After a year away, Jeff Fisher returned to the NFL refreshed, renewed and best of all, patient. Rebuilding the St. Louis Rams might take time.
Fisher inherits a handful of key veterans from a 2-14 season that got coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney fired. Surrounding quarterback Sam Bradford, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive end Chris Long and select free agent pickups, there's mostly kids.
Expectations are realistic heading into the opener at Detroit, and not just because of what happened last season. Take away a seven-win season in 2010 that seemingly marked the Rams as a franchise on the rise, and they're 8-56 since 2007.
For the new regime of Fisher and general manager Les Snead, there's no better time to build from the ground up.
''If there's a drop-off in production or there's mistakes and things like that or there's a younger player that's got an upside, we're going to give that younger player a chance,'' said the 54-year-old Fisher, entering his 17th season as an NFL head coach. ''In those certain areas where there is competition, we tried to create at least an even opportunity for them as best we can.''
After a 35-point blowout loss in the preseason opener to the Colts, who tied the Rams for the NFL's worst record last year, Laurinaitis noted that ''It's not Armageddon.''
The deal with the Redskins for the No. 2 overall pick and the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III left the Rams with three of the first 39 selections in April plus additional first-rounders in 2013 and 2014.
The first eight picks from the draft are all liable to make the final roster, with defensive tackle Michael Brockers and cornerback Janoris Jenkins starting. Both specialists are new, too, with sixth-round pick Greg ''the Leg'' Zuerlein booting three 50-plus yard field goals in the preseason and undrafted punter Johnny Hekker showing promise.
Sure, Hekker will shank some. Zuerlein is bound to miss an easy one.
The Rams will live and learn with it, up and down the roster. Before the initial round of cuts, there were 40 players age 24 or younger on the 90-man roster. Nine starters, including Bradford, fit in that group.
''Considering where we are as a franchise, you're not scared to do it,'' general manager Les Snead said. ''Growing pains. Spilled milk, I call it.''
Fisher seems comfortable with the green roster, even seems to embrace it.
''Somebody told me that it might be the youngest in the history of the NFL. Then, that would mean it would be my youngest, too,'' Fisher said with a grin. ''But that's OK. We've got some speed and we've got some talented athletes.
''If it is young, then it's only going to get better. And that's the approach we're taking.''
Since the minicamps and OTAs, Fisher has been working on instilling a positive attitude and brushing aside the bad old days. He swatted away questions about the history of failure until they finally faded away, and repeatedly told players they should expect to win.
''I think he's a real people's coach,'' said tight end Lance Kendricks, a second-rounder last season. ''He really stresses keeping your head in the books and knowing what you've got to know. ''But at the same time he gives us the opportunity to stay healthy and stay fresh.
The biggest question is probably a rebuilt offensive line now minus tackle Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009 who has been dogged by concussion woes. Smith was a second-stringer, beat out by low-budget free agent pickup Barry Richardson, before getting traded on Monday to the Jets for backup tackle Wayne Hunter.
Bradford missed six games with a high left ankle sprain last year and hobbled through a couple other games. A healthy Bradford backed by Steven Jackson, seeking his eighth 1,000-yard season, should give the NFL's worst offense in 2011 a fighting chance.
The Rams lack a true No 1 wide receiver, but ace possession slot man Danny Amendola is back after missing virtually all of last season. They believe Steve Smith, who led the NFL with 107 receptions in 2009 for the Giants, is all the way back from microfracture surgery to his left knee late in 2010.
There are young developing legs in second-rounder Brian Quick and fourth-rounder Chris Givens. Isaiah Pead, a second-rounder, is expected to by the quality backup behind Jackson in several years.
More scoring for the Rams, who averaged just 12 points, would take the heat off a defense that typically lost steam after halftime and barely avoided setting a franchise record for yards allowed. There are three quality pieces in cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who played for Fisher in Tennessee, end Chris Long and Laurinaitis.
Finnegan was the top free-agent pickup and is the shutdown guy in the secondary while mentoring Jenkins. Long was among the top pass rushers with 13 1/2 sacks and Laurinaitis has led the team in tackles in all three of his seasons.
There are three former defensive coordinators on the staff to share the duties of Gregg Williams, suspended indefinitely for his role in the Saints bounty scandal. Fisher, among those in that group, has consistently downplayed the importance of a go-to guy on game day.
''Believe me, we will get it handled,'' assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. ''Everybody is in tune. We're going to call a defense and make them punt - on your mark, get set, go.''
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