Jeff Fisher is old school in almost every sense of the word, but a coach doesn't have to be old school to know that a guy who can hack it on special team is a guy who can help the whole team. To that end, Fisher has used special teams as the Mendoza line when it comes to the all-important 53-man cut. Four years into his reign as the Rams' head man in charge, Fisher isn't planning on changing anything.
Speaking to the media after today's camp, Rams special teams coach John Fassel emphasized the importance of special teams is something that the Rams take very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that every training camp since Fisher has been in charge has kicked off with a full-pad special teams workout. It's a fact Fassel is very proud of and thinks it helps set the tone for what is expected.
"Hell of a workout," Fassel said. "I just want to start by saying that this is a tradition that (Head) Coach (Jeff Fisher) ‘Fish’ started, and now our fifth year we kicked off training camp in full pads with special teams practice. We’ve had success over the past couple years finding undrafted rookie free agents in these types of practice.
"It’s just a chance for us to see guys compete, use the techniques that we’ve practiced in OTAs, which we felt we finished on a really high note. But, to put the pads on is a different ball game. So, to see that today, I think we got through pretty clean; the soft tissues and all of that, and guys competed. We’ll check the film out and probably will find a couple hidden gems, like we’ve been able to do the last couple years. It’s a lot of fun.”
As for what the coaches are looking to see, that can be boiled down to one simple word: effort. If a player expects to make it on this team, he'd better be ready to run just as hard on special teams as he would catching a 99-yard game-winning pass in the Super Bowl. The effort needs to be there at all times.
“We’re looking for guys that can run" Fassel said. "I love to see guys that use the techniques we’ve been working on all of OTAs, which have been unpadded in the last two days. And that’s all we’ve done, is that we’ve worked on the techniques that hopefully help them out today. Who’s doing the right thing, who’s fighting and scrapping, and who shows that they can run, and who’s also being smart about not committing penalties, and those types of things.”
Fassel mentioned some of the players the organization (and he) has found over the years. The list was impressive and certainly adds a boost of confidence to this part of the process. If all else fails, this method has served the Rams fairly well.
"“(RB) Benny Cunningham, (RB) Chase Reynolds, (TE) Cory Harkey, (S) Cody Davis, and (LB) Daren Bates, who went to Oakland this year," Fassel said. "(CB) Marcus Roberson and (S) Maurice Alexander. Last year, (LB) Cam Lynch, undrafted, (WR) Bradley Marquez, undrafted, (LB) Bryce Hager, seventh-round. Those are the guys that have stood out and have made the team, and then performed well enough in games to stick. So, I probably left a few guys out. But, it’s usually the guys you don’t know much about. Not the first and the second or third-round draft picks. So, you know, tough dudes.”
There is an odd reality for special teams in the NFL world. On the dominant hand, position players tend to dismiss special teams guys and fought like hell to keep them out of the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, countless NFL careers begin with some version of "I got my chance on special teams and proved to the coach and team that I belonged."
Fassel wasn't shy about admitting they've used special teams as a determining factor for who stays and who goes. If you have two guys with similar skill-sets, but one guy fumbles the ball on special teams and the other guy is always downfield setting a block for someone else to have the glory, the guy setting the block is likely gonna be setting his dinner table with an NFL paycheck. This is how it worked in St. Louis and it's exactly how it will work in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, the thing with Coach Fisher is that there’s a priority, maybe the last couple choices, on completing that roster," Fassel said. "If it’s a toss-up at a certain position, offensive or defensively, then the trump card is special teams. We’ve been fortunate the last couple of years that Coach Fisher recognizes that and picks the guy out that looks like he might have some potential to play 25 snaps a game on special teams. I think, you know, three, four, five guys a year find that role, and then perform.”
It also happens to be that Fassel thinks the Rams' special teams could really use a reduction in the number of penalties committed on special teams. There were far too many times last year that the Rams had big plays in the punt return game called back because of stupid mistakes. This year, the guy committing penalties may find himself out of job.
“I think our punting, kicking, snapping game is excellent," Fassel said. "Benny and (WR) Tavon (Austin) I think have been really successful the last couple of years returning kicks. We’ve got tough guys that can run and cover. We need to cut out some penalties in our return game. That’s probably kept us from being one of the best. A couple big punt returns, a couple big kick returns that might called back. So, we can eliminate some of the penalties, which we’ve been always practicing, but it’s tough. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that can help us improve field position.”