safety Quintin Mikell (91 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) is a good leader as well who gives the secondary a stabilizing presence on the back end. Darian Stewart (84 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) started 13 games opposite Mikell at strong safety last year, but wasn't sound in his tackling and is being pushed for the job by heady special-teams ace Craig Dahl (61 tackles, 1 INT). Fletcher has recovered from his torn ACL and is slated to operate outside in nickel situations, with Finnegan manning the slot. The rest of the backup ranks are very green, with two-time Sports Network FCS All-American Trumaine Johnson (2nd Round, Montana) and undrafted rookie Quinton Pointer (UNLV) helping out at cornerback and college free agents Matt Daniels (Duke) and Rodney McLeod (Virginia) earning spots at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rams are going young in the special teams phase as well, with rookies set to take over at kicker, punter and kickoff returner and long snapper Jake McQuaide entering only his second year in the league. New kicker Greg Zuerlein, a sixth-round find out of small-school Missouri Western, has a huge leg and set an NCAA Division II record by making 21 straight field goals last season, nine of which came from 50 yards or beyond. Priority free agent Johnny Hekker (Oregon State) takes over for the departed Donnie Jones and had an outstanding preseason, averaging 47.2 yards per kick and placing 5-of-12 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Pead will likely handle kickoffs despite never having done so at Cincinnati, but the speedy youngster showed a knack for the job by averaging nearly 30 yards per return during the exhibition games. Givens is an option there as well. Amendola is a reliable punt returner who's averaged 11.3 yards per runback over his career, with Pettis (9.3 avg.) filling in during his absence last year.
PROGNOSIS: Expectations will be low for the Rams in Fisher's return to the sidelines, and that should be the case considering all the turnover to a roster where an extraordinary 15 rookies made the final cut. There's still nowhere to go but up coming off a 2-14 season, however, and with a defense that could be vastly improved, St. Louis may pull off a surprise or two over the course of the schedule provided Bradford can stay on the field and come closer to duplicating his rookie exploits. The Rams will win more games than their meager 2011 total, but still appear destined to reach double-digit losses for a fifth time in six years.