Spagnuolo to the Rams: Stay the Course, Men!

Ernest Shackleton and his crew in Antarctica

Coach Spagnuolo had this message in his Monday press conference: “We’re not going to abandon what we’re doing.” This is either an incredible sign of faith in the mission, the plan, his men and their abilities that will be rewarded with an incredible turnaround, or it will be the epitaph inscribed on the headstone of his career here.

The Rams, at 0-4, are several steps behind where we thought they would be. In the games that we predicted hard-fought and exciting victories (at New York, vs Washington), they’ve suffered uneven losses doomed by their own mistakes. In the games where we expected hard-fought but tough losses (vs Philadelphia, vs Baltimore), they’ve been blown out of the water. 

Meanwhile, the other teams in the division have been putting results on the scoreboard that show an effort and progress that we expected our team to be making. The 49ers sit atop the NFC West with a 3-1 record that looks a lot more legitimate after a phenomenal comeback win over the scuffling Eagles. 

There has been a lot of talk about leadership, or the lack of it, in Rams Park. There has been a lot of talk about whether or not the players are responding to the coaching staff’s message this season, especially as compared to his first two years here. But great leadership is tested far more in times of collosal failure than in times of easy success. 

In the annals of sea exploration, one of the most charismatic and effective leaders was a man by the name of Ernest Shackleton. He was also a spectacular failure as an explorer. His crews failed to get to the North Pole before Admiral Byrd, and failed to get to the South Pole before Roald Amundsen. Undaunted, he persuaded the English Parliament to fund yet another expedition, this one being the first to cross the Antarctic continent.

The story of this voyage went horrifically bad just a few weeks after it launched from Buenos Aires. Their ice-breaking ship, the Endurance, never reached land. It was engulfed by unusually strong pack ice, lifted from the water, ultimately crushed and sunk. The 28-man crew was stranded with only the food and supplies they could carry in a series of rowboats, which had to be dragged across the ice. 

Of course, this was nothing different from what Shackleton had promised in his ad, recruiting crew members:

    MEN WANTED for Hazardous Journey, Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Safe Return Doubtful, Honor and Recognition in Case of Success.

    Ernest SHACKLETON.

By all accounts, Shackleton wasn’t a shouter, a badger, a man to employ cheap emotional tricks to motivate his men. They had already signed on to this impossible journey, and now were stranded and facing certain death. What Shackleton had was an unstoppable faith in a positive outcome, and the ability to compel men to accept a common reality and strive toward a common goal.

Two years later, after exhausting their supplies and subsisting on a diet of mostly penguins and fish, all 28 men were returned alive to Argentina. Their mission was a spectacular failure; their return was an unbelievable achievement. 

In some ways, Spagnuolo finds himself in a similar situation. There is no sympathy for a man who knowingly launches himself and his team on an impossible task, and encouters immediate failure. Indeed, there can be no time for sympathy. Reality demands that you immediately take stock and determine what is necessary to continue.

The theme for the rest of this season is “survival.” Somehow, Spagnuolo has to keep this team’s hopes alive, somehow has to keep the faith in his defensive scheme, and McDaniels’ offensive scheme, intact. Faith is absolutely necessary for execution — indeed, it is the most essential of his “four pillars.” The half-second of doubt that interrupts the signal from your instinctual brain to your body is the moment when blocks are lost, routes stumble, and balls are dropped.

Whether we as fans believe or not is beside the point. If you are in the Shackleton mindset, you can’t afford to care what outcome others predict for you.

Sam Bradford is coming to grips with that now.

“You have no idea. It gets to you. It changes your whole week. You start thinking about it … don’t want to talk to people … don’t want to go out in public … don’t want to do anything. You just want to figure out a way to win a football game.”

Bradford shouldn’t feel ashamed of that. This is a time for the team to withdraw, to look inward, and to refocus themselves on the task ahead.

The one benefit that the crew of the Endurance had over these Rams was that they didn’t have tens of thousands of angry voices tweeting and chirping in their ears while they went about the business of salvaging themselves from the wreckage of their voyage. Overcoming your own inner voice is difficult enough.