While the 4-1 season put together by Payton in New Orleans has been the big story, Linehan is beginning to hear kudos for his ability to bring new life to a formerly dysfunctional Rams team. Matching New Orleans’ 4-1 record, and standing half a game up in the NFC West, Linehan’s group needs only two wins to match the 6-10 total put together by Mike Martz and Joe Vitt in 2005.
The former offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings (2002-04) and the Miami Dolphins (2005) brings a more balanced theory to bear – this St. Louis offense isn’t the high-flying “Greatest Show on Turf” as much as it is a balanced unit that gains momentum from within. The real offensive weapon this year has been their running back, Steven Jackson, who leads the NFL in total yards with 649 through five games. Jackson is also tied for the NFL lead in rushing yards with San Francisco’s Frank Gore.
One season after Shaun Alexander’s MVP season, who woulda thunk that two NFC West backs would stand atop the league in rushing performance, and a Seahawk would not be among them? If Arizona’s Edgerrin James had even half an offensive line to run behind, this could get embarrassing.
For Linehan, Jackson’s and his team’s good start is just that and nothing more. He knows that a loss to the Seahawks at the Edward Jones Dome this Sunday puts his team in the kind of hole they haven’t seen this season. “I think so,” he said when asked if this game was a real measuring stick for his team. “I think you always look forward to playing the team that sets the bar. The bar was set by Seattle last year in the NFC and in our division. That’s kind of the way the league works. It goes in cycles, but they’re certainly the team to beat, not only in our division, but in the entire NFC. It’s a pretty big challenge for us, but it’s also one that we’ve been looking forward to. It will be a pretty big measuring stick based on how this game turns out this week, and kind of lets us know where we’re at this point.”
Last year, the Seahawks managed a last-second, 37-31 win at the EJ Dome in Week Five – the game separated Seattle from the rest of the division as the Seahawks went on a hot streak and the Rams self-destructed. Their head coach was replaced due to medical concerns and front office infighting, and playing for an entertaining, but obviously lame-duck, replacement in Joe Vitt wasn’t anyone’s way of making a season happen. Linehan is firmly in charge of this team, and he has no doubt about the importance of this game.
“It’s bigger because it raises our record from 4-1 to 5-1 if we win the game, and puts us in better position in our division,” he said. “There is some reality to that. I think it’s important that we look at it as the next game, even though it is a division rival, and defending division champs. It does kind of give you a little bit more of a feel as to where you’re at; playing a team that pretty much dominated the entire NFL last year. Our guys are real excited for the challenge.”
The real surprise for the Rams has been their defensive performance – last season, their defense was a disaster, and the second part of the franchise’s top-to-bottom change was the hiring of former Saints coach Jim Haslet as the defensive coordinator. Haslett brought an aggressive style that has the Rams leading the league in turnover ratio and impressing so far with their pass defense. On Wednesday, the team announced that they had signed linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa to a five-year extension, a beginning to the kind of permanence Linehan and Haslett want to build on both sides of the ball. "I can say one thing - this is certainly the type of thing we want to get done; maintaining continuity with our football team. Certainly players who have been here, that have kind of earned this opportunity that Pisa has. We’re really glad to say that Pisa will be a Ram for years to come. He exemplifies what we’re looking for in a player in our program, and a teammate, and all those things.
“He’s not a loud or outspoken guy by any means - I’d say he’s the opposite of that. He does everything with his actions. He inspires coaches by the way he plays the game and goes to work every day. A lot of guys get into contract years, and you get little worried about them being distracted by it or affected by it, but Pisa just comes to work everyday with his hard hat on. He’s a great person around the building. He represents our team in a positive way, all the time. He promotes everything we’re trying to promote with as coaches throughout the team. Those are the kind of guys you want to keep around.”
Next on Linehan’s agenda is the same sort of extension for defensive end Leonard Little. “I just visited with Leonard about it,” Linehan said. “When we talk about keeping guys around, he’s one of the guys, as we look at as a franchise and as a team, one of the guys that really is a glue to this team, not only on our defense. It would me make just as happy, or more, if we could be talking about Leonard being here, and I would think Leonard will, at some point. It’s easier said than done. You’ve got to do these things one by one. I think Leonard is one of the most underrated defensive ends in all of pro football. I don’t know if it’s because he plays on the defensive left. A lot of those guys are kind of run-stopper kind of guys, but he’s been over there, and we move him around a little bit more.
”He destroyed a game that I was on the other side of one time. I’ll never forget it. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to play, and he ended up being a surprise late addition. He had a torn (pectoral muscle) at the time, and I think we kind of counted on him not being in the game, and I think he had three or four sacks. Like I said, he wrecked the game for the team that I was on. He’s had a little bit to do with that this year in a couple of games. When you have a guy that you have to make sure doesn’t wreck the game on your side of the ball, you’ve got a good starting point on defense. I think Leonard’s one of those handful of guys in this league that effects the game that way.”
While the Rams are trying for permanence, the Seahawks are dealing with an unnerving amount of roster churnage. One move that hit Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren hard was St. Louis’ acquisition of former Seattle linebacker and special teams captain Isaiah Kacyvenski. Kacyvenski was juggled around by the Seahawks, and the Seahawks were bitten by that “creative” practice when the player decided to take the promise of a new team instead of going on faith with what he knew. Linehan sad at the time that he didn’t expect a player of Kacyvenski’s caliber to be available this far into the season, and the move could be seen as one more hit to the reputation of Seattle’s formerly bulletproof personnel braintrust under team president Tim Ruskell.
Linehan didn’t just get a good player – he also got a player who has spent his career overcoming his physical limitations by way of fierce competitiveness, intelligence and hard work. It is often those players who are the most dangerous when you suddenly see them on the other side.
Has Linehan talked to Kacyvenski about his former team? “I have,” he said. “General things, as far as how they saw our team. It’s different, though, because they haven’t played us this year. A lot of it was based on what he knows on how the Rams played before. That kind of changes it a little bit. A lot of it’s kind of the things that I wasn’t aware of as far as the history of the games he’s played in against the Rams. I think it’s valuable to a point.
“A lot of it’s in a mentality, maybe how they look at us. How they see our team, strengths, weaknesses, things like that. What the keys are to playing us…those kinds of things. Playing us here. All those things are important. Like I’ve said before, too much information is a bad thing. Common sense says they’re going to be aware of that as well. I think more of that than anything. It’s been kind of fun. It’s also kind of fun to just talk about it and that kind of thing.”
Of course, the Seahawks have managed to keep and acquire a few quality players, and Linehan’s mind turned to two in particular – All-World left tackle Walter Jones and linebacker Julian Peterson. Jones, bothered with ankle injuries this season, has looked a bit more mortal so far – but that doesn’t diminish the respect around the league for the big man. We’ve got to deal with that,” Linehan said of the matchup problems brought about by a player of Jones’ quality. “That’s one of their difference makers, and he happens to be one of the better left tackles in all of football. It’s not going to be any different than what we’ve done. We’ve moved (our defense) around enough; I think at this point, it’s no secret. You’ve got to still play solid, sound football too. Not get too worked up on who’s going against who. We’ve just got to do a good job technique-wise.”
Linehan sees Peterson, Seattle’s premier free-agent acquisition of the 2006 offseason, as a potentially unsolvable problem for his offense. “He’s real versatile,” Linehan said. “He made a name for himself at San Francisco with his ability to be a “Will” (weakside) space player linebacker on third down. He’s doing the same thing for Seattle. He can play in the outside linebacker space. He can be in the box. He can rush on the blitz. He’s a good enough athlete to cover tight ends and backs and things like that. Just kind of to add insult to injury, to put the guy as a defensive end on third down and rush the passer with him. He creates a lot of problems that way. There’s a handful of players like that in this league, so you just have to kind of have a target to where he’s at and keep your eye on him so he doesn’t sneak up on you. It’s harder than it sounds, actually.”
There is no lack of respect for the Seahawks in the other locker room this time – these are not the cocky Rams of yore. This is a team that knows a thing or two about hubris and wasted opportunities, and there is a new discipline that makes them dangerous. They’ve won two games on late fumbles by opposing quarterbacks, another, in part, on an overturned pass interference penalty, and the season opener with six field goals and no touchdowns. They scored only two touchdowns in their first three games, yet they’re 4-1. Yes, luck is involved. Yes, there are the twists of fate that the Seahawks certainly would like to see more of on the positive side. But this is also a Rams team that knows how to take advantage of what they’re given.
Linehan doesn’t see facing the Seahawks without Shaun Alexander as an advantage as much as a test. “You just don’t replace the MVP, but they’ve done a nice job, for the most part this year, to find ways to be productive. Maurice Morris showed signs of the type of back he can be. He’s going to get a number of carries, I’m sure. They’ve had two weeks to evaluate how to do that. What happens when you lose a player like that, he’ll make the adjustment overnight. A lot of times you go to your strength, which is a pretty deep receiving corps. They’ve just added Jerramy Stevens to the mix, which gives them some more versatility there.
”Bottom line, they’ve still got one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL playing for them. That’s kind of the feather in their cap right now. I think that gives them still the advantage to, whoever’s in the backfield, be able to have a potential day running the ball. We’ve still got to deal with that, and their receiving core. It’ll be interesting, but like I said, we acknowledge the fact that Alexander’s not going to be there, but there are a lot of other really good running backs that can take advantage of their opportunities too. We’ve got to try and make sure that doesn’t happen if we can.”
If he can pass another test, and go up 1 ½ games in the NFC West, Scott Linehan’s dream rookie season will continue – and a nightmare for the Seahawks might be on the horizon.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.