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PLAYING IT OUT

10/24/2008 - Minnesota Vikings
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So these two men, the lone survivors of a shipwreck, are seated in a dinghy. All around them, there's nothing but ocean. Each man uses a single oar to row the boat in a direction they hope will eventually lead to land. After several days of fruitless effort one man says: "I think we should stop and pray to God."

"Yeah, we can pray to God," says the other man. "But keep on rowing."

Rick Venturi, the former defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, told me that story. Five games into the 1991 season, Venturi was named the interim coach for a team on the way to a dreadful 1-15 season. To survive, he infused the difficult operation with his own brand of wisdom.

Sometimes, when a team really sucks, their season is effectively over by late September. And the question is frequently asked by fans and media, what keeps a guy motivated? If the team is struggling, what prevents its separate members from just going through the motions? Pay is one. At the end of the day, everyone still needs to pay their bills. That's not a cliché, just one of those annoying facts of life. But there is something shiny inside this coal of unoriginal pragmatism. It's called professional pride.

Rams safety Corey Chavous embodies that pride. By the time coach Scott Linehan was fired on September 29, the 0-4 Rams' season was, for all intents and purposes over. But Chavous keeps on playing, just like he always has. Chavous is one of those preternaturally positive types for whom the big picture always eclipses the smaller one.

"Sometimes the worst situations bring about the greatest source of strength," says Chavous. "But no matter what, I just enjoy the NFL experience."

In Chavous' 11 years, his experience has certainly yielded some bad situations.

From '98 to 2001, Chavous toiled for the Arizona Cardinals, who, during that span went 25 up and 39 down, including two seasons with a total of 9 wins.

"Losing like we did was tough to swallow," says Chavous. "When you're losing, the margin for error is so slim. If you're not performing, you're out. There were times when I wondered if I was even going to be in the league for long."

Though he was a second round pick, Chavous was right to be on edge. There are no scholarships in professional football, especially for a losing team. In fact, most teams don't take the team picture until almost midway through the year. It's usually takes about that long before the roster is set. And those guys who were on the opening day roster but whose likeness is missing from the team photo?

"Some guys definitely shut it down when the team is losing," says Chavous. "So you lose a few guys every year." To drive his point home, he invokes his own maritime simile. "I look at this like being on a ship," says Chavous. "When the ship pulls into the dock and starts to unload, you want to make sure you're still part of the cargo."

But Chavous says he was taught, at a very early age, how an individual should conduct himself in a team game. His uncle Barney Chavous, who played the defensive line for the Denver Broncos for thirteen years, instilled in his nephew a practical approach to things. "Your knowledge of the game can never be underestimated," says Chavous. "Regardless of the team's record, you study film and prepare the same way every week." Like always he watched film, in the process reducing opposing offenses to situational tendencies. What do they do on first down and ten, second down and three to five yards, second down and ten to fifteen yards, third down and three to five yards, third down and eight to fifteen yards, etc.

That attention to detail paid off in the 2003 season. After signing as free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, Chavous had the best year of his career. His eight picks were second best in the league and he went to the Pro Bowl. So what changed from his days a member of the 6-10 Arizona Cardinals in 2001?

"Absolutely nothing," says Chavous. "The way I prepared then was the way I had always prepared," says Chavous. "If you call yourself a professional, you're consistently trying to improve yourself."

The minutia of game planning in the Rams meeting room has led to a two game winning streak. Who knows how long it will last. But even if it doesn't, Rams defensive players can count on the daily tedium being interrupted by former linebacker coach and now interim defensive coordinator—Rick Venturi. The name makes Chavous laugh. "Man, he's a great story teller and a great coach," says Chavous. "He has this infectious energy. And the stories he tells are as much about life as they are about football."

Precisely.

A couple of years ago I reminded him of the rowboat story while he was the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints. We were seated on a bench at San Jose State University, just days after Katrina led to the Saints evacuating their homes en route to Oakland.

"I said that?" asked Venturi. "I like that one."

I told him I did too. It was one of the few things I remembered from that season.