Rams Camp – A Surreal Paradise Ten Miles From Ferguson

The afternoon of Tuesday, August 12th, gave Saint Louis clear blue skies with the sun waning and temperatures under 80 degrees as Rams players and hopefuls ran out onto a sparkling green field. It was easy — surreally easy — to forget that riot police and angry protestors were staking out lines for another battle just ten miles away.

Like many other of my followers and friends in the Rams fan community, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent tidal forces of a community in anguish and law enforcement in crisis have had my head spinning for days. I couldn’t help but catalog the rights and wrongs on both sides in my head and try futilely to imagine solutions as I drove out to Earth City, radio tuned to a hip hop station that has been dedicating huge chunks of commercially-sponsored airtime to just letting people talk, helping them heal.

When I need healing though, I turn to sports, and the football sideline is my happy place. Car parked, radio off, I stepped through the gates and saw white-jerseyed players on a Crayola green field flying through royal blue tackling dummies and pitching them into the air. And for the next three hours, my mind was at peace.

I found one of my favorite fellow Rams bloggers on the sidelines, and met two new members of the blog community. We met a Rams staffer and congratulated him on his newborn son. We studied the footwork of our defensive backs, and wondered if they were capable of being better. We watched our quarterbacks and receivers practice corner routes, cataloguing good plays and bad. We followed our offense and defense around to the far field and watched them scrimmage, counting Sam Bradford’s checkdowns in one mental column and his gutsier throws in another. We watched two foundational rookie draft picks square off in a pass-rushing drill, and looked up the number of a 4th-string wide receiver after he made a splashy catch.

And as I walked back around to join up with more friends after practice was finished, there was Bradford lofting passes to Chris Givens on one half of an empty field, with five defensive backs on the other half batting down rainbowed footballs from a JUGS machine that was clearly on the “Russell Wilson” setting. Maybe it was additional work. Maybe it was just that they didn’t want to leave the field. I didn’t want to either.

“I needed this,” said one of my friends on the sidelines, who has been particularly active on Twitter during the Ferguson crisis. “I needed a break from all that bullshit that’s been going on.” Then his wife chided us both for even hinting at that evil, for letting it creep back into our idyll. “Not here,” she said. “You are not allowed to talk about that here!”

I tried not to. I did. But I failed.

Practice Notebook

Being that this is a football website, let’s talk about football for a bit.

  • Janoris Jenkins was a welcome returnee to practice after more than a week off, even though he only participated in position drills. Like well-practiced veterans, Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson ran their drills in lockstep with quick but unhurried movements.
  • Among rookie corners, Marcus Roberson’s change of direction ability stood out, particularly in a drill where players zigzagged in a tight box maybe three yards by five. Even as the turf rapidly got chewed up, he kept his footwork clean.
  • As a group, the defensive backs seemed intent on regaining some swagger after getting manhandled by bigger receivers Britt and Quick throughout the first week. In a drill where each QB rotated throwing corner routes into the end zone vs man coverage, the DBs appeared to win more battles than they lost. Tiny Lamarcus Joyner skied for a particularly impressive bat-down of a pass intended for Austin Pettis.
  • That said, nobody is stopping Stedman Bailey on the practice field. He is catching everything, and seems to already be taking a leadership mantle in this group. He and Kenny Britt were egging each other on throughout, and both finished with impressive catches.
  • When the team moved to full 11-on-11 scrimmages, I found it odd to see our first team offense lined up against our second team defense. I had to do a double-take on the jersey numbers. I have not seen this in any Fisher-run practice, though it used to be standard in the days of Steve Spagnuolo and Josh McDaniels.
  • After really throwing the heck out of the ball the previous practice I was at, Bradford seemed to slip back into checkdown mode in a third down drill. One should always hesitate to judge a quartback’s decision in practice as the coaches may have particular goals in mind, but this just opens up the Schottenheimer:Bradford / Chicken:Egg quandry all over again.
  • Shaun Hill continues to impress after a very strong showing in the preseason opener. He threw a strike to Chris Givens in the deepest part of the defensive zone, bringing Givens back across from the sideline to a hole between the corner and safety. It was Givens’ best catch of the day as well.
  • Tre Mason made two notable runs that I saw. He showed very nice burst to the outside on one, and found a nice seam inside on another after doing some backfield dancing. (The dancing I didn’t like, but it paid off.)
  • Mason also got some work on kickoff return duties, among a large crowd that included Isaiah Pead (whose job Mason likely takes), Greg Reid, Justin Veltung, Chris Givens and others. Among them, I liked Veltung’s movement the best but they were not running against a full coverage unit.
  • At the end of the scrimmage, Joe Barksdale got into scraps with two 2nd-unit defensemen, including a pretty good one with Michael Sam that saw the players be forcefully separated from each other. I hear that Barksdale had pancaked Sam on the play, to which Sam objected.
  • As the skill players split off into 7-on-7 drills, I watched the OL and DL square off in pass rushing drills. With his blood still simmering, Barksdale was bluffed into a false start by Chris Long on the first snap.
  • Aaron Donald’s footwork really impressed, especially when facing off against fellow hard-punching rookie Greg Robinson. Robinson came up with a forward step and a good punch, but Donald kept his balance, reset and swam over Robinson’s back for a quick pressure.

Outside The Lines

As we gathered to leave, I dared to discreetly ask one more Ferguson-related question to my friend: How bad will it get before it gets better?

Buoyed perhaps by the natural optimism of football in August, he replied: “I think the worst has already passed.” And that night did go by without obvious escalation of tensions. The next morning’s radio talk was filled with hope and with plans for peaceful demonstration.

Then this:

Photo by David Carson (@PDPJ), Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo by David Carson (@PDPJ), Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

Became this:

Photos by David Carson (@PDPJ), Saint Louis Post-Dispatch Photos by David Carson (@PDPJ), Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

Which led to this:

Police Shoot Tear Gas in Ferguson

Photo by David Carson (@PDPJ), Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

Then reports began streaming in of national reporters being arrested without cause, followed by the arrest (and continued detainment, even as I write) of the most visible advocate for the rights of the area’s residents, St Louis City Alderman Antonio French.

Ferguson has been compared by people who live in Detroit to the race riots of 1967. Ferguson has forcibly unearthed carefully buried memories for those who served in Iraq. Ferguson is drawing sympathy, and useful advice, from residents of the Gaza Strip. I apologize to people who just want to read about football. This story — this unfolding tragedy on all sides — is intruding on us all.

That is, except when you’re standing inside the perfect square of sunshine at One Rams Way.

I will be appearing on Turf Show Radio on Thursday evening as guest of the fine folks at Turf Show Times. We will, as much as we can, be talking football. Scouts’ honor.