ST. LOUIS _ The day that would shape the man’s future moved mercifully toward finality as he dashed from the darkened team headquarters through the steady spring rain to his SUV in the parking spot labeled head coach. Following months of torturous deliberation that sent him and the staff cross country and back, sifting through endless possibilities in the name of due diligence, they had made their decision.
Nothing left to do now but embrace hope and kiss it up to the fates.
Entranced by a lonely, wet highway and the rhythmic movement and hum of overworking windshield wipers, the man momentarily slipped into reflective thought midway into his forty-minute drive home to the city. He didn’t appear to notice the muffled radio program in the background that talked of the night’s events, quite enthusiastically, by the way. He figured the town would happily comply with their selection, and that was always welcome, given the importance of public opinion to the industry. Still, though, the fickle nature of it meant that if somehow the 22-year-old quarterback who played two games and change last year didn’t become the franchise as planned for the St. Louis Rams, everyone would forget how they felt at this very moment and call ingloriously for his hide.
The man could handle the torchbearers. The notion of failure, he couldn’t stomach that. He didn’t sacrifice his life for the coaching calling to lose. Without kin in the game, he landed his own sprawling office with the two desks – one for the many business details of coaching football in the NFL, the other stationed in front of a large flat screen for the “fun stuff,” the actual football element, film study and game-planning — on the second floor of Rams Park by working rungs, beginning way back in 1983. Graduate assistant at Massachusetts. Intern with the Redskins. Defensive line and special teams coach at Lafayette. Defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator at Connecticut, before the Huskie ascent to the Big East. Special teams and defensive line coach for the Barcelona Dragons. Scout for the Chargers. Defensive backs and linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Maine. Defensive backs coach at Rutgers. Defensive backs coach at Bowling Green. Linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Frankfurt Galaxy. Defensive assistant for the Eagles.
In 2001, he rose to defensive backs coach for the Eagles. Then linebackers coach in 2004. Then defensive coordinator for the Giants in 2007. Buoyed by his unit, the Giants won the Super Bowl that year. He rebuffed head coaching offers that offseason, and stuck around one more season, out of loyalty and the handsome raise that amounted into the first real money he earned in twenty-five years in the business.
He looks like a football coach the way Tony LaRussa looks like a baseball manager, square-jawed and athletically-fit, built to lead larger men. From central Massachusetts, New England intransigence led him right here, with midnight closing on Missouri. Just then, the man’s cell phone that lie on the armrest sprung to life and lit up the interior of the truck. The name of the caller read clearly in all caps on the small screen.
“Sam!” he answered, warmly. “How you feeling buddy?”
The man held a half-smile, the kind worn by a proud elder, and nodded steadily at the caller’s response.
“Good, good. You’re with the family celebrating? Good, good. Good to hear.”
“About time you called your Coach back.”
The man grinned.
(Upon saying goodbye, he explained that he had texted Sam Bradford three hours prior and Sam Bradford was just getting back to him now, and thus, the subtle dig. It’s never too early, you see, to establish parameters.)
“Ok buddy, we’ll see you tomorrow (Friday),” the man said. “Everything set with your flight? Let’s get you out of here Saturday and back home with your family. I want you to relax. I want a well-rested quarterback for when you come back Thursday.”
Thursday, exactly one week from this night and the first round of the NFL’s first prime time draft, will mark the first minicamp of the offseason. The first football of 2010.
And when Steve Spagnuolo’s future will begin.
He’ll be, he says, on the clock. Nobody much counted last season. It seemed a miracle they won the one game in Detroit. Seriously outmanned, they were, as expected. The Rams fell hard after those two Super Bowl appearances around the turn of the century. They haven’t had a winning season since 2003. The team Spagnuolo inherited won five games total in two years, and incredibly, was aging in all the wrong places. Billy Devaney, a Jersey Shore guy, who established a good football name on the opposite coast with the famed Bobby Beathard and the San Diego Chargers, became the Rams general manager in December 2008 and the first business he did a month later was sell the highly-coveted Spagnuolo on St. Louis. They knew they had a complete tear-down on their hands. Still do. The league cycle says it takes at least two years to completely gut a roster from a team in that kind of disrepair.
And this brings us to the story of how the Rams settled on Sam Bradford…
Check back soon for Part 2