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For a two-game stretch after the Rams dismissed Scott Linehan one month into the 2008 season, it appeared that ditching the “interim” in interim coach Jim Haslett’s title was a mere formality. Haslett’s Rams won their first two games under his direction, the apex of a St. Louis season that began with four losses and the firing of Linehan and ended with a 10-game losing streak that sent the Rams looking for help outside the organization.
That help arrived in the person of Steve Spagnuolo, longtime Eagles assistant and defensive coordinator for the Giants for two years before heading to St. Louis. And because Spagnuolo’s experience and expertise lie on the defensive side of the ball—where the Rams, who finished 28th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed, need plenty of help—he’s entrusting the offense to first-time coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Shurmur and Spagnuolo spent several years together in Philadelphia, where Shurmur was hired as quarterbacks coach in 2002. Philly’s offense has been solid during that tenure—finishing in the top 10 in yardage five times in seven years—though of course it’s been Andy Reid calling the plays. Nonetheless, Shurmur is viewed as a rising star among the coaching ranks. He was linked to the Ravens’ OC job when John Harbaugh took over; ultimately that gig went to Cam Cameron. But when another ex-Eagle landed a head job, Shurmur was available—and Spagnuolo’s pick.
As you might expect from a member of the Reid coaching tree, Shurmur will install a West Coat offense—but, as you might expect from a team with a defensive-minded head coach, a more run-oriented version of the WCO than what comes to mind when you think of the Eagles. That means good things for Steven Jackson, who would be in line to play the role of Brian Westbrook in the Rams’ version of Philly’s offense. Don’t forget, the last time Jackson stayed healthy for a full 16-game slate he rushed for 1,528 yards and caught 90 passes for another 806 yards.
Marc Bulger, on the other hand, will be dealing with the sixth St. Louis play-caller in the past six seasons. “This is definitely going to be the most trying, different scheme that I’ve had, but I think it’s a good thing that it’s a whole frest start from the locker room to the building to the offense,” Bulger said on the team’s official website. “We all have to start from scratch.”
One element of Shurmur’s offense that has to make Bulger happy is that the shorter passes the WCO is famous for should help mask deficiencies and/or growing pains in the offensive line. Exposed by the Mike Martz schemes that often led to high sack totals, Bulger has been taken down on average almost three times a game—and that was when Bulger still had Orlando Pace in front of him. This year’s edition of the Rams’ offensive line adds first-round pick Jason Smith and free-agent center Jason Brown. That’s nice, but even more importantly if Bulger can adjust to the rhythm of the quicker, short passes the WCO calls for he’ll have a better shot at staying upright—and perhaps even see a full 16-game slate for just the second time in his career.
With one of the last links to the Greatest Show on Turf, Torry Holt, kicked to the curb this offseason the Rams are essentially starting over at wide receiver as well. The key figure among St. Louis wideouts now is last year’s second-round selection, Donnie Avery. Avery’s speed should translate well to WCO routes that get the ball into his hands while he’s on the move—assuming, of course, that Bulger picks up the new scheme. The rest of the Rams’ receiving corps is a mixed bag, but Shurmur had success with similar limitations in Philly.
Ultimately, the work Spagnuolo has before him on the defensive side might force the Rams to throw more than they’d prefer. But St. Louis does have some pieces to plug into its offensive puzzle. And if Bulger turns out not to be one of them, Shurmur’s success developing Donovan McNabb in Philly suggests he’ll do well with whomever the Rams line up at quarterback in 2010.