With the St. Louis Rams sitting at a disappointing 1-3 record and their offense ranked 30th in the NFL, barely averaging 300 yards per game, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is obviously under fire. What we've seen with our eyes through four games is enough to raise questions about Schottenheimer's fit for the Rams: unimaginative play calling, a non-existent run game and an anemic 26 per cent third down conversion rate are all distressing numbers that don't bode well for long term success.
But is there any reason to suggest that Schottenheimer's offensive philosophy will ever yield any success in St. Louis? A look at his history and that of head coach Jeff Fisher would suggest that this is a marriage that's doomed for divorce.
Not Fisher's MO for Winning
Fisher spent 17 years in Houston/Tennessee as head coach, winning 142 games and making six playoff appearances, including the 1999 Super Bowl against the Rams. Most of those seasons, Fisher employed the late Mike Heimerdinger as his offensive coordinator. Heimerdinger ran a West Coast offense that emphasized a solid running game punctuated by a short, quick passing game.
Five of Fisher's six playoff teams featured a bruising running back (Eddie George and Lendale White) who could move the pile and carry the load, allowing his quarterback to manage the game. His receiving corps was never elite. Derrick Mason was the perfect fit for that offense, a quick possession receiver who could catch in traffic. The route trees in Heimerdinger's offenses were short and designed to get the ball out quickly.
Now look at Schottenheimer's philosophy and the personnel the Rams have on hand. There's certainly no bruising back. Zac Stacy is the only one with the physical traits to shoulder that load. To this point, the Rams haven't utilized him at all.
The route tree is mostly vertical with underneath crossing routes, a product of Schottenheimer's tutelage at the feet of his father, Marty, an "Air Coryell" protege. Unlike the West Coast offense, these routes don't develop quickly and require an offensive line that can protect the pocket as well as a quarterback (like a Dan Fouts) who has a strong arm and quick release. That's not the Rams' personnel at all.
No History of Offensive Success
Schottenheimer was offensive coordinator for the New York Jets for six seasons. Only once in those six seasons did the Jets finish in the top ten in the NFL in scoring. That was the one season Brett Favre quarterbacked the Jets. In 2009 and 2010 the Jets reached the AFC Championship game, but not because of their offense. The Jets defense was among the NFL's top five and their offense consisted mostly of sticking the ball in Thomas Jones', Shonn Greene's and an aging LaDanian Tomlinson's belly and keeping Mark Sanchez in reasonable down and distance situations.
Does that sound like something the Rams have the personnel to execute?
In Schottenheimer's first season (ironically succeeding Mike Heimerdinger who returned to Tennessee) he inherited the Jets' former first round pick, Chad Pennington, who was coming off rotator cuff surgery. Pennington had a great 2006, throwing underneath routes to the Jets' diminutive receivers. Lost in the win total, however, was the 30 sacks he absorbed. In 2007 the Jets got off to a 1-7 start and Pennington was benched in favor of Kellen Clemens. Pennington had already been sacked 26 times in just half a season.
Favre came to the Jets the next year with Pennington off to Miami where Pennington guided the Dolphins to the AFC East title. Favre led the league in interceptions (22) as the Jets fell short of the playoffs. A season later in Minnesota, Favre would throw only seven picks against 33 touchdowns and nearly got the Vikings to the Super Bowl after a 12-4 regular season.
The Jets then drafted Sanchez and set him up to manage the Jets offense. Sanchez kept the Jets rolling as the defense held down opponents and the backs shouldered the offensive load. In 2011 though, when Sanchez was called upon to carry more of the offensive load, his interceptions shot back up. Most tellingly, his sack numbers sky-rocketed to 39. The Jets finished 8-8.
Of course we've seen the effects of those hits on Sanchez, who was knocked out during this preseason while competing with rookie Geno Smith for his job. To say that he failed to progress under Schottenheimer would be an understatement.
Flash now to Sam Bradford. Bradford had a decent season last year with Schottenheimer, but took 35 sacks. That's not necessarily an indictment of Schottenheimer as Bradford had similar numbers during his first two seasons. So far this year, having been dumped 11 times in four games, Bradford is on pace to equal or surpass those numbers.
Sam Bradford won't survive the rest of this season under Brian Schottenheimer. He's already showing signs of the shell-shock of his first three seasons, reminiscent of Tim Couch and David Carr, two other number one overall picks who were stuck leading offenses that required them to stand in and take shots play after play.
What to do?
The obvious answer would be to fire Schottenheimer. Wide Receivers coach Ray Sherman is an experienced play caller, having guided the offenses in Pittsburgh in 1998 and Minnesota in 1999. His West Coast background coupled with serving under Bill Cowher's power running game would seem to fit with Fisher's philosophy better than Schottenheimer. The problem with that approach is trying to revamp the play book in the middle of a season. Sam Bradford is already working under his third offensive coordinator in Schottenheimer. Would a fourth be the straw that breaks the camel's back?
The other option is for Schottenheimer to change his approach and start play calling more to fit his personnel. The Rams can't keep running slow-developing routes and pounding Daryl Richardson into non-existent running lanes. They've got to speed up the pace of their offense, using more quick-hitting plays with the pass and the run.
If Schottenheimer doesn't change his approach, the third option may happen to him. I doubt GM Les Snead will keep Schotty around if the Rams are still mired at the bottom of the NFL's offensive statistics. That may be too late, though to save Sam Bradford, who's already beginning to resemble a soldier returning from the Ardennes Forest.
Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer have some work to do over the next 10 days before Jacksonville comes to town. What they do will determine the rest of the Rams' 2013 season and may hold the key to Brian Schottenheimer's NFL coaching career.
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