There’s a reason why Jeff Fisher drew plenty of head-coaching interest this offseason despite managing just two winning seasons in his last seven full seasons in Tennessee.
Through 16-plus years of coaching the Titans, Fisher has clearly learned who he can trust and how to handle his players. That’s why, despite several risky offseason moves, Fisher’s Rams already have surpassed St. Louis’s 2011 win total and look ready for more.
Sure, it wasn’t an incredible gamble to completely overhaul a 2-14 roster, as Fisher purged more than half of the players from the 2011 Rams. But he didn’t exactly fill out his squad with a bunch of reliable veterans. Instead, he put his trust in young, undeveloped players, assembling a roster with 30 of the 53 members boasting three or fewer years of experience. Among those 30 players are a whopping 14 rookies, including six that went undrafted in 2012. Only four members of the team are age 30 or older.
Fisher put faith in such an infusion of youth while also making several bold moves in the draft. Though he received a haul of draft picks in return, Fisher’s decision to trade the second overall pick to the Redskins wasted an opportunity to add an elite talent that could have paid immediate dividends. The Rams passed again at No. 6 overall, moving down a second time and raising more eyebrows. With one of the picks he received from Washington, Fisher selected one of the draft’s most maligned players, CB Janoris Jenkins, who had been dismissed from Florida after three arrests and is a father of four children with three different mothers.
Fisher slotted the talented but troubled Jenkins as his starting right cornerback, across the field from yet another risky acquisition, CB Cortland Finnegan. Though known as a solid corner for years, Finnegan’s dirty play and on-field incidents might have been red flags for many coaches, it didn't deter Fisher, who had coached Finnegan in Tennessee and clearly desired to add such a physical, rugged player to his defense.
Nevertheless, Fisher’s confidence in his plan never wavered, and the Rams have been reaping the benefits en route to their first above-.500 record since 2006. Fisher has relied on the few seasoned veterans he has to stabilize the team on both sides of the ball — only three rookies started against the Cardinals — while offering young players opportunities to make contributions when needed.
Seventh-round rookie RB Daryl Richardson relieved injured starter Steven Jackson in Week Two against Washington by racking up 102 total yards on 17 touches, and third-round CB Trumaine Johnson snagged a pick in a Week Four victory over Seattle. Additionally, fourth-round WR Chris Givens now has a reception of 50-plus yards in consecutive games, including a 51-yard TD catch last night that helped put away the Rams’ victory.
Even Fisher’s decision to trust rookies at placekicker and punter has proven to be brilliant. Sixth-rounder Greg Zuerlein has been the best kicker in the NFL so far this season (now 13-for-13 with four FGs made from 50-plus yards). Meanwhile, undrafted P Johnny Hekker is averaging 46.6 yards per punt and was excellent Thursday night (seven punts, 56.9-yard average, long of 68 yards, three inside the 20).
As for the risky additions to the secondary, Finnegan and Jenkins have been stellar, combining for an impressive stat line of 60 tackles, four tackles for loss, 14 passes defensed and four interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Playing with a pass rush that racked up nine sacks Thursday, their production might only get better.
Suddenly, Fisher’s Rams look like a major player in a surprisingly loaded NFC West, with extra first-round picks each of the next two years. We know he likes to roll the dice a little bit — his fake FG for a touchdown was the key to a Week Four victory — but maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt. He seems like he knows what he’s doing.