Gordon: Hard work pays big for Long

2012-07-30T11:00:00Z 2012-07-30T22:50:33Z Gordon: Hard work pays big for LongBY JEFF GORDON stltoday.com
July 30, 2012 11:00 am  • 

Rams defensive end Chris Long is a study in perseverance.

Even as his football team collapsed around him the past few years, Long kept getting better. He developed into a very good player on a remarkably inept squad.

Failed Rams coaches came and went. Failed teammates came and went. Frustration mounted at Rams Park and many players folded up under the strain.

Yet Long kept working away, earning respect from opponents with his relentless playing style.

Many fans remained skeptical. They clung to the notion that he is a draft bust. They insisted he is over-hyped due to his bloodlines. They predicted he would never live up to the high standard set by his father, former NFL star Howie Long.

Unlike many second overall draft picks, Long is not an athletic freak. He doesn’t make a lot of highlight reel plays. He doesn’t blow past tackles like Jared Allen or a young Jevon Kearse.

He persists and makes a lot of pursuit tackles and second-effort sacks.

Fans hammered him in the chat rooms and message boards week after week, year after year. Many saw him as the face of the team’s startling failure under Scott Linehan, Jim Haslett and Steve Spagnuolo.

But even as the Rams were reaching new lows last season, Long was breaking out. His 13 sacks nearly matched his total (13½) from the previous two seasons combined.

The Rams have rewarded Long’s diligence with a four-year contract extension. “It’s actually nice to see some guys drafted and not move on. We keep them around,” running back Steven Jackson said after Sunday’s training camp session. “I was really stoked for him, and I gave him a big hug when I heard about the news.”

Long should continue his growth in Jeff Fisher’s defense with speed rusher Robert Quinn on the other side of the line and the entire unit exuding more confidence.

“I can get a ton better so you know that’s my goal,” Long said. “My goal is to get better every year, get smarter, prepare better and I’ve got a lot to focus on in camp here. I’ll certainly come out every day and try to work hard to be a part of this defense. I think it can be pretty special and I’ll try to pull my weight.”

Many players might have been eager to flee a franchise that has done so much losing. Many might have looked forward to free agency and the opportunity to play elsewhere.

“Absolutely I’ve been here along with some other guys for some years now and I’ve seen the downs,” Long said. “When it turns around I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be watching it from somewhere else. I’d like to be here.”

Long had high hopes for the Spagnuolo Regime. Spags brought sterling credentials as a defensive coordinator and his vision for reversing the team’s fortunes seemed clear.

Unfortunately, the scope of head-coaching responsibility was too much for Spags, who had his hand in every small aspect of the franchise operation. The Rams crumbled on his watch.

Owner Stan Kroenke dug deep and spent what it took to attract a proven head coach. Fisher's hiring lifted the spirits of Long and the other cornerstone players.

Finally the long-struggling franchise has a chance to regain some traction.

“When Coach Fish got here and gave us some hope,” Long said. “He does things the right way and I think Les has a vision for it. Stan’s obviously a great owner, so he’ll put a team of coaches . . . and GM (Les Snead), and players, we’re starting to assemble and I just want to be a part of it.”

Fisher unloaded a lot of veterans after sifting through the wreckage of the 2011 season. In Long he saw a keeper.

“You’re only as good as your next snap and what you put on tape and how you work when you are here at Rams Park,” Long said. “For me I didn’t assume anything. I certainly just tried all season and didn’t expect anything. I’m just very lucky to be where I am, obviously, and I’ve got some guys who I think very highly of behind me.”

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Jeff Gordon

This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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