St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Jim Thomas – October 12, 2008 – During the bye week, Jim Haslett’s first practice as Rams head coach was going great. The players were relaxed, energetic, flying around all over the field.
They were practicing like a team that was 4-0, instead of one that was 0-4 and had just had its head coach (Scott Linehan) fired. But then, the first-team offense threw an interception. Shoulders sagged, and you could feel the letdown, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Haslett couldn’t believe it. This was practice — just practice — and it was still happening.
“Our players don’t have great confidence in themselves,” he said. “They don’t play with the swagger. They don’t believe they can win games at the end.
“We’ve got to change that mindset here in the next three months. Do we have enough time? I don’t know. I’ve never done it in this (short) of a span. I think it does take a little time.”
But if nothing else, Haslett wants to get the players to believe in themselves. So that if something bad happens in a game, they just won’t crumble, as has happened all too often over the last 20 games.
“Something bad happens every game,” Haslett said. “You’re going to get a player hurt. There’s going to be a fumble. There’s going to be an interception. You’re going to give up a play. Well, how do you handle adversity?”
The consistent answer for the Rams since the start of the 2007 has been: Poorly.
— In the 2008 opener against Philadelphia, Tye Hill got burned for a big play and Leonard Little suffered a game-ending hamstring injury on the first series of the game. Did the Rams stiffen up and force a turnover? Limit the Eagles to a field goal? No. They yielded a touchdown. In fact, they yielded touchdowns on their first two defensive series in what became a 38-3 loss.
— In Game 2, the New York Giants got some breathing room midway through the fourth quarter when an 82-yard drive culminated in a TD and a 27-13 lead. Did the Rams bounce back with a score? At least keep the game where it was? No. They collapsed down the stretch in a 41-13 shellacking.
— Game 3 in Seattle. Marc Bulger was sacked and lost a fumble early in the first quarter. A defensive stand would limit the Seahawks to a field goal attempt — but no. The Rams gave up a TD. In fact, they yielded TDs on three of Seattle’s next four possessions en route to a 37-13 drubbing.
— Game 4 vs. Buffalo. A long St. Louis drive resulted in a missed field goal by Josh Brown late in the third quarter, so the Rams nursed a 14-13 lead into the fourth. But on the first play of the final quarter, a Trent Green interception was returned 33 yards for a TD. The Rams had plenty of time to wipe out the 20-14 deficit, but Buffalo scored on its next two possessions to win 31-14.
“I call that resilience — or resiliency,” said Florida-based sports psychologist John F. Murray.
In the Rams case, it’s a lack of resiliency.
“It’s one of the eight major categories of mental training — mental skills — when I do workshops and so forth,” Murray said. “In a football game there’s about 150 moments — called plays — that are opportunities to do well. What happens is, people get so caught up on one play, they don’t bounce back from it.
“They’re thinking in the past, and they haven’t moved beyond it. It’s like in golf. If you hit a bad shot, does your whole day go south? Or do you pull yourself together and do well the next hole?”
Murray has worked with Olympians, NFL quarterbacks, golfers, and tennis players. He has even developed a method for defining how football teams perform from moment to moment with what he calls an MPI, or Mental Performance Index.
In an intensely competitive sport such as football even the most successful teams are going to “lose” on nearly half of their plays.
“(Players) have to prepare for that — to not change your approach based on the previous moment,” Murray said. “Take each moment as a unique opportunity to excel.”
When the opposite happens, Murray calls it “being a slave to the situation.”
For the Rams, the problem is deepening because this has been going on for a while. The team has lost 17 of its last 20, including eight in a row dating back to the final month of last season.
“There’s a huge principle here at play,” Murray said. “It’s called modeling or social facilitation. … If I’m hanging around slobs in terms of performance, I’m going to become that.”
It is this recent culture of losing that Haslett and others are trying to end at Rams Park. Just over half of the current 53-man roster — 27 players — have never played in an NFL playoff game. Forty-five players — or all but eight members of the current roster — have never played in the postseason as a Ram. So this particular group has experienced very little recent success together.
“So much has to do with the leadership, and what’s called the team mindset,” Murray said. “You can’t afford to be negative. It’s not acceptable in a successful organization to be moping around. But it’s so easy to do if you’ve lost 17 out of 20.”
Haslett, obviously, shares many of the same opinions. He thinks the Rams’ problems are more mental than physical. And although he knows the Rams don’t have the kind of elite talent up and down the roster like a Dallas, for instance, or a healthy San Diego, he adds: “I do think we have enough players to win.”
Easier said than done, of course. But Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders witnessed it a decade ago on Dick Vermeil’s Rams staff, when a team that had won four games in 1998 became Super Bowl champions the following season.
“So how do you change a culture?” Saunders said. “You try to change kind of the emotion and the feeling of where you’re going to go. That there’s a positive direction down the road. You can’t let all of the things around you affect that direction.
“Dick never allowed it to be an environment that was downtrodden or negative. It was always, ‘We’re going to get better; just keep working.’ ”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a young Marshall Faulk around. Or to stumble upon an MVP quarterback in the making such as Kurt Warner.