Behind Enemy Lines: Spagnuolo on the way out

There is plenty to like about Steve Spagnuolo, as many of his players will attest, but a coach is measured on wins, and he simply hasn't had enough victories in his three seasons in St. Louis. And that's why Spags will be packing his bags after Sunday's game against the 49ers ends one of the worst coaching tenures since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.

Whether his team wins or loses at home against San Francisco – which will be playing for the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed in Sunday's season finale – Spagnuolo will have registered one of the worst tenures since the 1970 merger for any coach who was with a franchise for one stretch of 40 games or more.

And, actually, Spagnuolo's record could be historically bad.

Spagnuolo currently stands at 10-37, a winning mark of just .213 percent. A victory over the 49ers nudges him to .229, while a loss would drop Spagnuolo to .208. A defeat would tie Spagnuolo with Rod Marinelli (Detroit, 2006-2008), for the poorest record for coaches in the 40 games-or-more category.

Since '70, there have been just nine other coaches who lasted 40 or more games with a team in one stint and who had winning percentages of less than .300.

The list: Marinelli, .208; Dick LeBeau (Cincinnati, 2000-2002), .267: David Shula (Cincinnati, 1992-96), .267; Abe Gibron (Chicago, 1972-74), .274; Dom Capers (Houston, 2002-2005), .281; Frank Kush (Baltimore Colts/Indianapolis, 1982-84), .287; Mike Riley (San Diego, 1999-2001), .292; Tom Flores (Seattle, 1992-94), .292: and Dave McGinnis (Arizona, 2000-2003), .298.

A TOP CANDIDATE TO REPLACE SPAGNUOLO appears to be former longtime Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher.

Of all the currently out-of-the-league former head coaches, Fisher is the man expected to elicit the most attention by franchises seeking to hire new sideline bosses, according to an informal survey by The Sports Xchange of 11 NFL owners or general managers.

"Everyone else has some sort of question mark over him," one general manager said. "Jeff has sent pretty strong signals through his people (principally agent Marvin Demoff) that he wants back in. If he wants them, he can probably have some options."

Miami owner Stephen Ross is said to be ready to pursue a big name, and while Fisher may not have quite the cache as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, he qualifies as a big name.

And it has been noted that Demoff's son, Kevin, is the executive director of football operations (read: negotiations and salary cap expert) in St. Louis, which could be a conduit to turning him into the Rams' new coach.

There are even some rumblings that Fisher could attract attention in San Diego. No matter where Fisher winds up, the strong consensus is that he will return to the NFL in 2012 after his one-year hiatus from the game.

THE RAMS ARE 2-13 AND RUMORS ARE FLYING about the head coach's job. Yet, players and coaches went about things like business as usual this past week, hoping to find a way to win the season finale against the 49ers.

It doesn't matter that fans want the team to lose so they will have a chance at the first pick in the draft. Despite a gloomy season, competitors keep trying to win.

Quarterback Sam Bradford, who will miss another game with an injured ankle, was asked if there is a sense that players are trying to save Spagnuolo's job.

Said Bradford, "I don't think so. We're approaching this game just like we would any other game. We're playing a division opponent, a division rival. Obviously we're looking to beat them after the way they handled us in San Francisco, so I think we're approaching this just like we would any other game."

Kellen Clemens, who has started the last two games at quarterback, might have played himself into an opportunity to compete for a backup job in 2012. He said that's the farthest thing from his mind.

"Any opportunity to play is an opportunity to play," Clemens said. "Since we were five and six years old, you don't really come out here to practice, you come out to play. That's what we love to do, so that's what I've enjoyed over the last couple weeks is having an opportunity to play and be a part of this organization. I'm not really thinking about myself going into the offseason. I'm just excited for another opportunity to go out and play and have some fun.

"I've been blessed with just the opportunity to be here. I'm very grateful for that. Again, I don't think past San Francisco right now. Everything else plays itself out over the offseason which gives you weeks and months to think about it. Myself as an individual, us as an offense, us as a team collectively, we are all thinking about beating the San Francisco 49ers and then we will deal with what comes after that."

When asked if this game is one final audition for players whether it be with the Rams or another team, Clemens said, "The reality of this business is that, that's the case but the reality of this organization is that I don't think there's an individual on this team that is thinking about that, so it goes both ways. We have one more opportunity to get a win and that's what we are focusing on collectively."

After facing numerous issues last week against Pittsburgh's defense, now Clemens and Co. will be up against the 49ers.

He said, "If there is a defense that's better than Pittsburgh, we are playing them now this week. They are a little bit less multiple in what they do, but very, very talented at every single position. It will be another good challenge for us."

Spagnuolo was asked about San Francisco's approach changing since the 49ers are in the playoffs. He said, "Absolutely not. They're playing for a bye week. And I think two teams are going to be going at it with full bore trying to win a football game. I don't see that changing at all."

NEXT WEEK, THE BUSINESS OF LOOKING AHEAD to 2012 will officially begin for the Rams. There will be many questions about the team's direction. It is no secret which areas need upgrading.

One of those is the offensive line. Left guard Jacob Bell, currently on injured reserve, will be a free agent. Jason Brown, who has started games at center, right guard and left guard, might not be back.

Right tackle Jason Smith has suffered his second serious concussion in three seasons, prompting numerous questions about his future. Because of Smith's status, one question will be what to do with Harvey Dahl, the former 49er. Signed as a free agent after the lockout to play right guard, Dahl has started the past five games at right tackle.

It's not out of the question that Dahl might stay there heading to 2012.

"To go from right guard to right tackle, and more than willing to do it, I think he's done a solid job," Spagnuolo said. "I really do. With some of the people you see out on the edge there, he's going to be challenged, and yet I think he functions really well. That's a credit to him."

Dahl is the Rams' only offensive lineman who has started every game this season, and he and Brown were the only linemen who started the opener and also started Saturday against Pittsburgh.

The line did well enough to open holes for running back Steven Jackson, who gained 103 yards on 24 attempts against one of the better run defenses in the league.

When offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked if the Rams have gotten what they expected from Dahl, he said, "No question. When we got Harvey, we thought we were going to get a guy that was going to add some toughness. He's a great worker. He's a great example for what we want our young guys to see. He's been so unselfish with his role and what we've asked of him this year that I couldn't say enough good things about him."

Spagnuolo said, "I'm sure glad we've got him, and I like the kind of guy he is. He's an aggressive guy. I love that."

IN ST. LOUIS, THEY'RE SAYING ‘PLEASE STOP THE MADNESS.' There are many who don't think anyone should spend the next four months debating whether the Rams should select a quarterback with their very high pick in the 2012 draft and trade quarterback Sam Bradford.

These rumblings were being heard over the past several weeks, but gained traction when Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said recently if a new coach was hired by the Rams they would have to give serious consideration to finding a better quarterback than Bradford, the No. 1 overall selection of the 2010 draft.

Gruden, of course, specifically mentioned Stanford's Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III of Baylor.

It's hard to tell whether Gruden really believed what he was saying or if he was tweaking fellow analyst Ron Jaworski, who is high on Bradford. Following Gruden's comment, Jaworski lauded Bradford again, and Gruden had that sly, Chucky grin on his face.

Since Gruden's comment, the "trade Bradford" bandwagon has grown.

The salary cap ramifications are one major impediment to a deal, but the idea makes no sense on a basic talent evaluation level.

While Luck, and even Griffin, are the flavors of the month, if all three were in the draft at the same time, Bradford could very well be rated as the best of the bunch. At the least, it would be a good debate.

So, believing that the evaluation would be very close, why trade a quarterback that already has 26 games under his belt, has shown his ability and in whom you have already invested $30 million?

As for the salary cap, a Bradford trade on or before June 1 would mean a $14.4 million dead-money cap charge for the Rams. If he was traded after June 1, the hit would be $3.6 million in 2012 and $10.8 million in 2013.

On the roster in 2012, Bradford counts $15.595 million against the cap and his base salary is $12 million guaranteed. The final three years of his contract are worth a total of $36 million with $8 million of his $9 million 2013 salary guaranteed.

While the $14.4 million hit isn't that much different than his cap charge on the roster, that would still be dead money for a player no longer on the team.

It can also be also argued the Rams would have less leverage trying to trade Bradford because of those high salaries.

However, they would likely have significantly more leverage as the draft approaches to make a deal as teams start falling in love with the incoming class and the lower salaries they will command compared to Bradford.

The new, hard rookie pool resulted in quarterback Cam Newton, this year's first overall pick, receiving a four-year contract worth a shade over $22 million. Newton's signing bonus was $14.5 million and his base salaries are $375,000; $1.376 million; $2.377 million and $3.378 million. There is an option for the fifth year that has to be exercised after the end of the third year, but most high picks that prove worthy will likely sign contract extensions before they ever get to that fifth year.

With the overall salary cap in 2012 expected to be very close to the 2011 total of $120.375 million, the rookie contracts will also be very similar to 2011.

ASSUMING GRIFFIN ENTERS THE DRAFT, the Rams should be in an excellent spot to build around Bradford with extra choices, even if they wind up with the second pick in the first round.

If the Rams lose to the 49ers Sunday, they can't pick any lower than second. The scenarios:

Rams lose, Colts lose to Jacksonville: Colts pick first, Rams second. Rams lose, Colts win: Rams pick first, Colts second.

If the Rams win, it doesn't matter what the Colts do. Win or lose, Indianapolis would pick first. However, the Rams would pick third if they win and the Vikings lose to the Bears, which would give Minnesota the second selection.

This assumes the Rams don't make up a five-game differential in strength-of-schedule percentage with the Vikings, which is unlikely.

If the Rams pick second, either the Colts will select Luck or trade the pick to a team that wants him. The Rams would still be in position to swing a deal with a team that wants Griffin, if he is rated that high and there are no other highly-rated quarterbacks.

Currently, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay have four wins, while Miami and Washington have five. It's conceivable the Browns, Dolphins and Redskins would be in the market for a quarterback.

Obviously, the best result would be for the Rams to have the first pick. That could lead to a double trade down. Trade with Indianapolis, if they want Luck, and do the best deal you can for moving down just one spot. Then, deal the second pick in what would hopefully be a seller's market to multiple teams that desire Griffin.

That should provide a collection of picks this year and in future years that will fill several of the holes on the roster and improve the offense around Bradford. Whatever the package, it's probable that it would be more than the Rams would acquire for Bradford.

So, end the debate. Please.

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