St. Louis: Michael Sam has to beat out two other contenders to make the Rams.
EARTH CITY, Mo. — Michael Sam has been one of the most famous people in America over the past six months, since he announced he would try to become the first openly gay player to win a spot on an NFL team. The Rams picked him in the seventh round of the May draft, and now, to win that spot, he’ll have to beat out two green defensive ends who are not household names in their own households: Sammy Brown, a second-year undrafted player from the University of Houston; and undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks from West Texas A&M.
That’s the football news coming out of St. Louis on Sam. The social news is better than I thought it would be. Far better. Sam’s been like wallpaper. Unnoticed, fits in well. He’s said no to every national interview request—Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, everyone—and will continue to do so, I’m told. “The only time we talk about the story,’’ Jeff Fisher said, “is when someone from the media comes in and asks about it. I can’t emphasize enough how smooth and uneventful it’s been. Mike has been great.”
“I think some people on the outside look at him like he’s some kind of alien,” Sam Bradford told me. “He’s fit in so well. He’s just a guy trying to make a football team.”
He’s managed to be one of the guys, I’m told, by not being overly sensitive. “What he’s doing,’’ said former NFL player Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his short pro career, ‘is saying, ‘Everyone knows I’m gay, and let’s not make it the secret no one talks about.’ It’s Michael Sam fitting in. I give the team lots of credit too. When I went there after the draft to talk to the team, one player raised his hand and asked me, ‘How do we make Michael Sam comfortable on this team?’ That tells me the Rams were ready, and the league was too.’’
“I told the team if anyone wanted to talk about it, anything about it, come talk to me,’’ Fisher said. “No one has.”
The Rams made no special accommodations for Sam, and he asked for none. He has spoken to the local and national press once this summer, in a group, and then again after Friday’s game against the Saints. The most impressive of the three marginal competitors in the loss to New Orleans was the aforementioned Westbrooks, who had three tackles and two quarterback hits. Sam: one tackle, one quarterback hit, one pressure. Sam played 33 snaps and seemed to tire near the end of the game. But he had two strong rushes, one on a fast outside move—he dropped 13 pounds to 257 in the month before camp. He needed to be faster, he thought, and so he lost weight and got a smidge quicker.
When Sam’s first game was over, he found a group of friends in the rotunda outside the Rams’ locker room—two were wearing his No. 96—and embraced them and howled, “This is the REAL DEAL!” Then, he repeated it at least four times. It was the raw excitement of a rookie who had just gotten his first taste of real, live pro football. The fact that he had just made history, as the first openly gay player in the league, was secondary in his mind all night. “I was focusing on the guy in front of me,” he said. After the game, he was running through his mind two plays on which he thought he should have had sacks. One: He chased down New Orleans quarterback Ryan Griffin outside the pocket and got a hit on him, and another when he pulled up too soon, thinking it was a screen. Sam’s NFL debut began with about five minutes left in the first quarter, during the Rams’ second defensive series, giving him plenty of chances to prove he belongs. The first time Sam’s name was announced over the Edward Jones Dome PA system came late in the first quarter—“Under pressure from No. 96, Michael Sam”—and a cheer rose from the crowd. Trailblazers draw more attention than your standard seventh-round pick: Sam’s jersey was the sixth-best selling in the NFL since April, and when he got off the rookie bus three hours before kickoff Friday night, he was met by a security guard and filmed by a cameraman. But his takeaway from his first NFL game was exactly what every late-round rookie is trying to prove: “I can play in this league,” he said.
Barring injury, eight St. Louis defensive linemen (Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Williams Hayes and Eugene Sims at end, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington at tackle) are likely to make the team. Jeff Fisher is likely to keep nine defensive linemen, though depending on special-teams contributions from other spots he could keep as few as eight or as many as 10. Say it’s nine. That means Brown, the versatile Westbrooks and Sam are probably fighting for one spot on the 53-man roster. There is the eight-man practice squad that Sam could make as well, if he doesn’t earn a spot on the 53-man roster. I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least make that.
If Sam doesn’t make the practice squad, you’ll know he had a poor camp and was a non-factor on special teams. As of now, he’s slated to play one kicking team—as a wedge blocker (one of the two interior blockers) on the kickoff-return team, and he debuted there against the Saints. The fact that he lost 13 pounds to, in part, be faster for special-teams play was not lost on Rams GM Les Snead or Fisher.
Sam’s doing everything right. Now he needs a big hit on a quarterback in the final three games, or a few pressures from his lighter weight making him faster. Said Rams VP of football operations Kevin Demoff last week: “He’s got four games to prove he belongs.” Three now. Every snap’s an opportunity. Every snap for his competition is an opportunity too.
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Stories of the weekend…
Flagville. Good work by John Clayton, adding up the illegal contact and defensive holding penalties from the first 17 preseason games. The league wants defensive players to have hands off after the five-yard bump zone at the line of scrimmage, and to not hold or grab at all. Rest assured it won’t be called as closely in week one of the regular season as it was over the weekend; the theory is players will get used to the new strictures and will stop all the clutching and grabbing mostly naturally. Back to the numbers: There were 37 illegal contact penalties all of last regular season; there have been 27 in the first 17 preseason games. There were 171 defensive holds calls. So far this preseason, 53 defensive holds have been whistled. The Bills have their defenders practicing with boxing gloves; St. Louis defensive backs take the field in scrimmage holding tennis balls, so they’re tempted to not grab. I’m told the league plans to officiate tight in the preseason, but I cannot imagine the same ticky-tack stuff being called once the regular games start. We’ll see.
Fan abuse continues. Fans in Washington (average ticket price: $218) didn’t see healthy scratch Tom Brady when the Patriots came to town Thursday. Fans in Tennessee (average ticket price: $113) didn’t see healthy scratches Aaron Rodgers or Jordy Nelson Saturday night. Fans in Detroit (average ticket price: $153) didn’t see healthy scratch Calvin Johnson on Saturday night.
Extra points from the 15. Two got missed in 16 games over the weekend. Good. The extra point should be harder, and I don’t consider kicking from the 33 much of a hardship. “Listen,’’ said Sean Payton after Saints kicker Shayne Graham missed a PAT Friday night, “we’re not talking about hitting a 50-yard field goal here.” Right on. Discussing it Sunday at Vikes camp with Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh, a charter member of the Kickers United Party, he said, “I understand the Competition Committee wants to make it more of a challenging play, but especially if they move it out to the 43, like they have been talking about, you definitely will have game decided by a made or missed extra point. I’m not sure that’s what the Competition Committee intended.’’ Yes it is. The Competition Committee wants it to be a play that matters, with something on the line—not a 99.6 percent sure thing, which it is now.
What a night for the Cardinals. The first-team offense had two drives. Carson Palmer (five of five, TD pass) led one, Drew Stanton (four of four, TD pass) the other. Arizona skunked Houston 32-0. That’s a garish-enough score, but just think of the way the Cards’ offense went through a team with pretty good defensive talent. Said in some form for the 949th time summer (and it’s only Aug. 11), “The NFC West could be all-time great.”
The honeymoon is on for Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. He likes the screen game! He likes to play smashmouth! Three screens (according to Pro Football Focus) Thursday night against the Niners, all complete, for 33 yards. And the Ravens rushed for 237 yards, lots against backups, but the will was there. Kubiak’s more the kind of play-caller and offensive philosopher to fit John Harbaugh’s style of play.
Revelations: Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, a burner, sprinted 69 yards with a touchdown pass, leaving Bengals in the dust … Just saw a few Giants’ highlights, and Jason Pierre-Paul was the beast the Giants need so badly in the pass-rush game … Mark “Contract Year” Ingram steamrolled some Rams. Looked terrific … Dri Archer, the Steelers’ rookie version of Darren Sproles, wowed the Giants.
Matthew Stafford had better stay healthy. I can’t imagine the Lions doing anything but mailing in the rest of the season if Dan Orlovsky, a heck of a nice guy, had to play. He just can’t do it, as Saturday night’s performance at Ford Field illustrated.