The NFL isn’t exactly known as a league for innovators or risk takers. Most teams run pretty much the same plays out of the same formations. Coaches get fired in one place and immediately hired in another. There’s a specific way of conducting business, and change comes gradually.
Yet it’s hard not to notice this offseason that one team has consistently done things its own way.
“I can’t say that we do everything traditionally,” Kevin Demoff, St. Louis Rams executive vice president and chief operating officer, said by telephone last week. “Unique could be good or bad, I guess.”
The way Demoff, Jeff Fisher, and general manager Les Snead run their team isn’t really good or bad — just fascinating. Whenever a story has popped up this offseason about a team doing things a little bit differently or uniquely, invariably that team is the Rams, now entering Year 3 under Fisher and Snead.
Their rookie orientation is unlike anything else in the league. They negotiate contracts their own way. They were the only team in the league to cancel their mandatory minicamp. Fisher is at the forefront of the player-safety initiative as the spokesman for the league’s competition committee. And they embraced the Michael Sam experience, media circus and all.
“I see a head coach who continually finds ways to challenge the staff, challenge himself to get better, and is always willing to look at the world a little differently,” Demoff said of Fisher, entering his 19th full season as an NFL head coach.
Let’s start with how the Rams handle their rookies, because everything about it is unique.
For a month, all 11 draft players sat unsigned — everyone from No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson to No. 250 pick Demetrius Rhaney. Then on June 12, the Rams tweeted out a photo — all 11 players signing their contracts at once.
It was the second straight year that the Rams had their rookie class sign en masse.
“It’s a reminder that they’re a draft class — all 11 of them,” Demoff said. “They live together in the hotel, they ride the shuttle, they eat their meals together, and they all sign their contracts together. You want them to feel a sense of camaraderie, make them feel that they’re all treated as equals.”
There’s a reason the Rams made the rookies wait a month before signing their contracts. Fisher has seen too many players burn quickly through their NFL money, and wants to give his rookies a financial education.
Last year, Fisher presented to his rookies a briefcase filled with $1 million in cash. He took away half of it for taxes, a portion for the agent, a portion for union dues, and so on. The players were shocked to see how little was left for themselves.
It’s just one part of the month-long orientation process.
“We give them financial literacy courses, we bring their families in to see St. Louis, to meet the training staff, meet the coaches and front office, get a sense of St. Louis,” Demoff said. “Any time you graduate from college and you take your first job, your parents want to help you get situated and get you started in the real world. We want to get them some of that training and some of that experience before we hand them that first check.”
The Rams also aren’t afraid to do their rookie contracts differently from everyone else. The Rams and Jaguars were the only teams in the top 15 not to insist on including offset language for their first-round picks, opting not to quibble over something relatively minor. And the Rams like to have a little fun with their rookie contracts, too. Since Demoff got to St. Louis five years ago, he’s been sneaking palindromes into the deals. The base salaries for this year’s third-round pick, Tre Mason — $530,035 in 2015, $641,146 in 2016, and $752,257 in 2017.
“That was completely on a whim to have some fun,” Demoff said. “The salary cap is $133 million. What’s an extra five dollars?”
As for canceling minicamp, it was a reward for having 99 percent attendance at the voluntary organized team activities. And of course, the Rams fully embraced Sam and everything that comes with drafting the first openly gay player in the NFL.
“The chance to draft the SEC co-defensive player of the year in the seventh round and what that can add to the depth on the defensive line was a great opportunity. Everything else was secondary,” Demoff said. “The circus was in town the first week, but since then it’s been about Michael Sam the football player.”
None of these initiatives will matter much if the Rams don’t start winning soon. They are 14-17-1 in two seasons under Fisher, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. But the Rams have been the league’s youngest team the past two years — averaging 24.98 years old last season — and hope that the young core of players heading into Year 3 with Fisher can take the Rams to the next level.
And there is reason for optimism in St. Louis. The Rams have a nasty defense under Fisher and coordinator Gregg Williams, and have gone 5-2-1 against the NFC West, arguably the best division in the NFL, with Sam Bradford in the lineup the last two seasons (he tore his ACL in the Rams’ seventh game last year).
The Rams are going to be young again this year. They currently have 60 players under age 25, compared with 51 for the Patriots, but hope that all of their unique team-building initiatives will pay off with a playoff appearance.
“If you’re going to be the youngest team, it only works if those players develop into high-caliber players,” Demoff said. “We feel like we can be extremely competitive. The division can’t be used as an excuse. The youth can’t be used as an excuse. But when I look at our third-year guys, especially guys like Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, you see the process really working.”
Owners go 0 for 2
in federal decisions
NFL owners were none too pleased with federal institutions last week, with two separate judgments going against the owners.
The US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Redskins’ trademark registration on Wednesday, and on Friday the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit surprisingly overturned a decision that previously dismissed the NFL Players Association’s claim of collusion against the league in the 2010 season.
The decision in Washington won’t have much of a practical effect on the Redskins’ business. Owner Daniel Snyder will appeal, of course, and even though the Redskins won’t have exclusive ownership of their logo, they won’t suffer much more from a sales perspective than they already do from bootleggers and small proprietors.
But the decision is definitely a big public relations blow for Snyder as he fights doggedly to keep the Redskins’ name and logo, particularly the rationale behind the decision — the name being “disparaging to Native Americans.” It’s pretty much a dagger to Snyder’s chances of ever winning in the court of public opinion.
The Appeals Court ruling, meanwhile, figures to be more of a nuisance than legitimate threat to the owners. US District Judge David Doty sided with the owners initially, rejecting the NFLPA’s claim of collusion in regards to a secret salary cap among owners in the uncapped 2010 season that cost the players at least $1 billion. The league denied having an unspoken $120 million salary cap, although four teams were punished for overspending, including $46 million in salary cap penalties to the Redskins and Cowboys.
The NFL did, by all accounts, have that secret salary cap in 2010. Complicating the NFLPA’s case is that it agreed to a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement that settled any and all pending and future legal claims against the league prior to 2011. Doty decided in late 2012 that it was too late for a judge to overrule the clause, and the Court of Appeals has now disagreed with Doty. The case will go into the discovery process, in which the NFLPA “notified the NFL of its obligations to preserve all relevant documents and communications.”
The NFLPA could in theory win billions in damages or even reopen the CBA, although any of that seems like a long shot. Still, any victory is a good one from the players’ perspective, and Friday’s decision will at least be a thorn in the owners’ side for the foreseeable future.
Patriots’ playbook ‘scandal’ a non-issueThe latest “scandal” revolving around Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine claiming the Patriots steal playbooks was the perfect recipe for a media firestorm — a sexy, cheap headline involving the Patriots and cheating in a slow time on the sports media calendar.
But let’s be honest — having another team’s playbook doesn’t get you very far. Offenses can have dozens of plays out of every formation and personnel grouping imaginable. Having the playbook says nothing about a team’s tendencies or game plan. And if Jets coach RexRyan would “give them out like candy,” as Greg A. Bedard’s article said, then obviously the information isn’t super top secret anyway.
Pettine likely didn’t mean any harm with his comments, but this will be his Welcome to the NFL moment. A first-time NFL head coach at 47 who coached at the high school level until 2001, Pettine has accomplished the rare feat of uniting Bill Belichick and Ryan, both ticked off at the new guy for spouting off his yapper.
Pettine is trying to sell himself and his team to the public, but he needs to realize the extra scrutiny he is under now that he’s a head coach.
A few free agent signings questionable
Have to wonder if a few teams are feeling a little buyer’s remorse over some of their free agent signings from this spring.
The Colts gave $14 million guaranteed to seven-year veteran safety LaRon Landry, but Landry didn’t show up to one OTA and then couldn’t participate in the first day of minicamp because he didn’t take his physical in time. The Colts then held Landry out of the final two days of minicamp with a “lower-body soft-tissue” injury. GM Ryan Grigson told reporters that the Colts expected Landry to do his own thing this offseason, but Grigson can’t be thrilled that his new veteran leader doesn’t feel like meeting his teammates.
In Miami, running back Knowshon Moreno sat out of minicamp with what was later revealed as a knee injury that could result in arthroscopic surgery, according to the Palm Beach Post. Moreno only got a one-year deal for $3 million and the Dolphins still have a ton of salary cap space, so his signing was worth the risk. But did the Dolphins do their homework before signing a running back who played in 19 games last year?
And in Washington, soon-to-be-32-year-old pass rusher Jason Hatcher, who signed a four-year, $27 million deal with the Skins after a career-high 11 sacks last year for Dallas, will miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Writers Association announces awards
Congratulations to the 2014 winners of the Pro Football Writers Association’s annual awards:
■ Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson won the Good Guy Award and coach Pete Carroll the Jack Horrigan Award for cooperation and professionalism in dealing with the media.
■ Patrick Smythe and the Broncos’ PR staff won the Pete Rozelle Award for excellence in dealing with the media.
■ Ravens senior adviser to player development O.J. Brigance, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, won the George Halas Award for the person who has overcome the most adversity.
■ Thirty-year Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won the Dick McCann Award for his long and distinguished contribution to pro football through his coverage, and will be honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in August.
■ Howard Mudd, Ernie Zampese, and the late Jim Johnson and Fritz Shurmur won the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach.
As of Friday, only eight of 256 draft picks remained unsigned, and Patriots defensive end Dominique Easley was one of three first-rounders still not signed (Justin Gilbert, Taylor Lewan) . . . The Redskins’ website will either be using drone technology or a remote controlled helicopter to film training camp practices this August. The team released a 30-second video last week teasing the “eye in the sky” coverage coming this year. The Patriots will practice with the Redskins at their training camp in Richmond for three days before an exhibition game on Aug. 7. BillBelichick must be thrilled about that . . . Best of luck to Packers second-year running back Johnathan Franklin, whose career abruptly ended last week when doctors informed him that he can no longer play after suffering a neck injury in Week 12. Franklin, a 2013 fourth-round pick out of UCLA, had 19 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown in his only season, and is a good example of why every player should purchase an insurance policy . . . Interesting to hear both Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis stress that this five-week summer break is not a vacation. “I think we really had our vacation. That part is over,” Brady said. Revis’s plan is to “go work out. Continue to work out during this time off, and just get ready for the season.” Let’s see how many other players have the same mentality . . . Detail of the week: The Seahawks’ Super Bowl rings, revealed Thursday, have engraved on the underneath the score of the game (“SEA 43, DEN 8”) and a question — “What’s Next?”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.