The last time the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins staged a spirited showdown, the Fins got things rolling with an impressive aerial attack – but, in the end, couldn't land their man.
Back in January, with both franchises conducting coaching searches and aggressively courting Jeff Fisher, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross took the 2012 offseason's marquee candidate on a helicopter ride as part of an ostentatious recruiting effort.
On Sunday, Fisher will ride a bus to Sun Life Stadium, where his 3-2 Rams will face the 2-3 Dolphins in a game between two teams coming off impressive victories. Whatever the outcome, Fisher – who ultimately got a better deal and more power from St. Louis – has already convinced everyone in the Rams' organization that the franchise he chose is on solid ground.
"I'm thrilled for our organization, our fans and the city of St. Louis, because we have a great direction, and I think there's significant hope for the future," Rams executive vice president Kevin Demoff said earlier this week. "I know our fans are excited to have a head coach who exudes confidence and is respected throughout the NFL. They had that in Dick Vermeil, and they think they've got their next Vermeil."
When making the comparison to Vermeil, who coached the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams to their lone Super Bowl triumph (over the Fisher-coached Tennessee Titans) 13 seasons ago, Demoff is not suggesting that the 2012 team is championship material. He knows better; consider the scary stat that 24 of the 53 players from St. Louis' 2011 opening-day roster are no longer in the NFL.
If Fisher walked into an organization with severe talent deficiencies, not to mention one coming off a 2-14 season that hadn't had a winning season since 2003, there were still plenty of positives that ultimately led him to embrace St. Louis: a shrewd, motivated and supportive owner in Stan Kroenke; a potential franchise quarterback in former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford, the 2010 offensive rookie of the year; and the chance to handpick a general manager (former Atlanta Falcons player personnel director Les Snead) with whom he could rebuild the roster.
"We're obviously trying to build for the future and to position ourselves to have sustained success," Fisher said late Wednesday night. "That was always the vision. But no one, along the way, told me I didn't have a chance to compete for the division in the meantime."
Given that the NFC West, after years of futility, has suddenly morphed into the best division in football – all four teams are over .500, and the San Francisco 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders – that's no trivial endeavor.
Yet the Rams, for all their obvious flaws, are getting it done. They've already exceeded last year's victory total despite fielding the NFL's youngest roster, one that includes 15 rookies (there were 17 to start the season) and 32 newcomers overall. Last Thursday night's 17-3 thrashing of the previously unbeaten Arizona Cardinals put St. Louis above the .500 mark for the first time since '06 and validated a faith in Fisher that existed even before his arrival.
Though Fisher, who spent 16-plus years as the coach of the Titans (and, in the franchise's former incarnation, Houston Oilers), had just six winning seasons while going 142-120 during that span, he is held in exceptionally high esteem in NFL circles. His even-keeled temperament, adaptability, emphasis on preparation and smart game-management helped him forge a strong reputation during his long reign in Tennessee, all while working for an owner (Bud Adams) not known for his commitment to winning or aggressive spending.
Last January, after the Rams announced the firings of general manager Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo, Demoff received visits from several prominent players, each of whom openly lobbied for the coach with the iconic 'stache.
"When you have Sam Bradford, [linebacker] James Laurinaitis and [defensive end] Chris Long in your office saying, 'Can we get Jeff Fisher?' it tells you something," Demoff said. "They knew how highly regarded he was around the league. I told them, 'We're gonna try, but there's seven other teams [with coaching vacancies] thinking the same thing.' "
It quickly became apparent, however, that the Rams and Dolphins were in a two-team derby, one that would span 10 days during which Demoff "rode the emotional rollercoaster." Though his father, Marvin, is Fisher's longtime agent, Demoff swore he got no inside information and "learned more from [Yahoo!] and some of the media reports than from him."
One thing Demoff read was that Ross, the Dolphins' owner, was so hell-bent on getting Fisher that he was prepared to outbid other suitors for the coach's services, no matter the price. In the end, that turned out to be hype – Ross, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, actually came in with a lesser offer than the Rams' five year, $35-million package, though Fisher's focus had already shifted to St. Louis by that point.
Ross' insistence that incumbent general manager Jeff Ireland would retain contractual control of the team's roster makeup was a far more significant factor in Fisher's decision-making process.
"At the end of the day I wanted the ability to have final say, with a general manager I could build something with," Fisher said. "And ultimately, a lot of it came down to Stan and Sam."
Because of Bradford's presence, Fisher knew he could leverage the Rams' No. 2 overall pick to a quarterback-desperate team, ultimately inducing the Washington Redskins into giving up a massive booty for a shot at landing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
It wasn't all high-fiving at Rams Park, though: In addition to inheriting a team that had lost 65 of 80 games over the previous five seasons, Fisher had to confront a crisis early on, as close friend and newly hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended for at least a full season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. Fisher, whose defensive staff includes Williams' son, Blake, as the team's linebackers coach, is performing many of the coordinator's duties, particularly on game day.
After an exhaustive GM search, Fisher and Demoff settled on Snead, a highly regarded personnel man with whom he had no preexisting relationship. They've quickly forged a strong collaborative bond, one that was apparent during the draft, which featured more of the wheeling and dealing that had begun with the trade with the Redskins in March.
The Rams' three-day draft haul included several players who have contributed immediately, including cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson and strong-legged kicker (and current cult hero) Greg Zuerlein, a.k.a. "Young GZ," a.k.a. "Legatron."
Zuerlein's early success has been a pivotal part of the Fisher formula for the young Rams: Play high-energy, disciplined and physical defense; stay conservative on offense; keep games close and try to figure out a way to pull them out down the stretch.
St. Louis almost prevailed in its opener but suffered a last-minute, 27-23 road defeat to the Detroit Lions, in part because the replacement officials failed to notice a clock-operator's mistake that gave the home team more time for a comeback. The Rams then sandwiched narrow home victories over the Redskins and Seattle Seahawks around a road defeat to the Chicago Bears before defeating the Cardinals.
In Demoff's eyes, Fisher won over the locker room long before the Rams got over the .500 hump.
"It's no coincidence that two of our top defensive players [Long and Laurinaitis] signed long-term deals – and passed on free agency – during the summer," Demoff said. "Before we played a real game, before they knew we were better, they sensed the direction we were going in and made that commitment. There's a feeling of, 'Hey, we're building something pretty great here,' and it's fun to be part of it."
Snead, too, has been struck by Fisher's ability to convey his message to the Rams' players with an aura of confidence, authenticity and authority.
"He's an expert head coach," Snead said Thursday night. "A lot of people may have a plan or know how to get the results they want, but he gets the players to buy in and enjoy the process. He's not so much a CEO; he's more like a chief medical officer. If you're gonna lead a team of doctors, you'd better know how to perform surgery."
On Sunday, Fisher's de facto operating room will be the stadium he surveyed on that celebrated helicopter ride nine months ago. In our conversation Wednesday, he complimented Ross and Ireland, called the Dolphins an emerging team that is "a few pieces away from being really, really good" and said Miami seems to be well-coached under Joe Philbin, the man Ross hired after Fisher chose the Rams.
"They're going to be successful," Fisher said. "But for me, personally, I think I made the best decision."
Five games into Fisher's tenure, it'd be tough to find someone in St. Louis who disagrees with that assessment.
"Remember, this happened during [the aftermath of] Pujols-mania," Demoff said, referring to the saga of the St. Louis Cardinals slugger who left to join the Los Angeles Angels via free agency in December. "Getting Jeff was a great win for St. Louis, especially going up against a larger market. And we're trying to build on that and be very good for the next decade."
The Rams believe they're a team on the rise – and they're absolutely enjoying the ride.
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