ST. LOUIS (AP) — Almost two weeks after they put away the helmets and shoulder pads, the St. Louis Rams picked up their third win of a dismal season.
The Rams prevailed in a high stakes head-to-head competition with the Miami Dolphins and landed Jeff Fisher for their vacant head coaching job. The team said Friday it was finalizing a deal to hire the veteran coach who sat out the 2011 season after 17 years in Tennessee.
The 53-year-old Fisher interviewed twice with the Rams, once in Denver with owner Stan Kroenke and again in St. Louis when he toured facilities and met with quarterback Sam Bradford.
Fisher is widely considered the top prize in this winter’s coaching-search sweepstakes.
His long stint in Tennessee included a Super Bowl matchup against the Rams in 2000 in which Tennessee fell 1 yard shy of forcing overtime in a 23-16 loss. The Titans won three division titles and made six playoff appearances under Fisher, who stepped down a year ago as the league’s longest-tenured coach, saying he needed a break.
St. Louis’ offer may have trumped Miami’s for several reasons. Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and is considered a franchise-type player despite an injury-plagued, unproductive 2011. The Rams have the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft and a favorable salary-cap situation.
In addition, Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff is the son of Fisher’s agent, Marvin Demoff.
The Rams might offer more power, too. The franchise is replacing both coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney, while the Dolphins have GM Jeff Ireland in place.
“I’m pumped,” fullback Britt Miller told The Associated Press. “I figured that because he wanted a little more control that Miami was probably not the place for him. I’m really pumped.”
Fisher inherits a franchise with a recent history of futility. The Rams have totaled just 15 victories the last five seasons under Scott Linehan, interim coach Jim Haslett and Spagnuolo.
On the plus side: Although the 49ers won 13 games this year, the NFC West is perhaps the weakest division in the NFL. The Seahawks won it last year despite a 7-9 record, beating the Rams in a tiebreaker.
St. Louis opted for an experienced hand after failing with Spagnuolo, a former defensive coordinator who was just 10-38 in three seasons. The Rams interviewed several assistant coaches, including Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski on Thursday in Denver, and were en route to San Francisco to interview Saints assistant Aaron Kromer when news of the deal surfaced.
Even though the Fisher deal was all but done, team spokesman Ted Crews said the Rams conducted the Kromer interview.
St. Louis was considered a franchise on the rise after making a six-win improvement in 2010 and playing for the NFC West title in the finale, but were a total flop in 2011. The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003, and they had the NFL’s worst offense last season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recently left to return to the Patriots.
St. Louis was not competitive early against one of the NFL’s toughest schedules and the lineup was decimated by injuries later in the year. Bradford got punished in a scheme that featured long-developing pass patterns, and he missed six games with a high left ankle sprain. Three offensive linemen landed on injured reserve.
The defense, Spagnuolo’s calling card, was ranked near the bottom against the run.
For all his longevity in Tennessee, Fisher had only six winning seasons, and a succession of 8-8 finishes prompted detractors to deride him as “Coach .500” or “Coacho Ocho.” His most recent playoff victory came in January 2004, and his most recent winning record was in 2008 when the Titans squandered the No. 1 seed in the AFC by losing in the divisional round.
But Fisher led his team to at least 12 wins four times, and his career record is 142-120 (.542). He coached more games for one franchise than all but six coaches, all Hall of Famers.
There were extenuating circumstances in three of Fisher’s .500 seasons from 1996-98, all related to the franchise’s relocation. The first was a lame duck year in Houston, in 1997 the team commuted 200 miles between Nashville and Memphis for home games, and in 1998 games were played at Vanderbilt.
Attendance was poor and distractions were plentiful all three of those years. The Titans got a new training facility in 1999, went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl as a wild card team.
Fisher appeared in 49 NFL games as a defensive back and return specialist and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears in 1985, though he spent that year on injured reserve with an ankle injury that ended his playing career.