Three years ago when he arrived with the heady title of "franchise savior" of the St. Louis Rams, it felt as though the biggest part of Jeff Fisher's new job was far more that of a persuasive salesman than an ingenious football coach.
The Rams and for that matter, the city's desperate football fan base needed a voice that sold them on hope that the worst finally was over for this struggling franchise.
And for two years, that's what Fisher did. As he and general manager Les Snead carefully churned the roster, drafting speed, size and athletic talent, the coach tried to convince anyone who would listen that this green-but-growing rehab project was good enough to challenge for a playoff run even if he knew better.
For two years Fisher was the slick pitchman, offering faith, hope and a low-bar dream that what we were seeing was infinitely better than what we already had seen. He would scoff at any question that suggested the Rams couldn't compete for a playoff berth in the challenging NFC West. He used to repeat over and over that his young team was good enough to hang in the toughest division in football.
But the hope phase of the Rams' reconstruction project officially is over now. Hopes and wishes have been replaced by something a bit more substantial.
"It's all about expectations now," Fisher said as he stood on the edge of the Rams Park practice field early Monday night. "Yes, we have youth, but now there's skill at every position. There's experience there, too."
Fisher's previous positive sales pitches were a necessary distraction from the harsh reality that this was a rebuilding franchise on training wheels, growing through the draft but stumbling along with the mistakes of youth and inexperience.
Now, you can feel the different mood at training camp. You can listen to the coaches, the front-office types. You can hear it in the tone of Fisher's words. He thinks Year Three will be the breakout season that will move the Rams off that sub-.500 plateau they have rested on for the last two seasons (back-to-back, nearly-identical seasons of 7-8-1 and 7-9), and catapult into a 10- or 11-win season.
This is the first of many very big weeks in the 2014 preseason. After spending the entire offseason practicing against themselves, the Rams begin the exhibition season Friday night in the dome against the New Orleans Saints. Sam Bradford and his surgically repaired knee will get a first real test against a defense that can and will bring him to the ground. Every exhibition game will allow a glimpse into the possibilities that this season could bring.
Will they be faster, stronger, quicker, smarter? Will the wide receivers make plays? Will the offensive line protect Bradford? Will the quarterback continue to show the elevated play we've seen in training camp's early days against opposing defenses? Will new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' imaginative schemes turn this already dangerous defense into the sort of unit that can carry the Rams to championship dreams?
It's always so easy to become infatuated with a football team in training camp. Fisher was almost giddy about Bradford's progress in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 passing drills, the way he has shown so much big-arm strength and accuracy on deep routes every day.
"The quarterback is looking as good now as I've ever seen him since I've been here," the coach volunteered after watching Bradford gun a deep rocket to Austin Pettis in tight coverage. "What you saw him do (on Monday) looked even better last Saturday."
So is this the season of the Big Tease or the Great Fulfillment? Is Bradford ready to make his breakthrough and show the pro football world that he deserved all the money and respect as a No. 1 overall draft pick? Are the Rams ready to put it all together and fill the dome with an excitable playoff edge that we haven't seen around here since the turn of the century?
A year ago at training camp, there was a scene that played out that was so full of high hopes and turned into realized expectations. Early in camp, a rather excitable fan shouted from across the end-zone barricade his vision of what he hoped would be the story of the 2013 season.
"Hey Robert (Quinn), you gotta get 40 sacks this year. You gotta get 40!" the man bellowed in a voice loud enough that it caused the Rams' gifted defensive end to do a quick double take and give him an "Are you crazy?" stare.
"Forty is a little crazy," Quinn joked at the time.
Of course a few months later, Quinn did have a breakthrough season, threatening Deacon Jones' unofficial club record of 26 sacks, finishing with an NFC-leading 19 sacks, became a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro and finished a half sack shy of NFL leader Robert Mathis.
On Monday at camp, there was another energetic fan this one a kid probably 8 or 9 years old who wanted to up the ante for Quinn.
"Little guy said he wanted 2,000 sacks," Quinn chuckled.
For the season or for your career?
"Either way, that's a bit much, don't you think?" Quinn asked smiling.
Instead, Quinn has taken a bit more pragmatic approach to what he and his teammates need to do to make this season the success everyone is expecting.
"Small steps," Quinn said. "Gotta take small steps. Just try to take small steps every day and get better. Remember, we're just kids playing in the dirt. OK, maybe we're a little bigger than the rest of the kids, but if we can approach every day with that spirit little boys playing in the dirt we'll be just fine."
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