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Did Fisher find fit for Bradford?

Schottenheimer could be most important person at Rams Park

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When the Rams hired Brian Schottenheimer to coordinate their offense and oversee the development of quarterback Sam Bradford, I received an email from a friend in New York. He's a passionate Jets fan.

His two-word message: "My condolences."

I don't tell the story to make Schottenheimer look bad as he begins a new career phase in St. Louis, running the offense for first-year head coach Jeff Fisher. I care about what Schottenheimer does from this day forward.

Considering what's at stake — Bradford's career arc — I believe Schottenheimer is the most important employee at Rams Park in 2012.

I offered the snarky email sample to underline a point: Jets fans were pleased, perhaps even deliriously happy, when Schottenheimer "resigned" after a disappointing 2011 season to end his six-year run as the team's offensive coordinator.

This is fascinating. Is Schottenheimer getting a fair shake? He didn't work in the most stable environment in New York. He endured frequent changes in key areas.

Schottenheimer served under two head coaches, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. He had four starting quarterbacks in six years: the injury-prone Chad Pennington, the old and declining Brett Favre, the scrappy journeyman Kellen Clemens and the young and enigmatic Mark Sanchez.

Thomas Jones, Schottenheimer's most productive running back, left as a free agent. So did the Jets' terrific all-purpose player, former Mizzou quarterack Brad Smith.

The five receivers (wideouts and tight ends) targeted for the most passing attempts over the six seasons were Jerricho Cotchery, Dustin Keller, Laveraneus Coles, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards.

Holmes came to the Jets with considerable baggage after the Pittsburgh Steelers grew disenchanted with his off-field problems. Edwards, who had some good seasons, is still looking for a job this summer after spending the last three years with three different teams.

With Schottenheimer directing the offense, the Jets made it to the playoffs three times in six seasons and twice reached the AFC championship game with Sanchez at QB.

I'm inclined to give Schottenheimer the benefit of the doubt. New York enjoys gnawing on scapegoats, and he was a convenient target. Jets' management wasn't going to fire Ryan after last season's 8-8 fizzle; it was easy to dump blame on Schottenheimer.

That said, I have no reason to be a Schottenheimer apologist, either. Truth is, I don't know what to expect from him.

Schottenheimer's critics can look at his six-year record and find what they need to make a case against him. But Schottenheimer's supporters can study the identical six-season block and find reasons to defend him.

For example: one of the biggest gripes about Schottenheimer was his alleged impatience with running the football. He was accused of being whimsical and pass-happy. But over Schottenheimer's six seasons the Jets led the NFL in rushing attempts and rushing yards.

In New York, Sanchez is generally portrayed as an overrated and underachieving talent with a fragile psyche. If Sanchez is so inferior, then what was Schottenheimer supposed to do about it?

If Schottenheimer takes the hit for Sanchez's mediocrity, then how do we explain the quarterback's outstanding postseason play? Sanchez is 4-2 in the playoffs, with all six games being played on the road. He had nine touchdowns, three interceptions, a passer rating of 94.3 and won games in the lions' dens at Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh.

Sanchez performed so well under postseason pressure, Schottenheimer became a hot name on the list of head-coaching candidates. But now he's a bum?

This is confusing. Just when I thought it was safe to conclude that Schottenheimer got a raw deal, a few disturbing numbers gave me pause.

With Schottenheimer as supervisor, Jets' quarterbacks never had a single-season passer rating higher than 82.1. Over the six-year period, the Jets ranked 27th among the 32 NFL teams in passer rating (76.1). They were 20th in sacks allowed per passing play. They were 26th in yards per passing attempt, and 22nd in completion percentage. The Jets' all-important ratio of touchdown passes (112) to interceptions (111) ranked 28th.

In several of the cited categories, the Jets weren't much better than the Rams from 2006-2011. That realization is a bit unsettling.

We've already cited extenuating circumstances that may go a long way in exonerating Schottenheimer. Still, when you look at the passing-game numbers you can't help but wonder: was Schottenheimer really Fisher's best option to take charge of Bradford's career?

Oh, and there's this: Marshall Faulk, the Rams' Hall of Fame running back, is clearly on the side of the Schottenheimer skeptics.

"I don't think there was a huge difference between how the Jets' offense looked and how the Rams' offense looked," Faulk told reporters in January, before Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. "You can take that how you want to."

Oh, my.

Here's what I propose: let's evaluate Schottenheimer based on his work with Bradford and a young group of Rams receivers. The debate over his coaching in New York is interesting, but it doesn't matter now.

Fisher obviously believes in Schottenheimer. The head coach understands the tremendous importance of getting Bradford on track and progressing to an elite level. This was a crucial hire for Fisher.

Based on his comments, Fisher has specific demands for this offense: a bullish running game, an emphasis on enhanced pass protection, and across-the-board efficiency. Schottenheimer surely knows what the boss wants; there is no ambiguity with Fisher.

If you're looking for early positives, Schottenheimer and Bradford have hit it off and appear to be forming a promising partnership. Fisher is pleased with Bradford's knowledge of the new offense.

Then again, that's easy to say now. I've made the mistake of inflating party balloons based on camp practices and preseason dress rehearsals. The real test doesn't begin until the first real game, at Detroit on Sept. 9.

If Bradford and the team's precocious receivers develop into something special, the Rams will rise again. If Bradford stalls and the newbie receivers become the latest names added to the Rams' pitiful roll call of draft-day busts, the Rams will continue to flop around at the bottom of the NFL.

Schottenheimer has a chance to silence Faulk and the squawking in New York. He has an opportunity to mold Bradford, and pull the Rams out of the swamp. But if this doesn't work, the Rams will sink deeper into the abyss.

Or maybe head to Los Angeles, for that matter.

You could say that there's a lot at stake.

That's why Brian Schottenheimer looms as the most important person at Rams Park.

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