Jeff Fisher took a year off from coaching, and traveled around the country, and saw the world. He had fun during his break from the daily grind and pressure of the coaching life. His No. 1 highlight was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
When Fisher returned to coaching, he signed on to make a more imposing and hazardous climb. Fisher took over the Rams, a woebegone franchise that from 2007-2011 lost more games (65) over a five-season stretch than any team in NFL history.
It is a franchise in flux, with owner Stan Kroenke making fans restless and fearful of a move to Los Angeles. You could say there are more attractive situations in the NFL. On the field, the Rams have averaged three wins over the last five seasons. Away from the field, fans are being beaten down by LA rumors.
Welcome to St. Louis, Coach.
The assignment isn't for the faint of heart. Mike Martz reached the Super Bowl, lost in an epic upset, then slowly cracked. The last two full-time head coaches to give it a go were buried under a rock-slide of losses. Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo came to Earth City with smiles and optimism. Their combined record as head coach: 21-63.
When Linehan and Spagnuolo were fired, it seemed like the merciful thing to do. The unrelenting punishment of the job turned two good men into paranoid, uptight wrecks.
This description does not match a rested and ready Fisher.
"I love this game," Fisher said. "I have great respect for our owner, and I made a commitment to him to get him a trophy. And I'm going to start working towards that."
That would be the Vince Lombardi Trophy, handed to the yearly Super Bowl champion. Lombardi? Most fans would be happy with 8-8 for now. But as his first Rams' training camp gets under way, Fisher has no desire to lower expectations. You won't hear him talking about reconstruction zones and five-year plans.
"Every training camp I've started as a head coach or assistant, it felt like my first," Fisher said. "This one feels like it's my first [ever] training camp. You go into it with a willingness to learn, with energy. With willingness to put a team together that has high expectations. That goes out expecting to win every game."
Fisher, 54, is one of the more confident individuals you'll ever encounter, and the Rams need that. More than anything, they need better football players — and lots of them. And they need to do a more effective job of teaching and coaching players.
Strategy wasn't the primary issue for Linehan and Spagnuolo. Like many insecure first-time NFL head coaches, the pressure of the job consumed them. They worried about having total control and wanted to make all of the personnel decisions. They built walls and bunkers and fretted over silly matters that had little to do with game-day success.
Linehan and Spags could never complete that difficult jump from assistant to head coach. They couldn't fill the big meeting room with their presence. That won't be a problem for Fisher.
Obviously confidence and experience don't lead to automatic success. Fisher had some forgettable seasons in Tennessee, but it wasn't an easy job. Early on, he had the challenge of coaching a team that moved from Houston to Nashville, with a one-season stop in Memphis in between. Fisher had to keep the peace with a zany owner, Bud Adams, who liked to make 'suggestions." That's how Fisher ended up with Vince Young at quarterback.
Fisher didn't win a Super Bowl in his 16 full seasons as coach of the Oilers-Titans. It's easy to pick apart his record, dismiss it as nothing special. But once the franchise put down firm roots in Nashville, Fisher's teams had a .600 winning percentage over a 10-season stretch. From 1999 through 2008, only Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia won more games than Tennessee.
When you're fifth among 32 teams in victories over 10 seasons, that tells me you can coach. In the middle of the run, Tennessee had severe salary-cap problems and had to rebuild on the fly. Fisher got it done. But a coach can take only so many years of Bud Adams.
Fisher and first-year GM Les Snead can look forward to functioning smoothly in St. Louis. Kroenke has empowered his football men and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and won't be meddling.
There's a lot of work to do. The Rams appear to be vulnerable at offensive tackle. They don't have an established left guard. They're thin at outside linebacker and safety. They have many receivers that fit the same profile: young, talented, unproven. This is an important season for third-year quarterback Sam Bradford, who should benefit from the sounder, smarter approach being taken by new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
I don't know how many games the Rams will win. It's like asking me to tell you who will win the lottery. I think we can agree that this will take some time. And that Snead and Fisher need to strike it rich in the draft and free agency.
The Rams should have better personnel a year from now, and two years from now. You simply don't take over a 15-65 team and parachute into the playoffs in one season.
Don't tell Fisher that.
"If I were to say we'll go 10-6, what do I tell the players about the six games we're going to lose? That's not fair to them," Fisher said. "I'm coming out and saying it's OK to lose six games? No, I'm not going to say that.
"You've got to start over, every single year. And there's no reason why we can't have the same expectations that everyone else has."
The Rams finally have a strong, confident leader in the building. If Fisher is nearly as good as he thinks he is, he'll eventually deliver a winner. In 2012, it starts with Fisher and staff maximizing the ability of every player until more talent arrives.
The long climb begins now, with the Rams starting from the bottom of the NFL. In Jeff Fisher, the Rams finally have a coach who isn't afraid of heights.