In the early days of baseball's spring training, the days roll along as easily as the gentle early spring Florida trade winds. Everything about spring training is about easy rhythms, as the players are allowed to ease their way back into baseball at a piecemeal pace.
Baseball is the sport that slowly unfolds. Football is the sport that bursts out at you like a John Madden TV commercial. In the early days of an NFL training camp, even when it's carefully designed to have a less stressful tempo — no pads, shorter practices and non-contact drills — the basic nature of the game simply refuses to let it come at you at spring training's relaxed pace.
On Tuesday at Rams Park, in the 100-degree suffocating heat that made the practice field feel like a slow-roasting oven, Jeff Fisher's Rams were not exactly easing their way into the preseason. They were in shorts and no full pads, and they were still two days away from the team's first full-contact practice on Thursday afternoon. But in this blistering heat, players on both sides of the ball were flying around, precariously dancing on the edge of full-scale contact.
Thursday can't come soon enough. These incredibly large, fast and physical men were in no mood for touch football. After the last few days practicing in this oppressive heat, you could see how eager these players are to get rid of the shells, put on the full pads and engage in some serious athletic wars of aggression.
"I can't wait," said offensive tackle Roger Saffold, grinning like a Cheshire cat. "I'm tired of all this stuff (he grabs the front of his soaking wet jersey and yanks on it). That's all we've been doing since OTA's and mini-camp. I want to feel some pop."
Snap, crackle and pop. Those are football's sweetest sounds. And maybe a little thunder, too. In individual drills and 11-on-11s, too, despite the NFL's valiant attempts to curb the hitting in the early days of camp, the linemen on both sides of the ball were already engaging in some assertive hand-to-hand combat.
If you are unfamiliar with the Jeff Fisher way of football, Thursday would have been a good day to show up at Rams Park and get a crash course on the roughneck attitude he wants to instill, but that practice day is closed to the public. It will be the first day of full contact, and this will be the first opportunity to see how aggressive and physical he likes the game to be played. His players are bigger, and maybe just a bit meaner, too. When push comes to shove, Fisher's teams will do both. That's why he brought Pro Bowl hitman Courtland Finnegan to anchor his secondary and establish a nasty attitude. And it's why his training camps will be a lot more physical than we've seen around here in a while.
"Absolutely," said Finnegan, who was mixing it up with wide receiver Danny Amendola in practice Tuesday, setting a particularly aggressive tempo that Amendola immediately responded to. "The guys that were here before — guys like Chris Long, (James) Laurinaitis, Eugene (Simms) — they have the attitude, too. Now you just bring in the right components to help them from top to bottom — with players and the coaching — and it produces the sort of attitude we want to have. We want to be a fearless defense. It's just intensity. You have to be willing to play with an attitude on defense. You have to be willing to never back down, and that's what we did."
Fisher likes his players big, tough and physical, which is why he drafted a man-mountain with the first pick in last April's draft (6-foot-5, 322-pound defensive tackle Michael Brockers) and signed another monstrous defensive tackle (6-6, 309 veteran Kendall Langford) as a free agent.
"Big, tough and physical? Yeah, I'm all of the above," said Langford, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal after five years in Miami. "I'm a big, tough guy. I'm a physical player. I'm ready to get this thing going. I can't emphasize enough how much I'm ready to get the pads on."
When you look up and down the Rams roster, one of the most obvious changes you'll see is how many big, really big players are roaming around. There are 15 linemen on the roster 6-5 or taller and 21 linemen who tip the scales at 300 pounds or more. And while those numbers off of a training-camp 89-man roster number can't be compared fairly to a smaller 53-man regular-season roster (a year ago, the regular-season roster ended up with six linemen over 6-5 and 11 over 300 pounds), it does tell you how Fisher and general manager Les Snead are building this roster from the inside out.
Bigger and nastier will be expected on a Fisher defense, and it will be a much-needed change of pace for a Rams offense that has for far too long been known as a rather soft and easily intimidated unit. If that nasty attitude is contagious, then offensive guard Harvey Dahl — who is about as mean and physical as any offensive lineman in football — will soon be surrounded by men of a like mind. Pro Bowl center Scott Wells is no joke, either. Jason Smith has shown flashes of a mean streak in him, too. But both he and Saffold have to show that attitude on every single play. If they do, they will be the sort of mean-spirited bodyguards Sam Bradford needs.
"That's something that we want to do," said Dahl. "We think that's something we need to do to win games. Be physical, do not let people bowl you over. That's what we're emphasizing. That's what's important to us."
And on Thursday afternoon, it won't take long to see what Dahl's talking about and what Finnegan and Langford love. There will be no easing their way into that mind-set. Wicked hand-to-hand combat. Snap, crackle and pop. Football's sweetest sounds.