Commentary

Spagnuolo changing culture in St. Louis

Updated: August 3, 2009, 9:52 PM ET
By Chris Mortensen | ESPN

ST. LOUIS -- So I sense a trend. Teams like the Cowboys, Saints and Rams, who all missed the playoffs, have resurrected physical training camps that were growing extinct.

Or maybe it's just what Rams first-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo learned in his 10 years under the Eagles' Andy Reid and the Giants' Tom Coughlin.

The Rams' early camp practices have displayed a rarity in this era: players getting tackled to the ground. Yes, wide receivers are fair game, too.

"You don't want to get stupid about it and lose someone to injury," Spagnuolo said. "But we wanted to establish that we are going to be a physical football team ... change the culture around here."

The Rams' intent was clear under GM Billy Devaney when they hired Spagnuolo and then used their first two draft picks on physical players: offensive tackle Jason Smith (Baylor) and linebacker James Laurinaitis (Ohio State), who are both known for their physical DNA.

Training camp isn't where Spagnuolo began to change the identity. Like many hard-core, consistent, winning teams, he went back to Olympic-style free weight lifts as a core element of the strength and conditioning program.

"It's something we all did in college -- squats, power cleans, all those Olympic lifts -- but we've had the machines around since I've been here until now," Rams running back Steven Jackson said. "You get re-acclimated. It brings a different mindset and body to the program. I like it. Anything beats what's happened here lately."

When you pick second in each of the past two drafts, you can get their attention. As vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff pointed out, "It doesn't hurt physically or in attitude that we've gone from the third-oldest team in the NFL to the third-youngest team. The guys are buying in."

Here's what I saw and learned on the third stop of my training camp bus tour:

  • Spagnuolo was able to coax Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur to run his offense. When I asked Spagnuolo whether the offense will resemble the more pass-oriented Eagles or the smashmouth Giants, he indicated it would be more smashmouth with Jackson "because that's the type of personnel we have."

  • Smith, the second pick in the draft, is at right tackle, with Alex Barron moving to left tackle. Smith's power and aggressiveness already has aggravated some defenders. That's a good thing. Add a huge free-agent pickup in former Ravens center Jason Brown (who can handle the big 3-4 nose tackles) with Richie Incognito moving permanently to guard, and it's easy to forecast the smashmouth theme.

  • Jackson admits he gets far more questions about his fantasy football output than he does about the Rams' chances in 2009. He's able to laugh about it. He now also has one of the best running backs coaches pushing him in Sylvester Croom, the former Mississippi State head coach who served as an NFL assistant for 17 years before that.

  • Marc Bulger is cemented as the starting QB. Donnie Avery, who emerged in his rookie season last year as a big-play receiver, and Laurent Robinson, who was acquired from the Falcons in a trade, will be Bulger's primary targets. Robinson was drafted by Atlanta when Devaney was the assistant GM and he flashed nice potential under Bobby Petrino.

  • No illusions here. No playoff predictions. Just trying to get better, day by day.

  • Interesting sidebar: When asked if Reid or Coughlin ran a more physical training camp, Spagnuolo didn't hesitate: "Reid but, you know, Tom isn't soft." That was a good laugh. But interesting.

  • Spagnuolo is mourning the death of his mentor, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, but was grateful he had the opportunity to visit Johnson in June. "I didn't want to acknowledge it, but I knew there was a chance it may be the last time I'd see Jim, who was a tremendous influence. It's very sad to see him gone."

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.