When running back Steven Jackson and the Rams cordially ended their working relationship after the 2012 season, his free-agent departure was packed with powerful symbolism.
As the core player in the St. Louis offense since taking over for Marshall Faulk as the starter in 2005, Jackson largely shaped the Rams’ approach and personality.
The Rams, at least in theory, were a power-running team, and their offensive identity was visually displayed through the enduring image of Jackson turning the corner on sweeps, slamming into tacklers, his long dreadlocks flapping from the back of his helmet.
Jackson had more rushing yards (9,462) and yards from scrimmage (12,597) than any NFL player from 2005 through 2012. Through no fault of the valiantly determined Jackson, the stubborn Rams ran into a brick wall.
During Jackson’s eight seasons as the alpha dog, the Rams had the league’s worst winning percentage (.285) while averaging only 17 points a game, which ranked 31st among the 32 teams.
The mission for opposing defenses was easily defined and executed: Stack the box with eight defenders, wrestle Jackson to the ground, smother the Rams’ offense and collect an easy victory.
Now that Jackson has marched on to Atlanta — carrying the football and dreams of a Super Bowl — the Rams will reinvent themselves on offense. All signs point to a more wide-open philosophy in 2013.
“It’s definitely going to be a different offense,” Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said last month. “You look at the speed we have now compared to the speed we’ve had in past years, we have significantly more speed this year.
“I don’t know if it means we’re going to throw the ball more — I’d be fine with that. But I definitely think we’re probably moving more to the one-back world, and spread people out. That’s probably the direction.”
That’s definitely the direction.
The Rams have been collecting wide receivers, selecting six in the past three drafts. And five of the six are in place as camp opens this week: Austin Pettis, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
The Rams have drafted multiple tight ends, including Lance Kendricks. Tight end Jared Cook became their most expensive free-agent purchase in planning for 2013.
The Rams also signed left offensive tackle Jake Long to reinforce Bradford’s pass protection; before last season the key recruit was free-agent center Scott Wells.
And over the two drafts the Rams have procured three running backs (Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, Zac Stacy) to remix the backfield for a transition to the post-Jackson era.
With all of the new pieces in place, there’s no turning back.
The Rams are belatedly joining the modern age of offense.
The only remaining question is how far head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer are prepared to go in transforming the Rams’ identity.
We could see a moderate change, a dramatic change or a radical change.
At the most extreme end of the possibilities is a return to the days of Mad Mike Martz.
We’re talking about an all-out air show, with the Rams posting Bradford in the shotgun formation, spreading the field with receivers of all shapes and sizes and running an up-tempo attack that will have opposing defensive players staggering to the sideline to inhale oxygen.
The Rams have the personnel to go as crazy as they want to. The group’s collective inexperience will probably cause frequent disruptions in cohesion; it would be idiotic to presume that all of these moving parts will function smoothly at first.
In time, it will come together, so let’s stay on the fundamental point: The Rams now have the weapons to engage opponents in a matchup-driven frenzy. And that’s what the NFL is these days; it’s all about matchups.
Bradford ran the spread at Oklahoma, with the Sooners fast-breaking teams into submission. Don’t be mislead by Bradford’s low-key persona; he likes to let it rip.
When Bradford won the Heisman Trophy in 2008, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Sooners went 12-2, led the nation with an average of 51 points a game and lost to Florida in the BCS championship.
Bradford can’t duplicate those video-game numbers in the NFL, but it will be fascinating to watch him evolve as the Rams move from a Jackson offense to a Bradford offense.
I just wonder if Fisher and Schottenheimer will really cut it loose.
I say this because of their respective histories.
During Fisher’s lengthy 16-season run as coach of the Oilers-Titans, his teams ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing attempts per game and were 30th in passing attempts per game.
When Schottenheimer was offensive coordinator for the New York Jets from 2006 through 2011, his unit led the NFL in rushing attempts per game but was only 25th in attempted passes per game.
Fisher’s Titans made the playoffs six times. This is how those playoff-bound offenses ranked in the percentage of snaps used to pass the ball: 23rd, 31st, 30th, 23rd, 32nd and 29th.
Not exactly Air Coryell, eh?
That leads to an obvious question: Are Fisher and Schottenheimer fully prepared to make a drastic break from their longstanding commitment to a ground-and-pound offense?
We saw signs of things opening up last season. In terms of play selection, the Rams threw the ball on 59 percent of their snaps, the 13th-highest percentage in the league. And they gradually turned the offense over to Bradford.
Here’s what I think: Fisher and Schottenheimer are pragmatic. The Rams wouldn’t have stockpiled the requisite talent to support a new weapons system if they planned to stick with a brass-knuckles offense.
“I think you’ve seen it (in the NFL),” Bradford said. “Everyone is throwing the ball more, which I think would indicate it’s more of a finesse, passing speed game instead of a power-run game.”
We may not see Mad Mike II this season. But Fisher has been adamant in his support of Bradford, unwavering in his belief that Sam will become an elite quarterback.
Well, there’s only one way to find out. It’s Boomer Sooner time in St. Louis.