ST. LOUIS — Say what you want about Rams coach Jeff Fisher, but no one has ever described him as weak, indecisive, timid or afraid. This coach is hardcore in his football beliefs.
Even when his teams have been short on victories, they’ve never lacked an identity. They’re tough. They’re aggressive. They’re edgy. Penalty flags fly whenever they’re around. And the stubborn, independent-minded Fisher has never worried about seeking anyone’s approval. He is comfortable in his own skin.
It should be no surprise, then, to see Fisher and his Rams step forward when none of the other 31 NFL teams had the guts to choose Mizzou pass rusher Michael Sam in the 2014 draft. We’ll talk about the football part of this landmark event later on. But to me, more than anything, this was about the Rams organization having the courage to do what’s right.
In Saturday’s seventh round the Rams gave Michael Sam a chance to prove he’s worthy of a job as an NFL player. The other 31 teams can say what they want about Sam’s relatively short height, and his relatively slow 40-yard times, or his mediocre performance in workouts.
Here’s the only fact – the only test – that matters: after 248 selections, no franchise had bothered to grant an opportunity to an All-American defensive end, the co-SEC defensive Player of the Year and a pass-rush force that helped make Missouri one of the best defenses in the nation last year.
On the final day of the ’14 draft, in rounds four through seven, 10 defensive ends came off the board as Sam waited for a phone call that all college football players dream of receiving. Some of the defensive ends were pulled from small, even obscure, college programs such as Illinois State, Marist and Concordia-St. Paul.
Sam — despite his award-winning season in the best college football conference in the land — was still on the board, ignored. And we were supposed to believe this had nothing to do with Sam being the first openly gay player eligible for an NFL draft? To suggest otherwise is absurdly naïve.
So with the 249th pick of a 256-player draft, the Rams saved the NFL from profound embarrassment by proudly choosing Michael Sam.
As Fisher told ESPN immediately after the draft: “In the world of diversity we live in now, I’m honored to be a part of this.”
As he should be. Same with Rams’ employees and fans. The Rams didn’t have to do this. They didn’t need to pull a publicity stunt to cover a poor draft; their list of selections was receiving top grades nationally, long before the seventh round. Fisher is secure in his job; he didn’t need to score PR points.
The Rams drafted Sam for several reasons. First, they covet players who can pressure the quarterback. Second, Sam obviously represented good value for a seventh-round pick. Third, they have a strong locker-room culture that will welcome Sam as a teammate.
And fourth — even though Fisher tries to downplay this — the Rams recognized that Sam shouldn’t be excluded just because his presence on the Rams’ roster would make OTHERS uncomfortable. The people who aren’t members of the Rams’ family.
Fisher’s team drafted Michael Sam because it would have been wrong not to. This move was a wonderful reaffirmation of a strong commitment to basic fairness.
Fisher is an enlightened individual with no hang-ups. It was never a problem for Fisher to go against the grain. His locker rooms have been filled with players that come from every type of background, every kind of circumstance. That goes for players that have run afoul of the law, players that have slipped in their personal lives, players that would make other coaches nervous.
The Rams employ a few players that have police records attached in their files ... but yet Fisher would somehow draw the line at using a draft choice on an openly gay player? The very thought is laughable.
Fisher, the enlightened man, also loves winning football games.
If you can play ball, he’ll give you a chance. To that end, if Fisher didn’t think Sam had the potential to win a spot, he wouldn’t have made this pick.
And understand this about Fisher: the coach has the strength of character to cut Sam. As he enters the NFL, Sam is pretty much a one-skill player — a designated pass rusher. And if Sam can’t demonstrate a consistent ability to storm around blockers and get to the quarterback, he won’t make Fisher’s squad.
I have to believe this was a factor. How many NFL coaches were nervous about the prospect of having to cut Sam and possibly facing a backlash? It takes a strong leader to draft Sam; it may take an even stronger leader to waive him.
Sam was a smart pick for the Rams. And he’s a good fit. Rams players already have reached out to let Sam know they’re happy he’s part of the team. Sam won’t have any problems at Rams Park. Not with Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes, James Laurinaitis and so many others having his back.
And this concocted issue of “distractions” is just that: nonsense. The Rams will have a reasonable plan for media access to Sam. And after the initial round of stories, the national media will move on, and everyone at Rams Park will continue working.
As a seventh-round selection on a team with a deep defensive line, Sam faces long odds to win a job.
But at least one NFL team had the fortitude to draft him. At least one NFL team was willing to give a shot to this long shot.
At least one NFL team deserves to feel proud today. Only one NFL franchise had the strength of character to tear down a barrier, and welcome Michael Sam into the family.
And now the rest will be up to him.