Make no mistake: Jeff Fisher has had his imprint on the Rams since the first day he walked through the door in 2012.
But perhaps 2014 will actually represent the first time that his original vision for this team will come into focus.
Gregg Williams is the man Fisher wanted to run his defense all along. It wasn’t Blake Williams, Rob Ryan or Tim Walton. Blake Williams did a fine job in 2012, but following his dismissal, reports surfaced that he was abrasive and didn’t get along with the rest of the staff. Ryan would have been a fine hire a year ago, but he wanted to leave his own imprint on the defense, not be the face of Fisher’s brainchild.
Walton, meanwhile, never left his imprint on anything, and that was part of the problem. While everyone knew when he was hired that he would essentially be running Fisher’s defense, the expectation was that he would help develop some of the young personnel in the Rams’ secondary. He did a nice job in Detroit helping youngsters like Jonte Green and Don Carey become contributors, and veteran Chris Houston arguably had his finest season under Walton as well.
But the secondary was a problem for the Rams all season and, while some of that had to do with talent, depth, injuries and youth, the unit never improved as a whole. Should blame rest solely at Walton’s feet? Absolutely not. But if Fisher felt compelled to take over the play-calling duties midseason and Walton wasn’t having an impact on the defensive backfield (his supposed bread and butter), then why keep him around?
Regardless, the last 48 hours haven’t been about Walton. Williams has a Super Bowl ring as a defensive coordinator, has worked closely with Fisher in the past and was deemed “the best defensive coach I’ve ever had” by former player Jabari Greer. Walton may have eventually grown into the position and, under different circumstances, maybe he would have been a fine defensive coordinator. But patience has run out in St. Louis, and the expectations are (and should be) that this team puts together a winning season next year.
Hiring Williams displays a sense of urgency on the part of Fisher and the Rams. He’s aggressive, intense and experienced. The goal is that he’ll mesh perfectly with a young defense that isn’t short on talent (especially in the front seven), but needs to play with more consistency. Williams will also hold players accountable, and he does an excellent job of playing to players’ strengths and masking their weaknesses. (Look at what he did with the ’09 New Orleans defense, which wasn’t exactly overflowing with marquee talent.)
About a month into last season, Fisher realized that what the Rams were doing on both sides of the ball wasn’t working. After spending months installing a pass-first spread attack, Fisher went back to the run-heavy approach that made him successful in Tennessee. He also got more aggressive on defense, which thankfully included not aligning his cornerbacks eight yards off the ball. Unfortunately the changes came too late, especially in the wake of Sam Bradford’s season-ending injury.
The Rams are far from a finished product under Fisher. Safety will become an even bigger need when Williams comes aboard, and the defense could also use another cornerback and outside linebacker. The offensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark of the offseason, and the health status of Bradford and left tackle Jake Long are up in the air as well.
But next year, the Rams will know from the start what their identity is on both sides of the ball. First and foremost, they’re going to be physical. They’re also going to pound the ball on the ground offensively, and they’re going to let quarterbacks have it defensively. (That’s not a reference to Bountygate, if anyone is wondering; I firmly believe that the man served his time, so let’s move on.)
Hopefully next year, this team won’t waste a full month trying to figure out who they are. And hiring the guy that Fisher wanted all along to run his defense will certainly help in that regard.