On Hard Knocks, Jeff Fisher told his team that he wouldn’t be tolerating "7-9 bullshit" any longer and gave the world exactly the soundbite it needed to mock him every time the Rams lose this season. People say stupid things all time [Disclosure: I’m terrible at talking to more than one person at any time], but no one gets their words thrown back at them like embattled public figures.
The spirit of Fisher’s words are fine. All he’s saying is, "We here at the Rams organization hold ourselves to a high standard, much higher than OK like we’ve been for a while," and "this year will be different and better I promise," which is what 31 of 32 NFL head coaches say to their teams every year.
But man, he really shouldn’t have brought up the 7-9 thing. He was exhorting his team to never settle for mediocre behavior or results, but at the same time glossing over the fact that 7-9 is associated with him more than the franchise. Fisher’s Rams have won seven games in three of the last four seasons, but mediocre football has followed Fisher going back to the Oilers and Titans, with whom he finished with six to eight wins in eight of his 16 full seasons as head coach.
And that’s weird, because the fact that he brought up 7-9 at all means he has to be aware of what people are saying about him specifically, which is that he’s a mediocre coach skating on his personability and relationships.
Cut to the season opener.
The Los Angeles Rams were shut out on Monday Night Football, 28-0, in what we can only pray will be the worst game we see all season. Last season, it would have had the eighth-worst output by total yardage (2016 is off to a roiling start, Bills-Ravens would have been third) out of 256 total games played. Case Keenum threw two interceptions and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt, and is two spots ahead of the 2016 No. 1 overall pick on the depth chart.
A good defense did its best, but its spirit broke after the Rams offense ended 11 straight drives with a punt or interception. The 49ers finished a 77-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter after their previous six drives averaged minus-0.8 yards. On their next possession, the Niners got to the end zone in 11 plays over 80 yards, 27 of which came from penalties that Aaron Donald earned in an on-field outburst.
Right now, the Rams may be preparing to give head coach Jeff Fisher a contract extension, which would put him in never-ventured air. Fisher hasn’t coached a football team with a winning record since 2008 and is now 27-37-1 in four-plus years as the Rams’ head coach. No NFL coach since the merger has ever had a losing record through his first four seasons and stayed. Fisher is the first to ever get a fifth season, and he could be rewarded on top of that.
Los Angeles fans bought out season tickets, even after St. Louis fans tried to warn them by not showing up when the Rams were theirs. The Rams, and Fisher, are in a grace period that could last through the 2019 season when the new stadium opens. Unless something changes, however, LA is going to come to realize it bought a bill of goods.
It’ll be curious to see how long the honeymoon lasts for the Los Angeles Rams. We know it exists for teams that recently moved or built new stadiums, but experts also believe it’s much shorter than it used to be, and in this situation in particular — a well-known loser moving to a fickle sports city that already shunned it once — that period could be especially short.
At least in that context, Jeff Fisher’s tenure makes sense. He was the head coach of the Houston Oilers when they moved to Tennessee and eventually became the Titans. The team went 8-8 in its last season in Houston and first two seasons in Tennessee when it was playing in temporary stadiums in Memphis and Nashville. In 1999, the year that the Oilers became the Titans and Adelphia Stadium opened, the team improved to 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl.
The not-so-crazy conspiracy theory is that Rams owner Stan Kroenke hired Fisher knowing full well he wanted to move the franchise to Los Angeles. By extending Fisher, Kroenke could be trying to ensure that the team will keep an even keel while it plays out several seasons in temporary housing.
Former players can vouch for Fisher. Last year, former Oilers and Titans kicker Al Del Greco told SB Nation that he credits Fisher for keeping the team calm during a difficult transition.
The whole situation in Memphis was such a fiasco that most of the people in the crowd were for the other team there, too. So we were almost a team in limbo for a little while, and I've always said that's one of the things I admired about Coach [Jeff] Fisher so much was we never used it as an excuse, we never used it as a motivating factor. He always kept it where all we had was each other, and this organization and the people in this locker room are the ones that can make something of this and can get by.
If Fisher’s familiarity with a relocation is all that’s keeping him in place, however, then his unique job security is based on a sample size of one. Fisher did a lot of good helping the Oilers become the Titans, but that was another era. Del Greco specifically praised how Fisher never used relocation as an excuse. Twenty years after the Oilers left Houston, and just after Rams lost to the 49ers, Fisher cited relocation as one of the biggest reasons his team was pasted on the scoreboard.
Jeff Fisher credited SF. I asked how team could play so poorly w/ 7 months to prepare. Said no excuses but added team moved 4x in 7 months.— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) September 13, 2016
Fisher isn’t wrong, either. Relocation is an incredible stress on players, who suddenly have to arrange a move, find new housing, scope out schools for their kids and create a new routine. But if relocation is affecting the team — and according to Fisher, it is — then the argument that he’s particularly skilled at navigating a relocated franchise doesn’t really hold.
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One of the last things keeping Fisher afloat is his pattern of success. He was the head coach of the Oilers/Titans for four-plus seasons before they had a winning season, but his first team above .500 nearly hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. He went 56-24 over a five-year stretch, and even managed 10- and 13-win seasons in the middle of an otherwise middling final seven years in Nashville.
So there’s a point of reference to say that, in time, Jeff Fisher teams do ultimately get their act together and excel. But that’s banking on a distant result, which is a dicey thing to do when the Rams for the last few years have been considered a talented team but for a quarterback. And that quarterback problem may be insoluble. Touted quarterbacks like Vince Young and Sam Bradford both failed to develop under Fisher’s watch, and now Jared Goff can’t even get on the active roster.
When Fisher was hired, the expectation was that he would succeed as he had before. Now the motivating factor for his continued employment, if he does get that rumored extension, can only be hope that the franchise didn’t get scammed. All that he has left to sell now is a promise of distant prosperity.
It’s an emotional Ponzi scheme, basically.
In Fisher’s own words, too. He continued his increasingly infamous "7-9 bullshit" speech by imploring his players to buy in.
You guys take ownership in this thing, OK? You take ownership and you take your ownership and you trust that I know what I'm doing and we're going to be just fine.
Monday night wasn’t the collapse. People like Fisher, from owners to players to the media and on down. He’s a personable man who has been able to beat his rivals semi-regularly and motivate his players to — if nothing else — play physically. But a scam can emerge from desperation just as well as it can from maliciousness.
Fisher is self-aware, we know that now. He’s fighting for his future as much as the franchise’s. And in that context, the man who has to reassure everyone they’ll be rewarded for their investment seems like a warning that they won’t.
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