A rookie's nightmare, as remembered by linebacker Fred Strickland, Class of '88:
"We were playing San Francisco the first time last year," he said. "I was playing in the nickel coverage and I lined up on the wrong side. That was the game that Roger Craig had, like, his best game of the season. It was the one where he made that long run, the one that made all the highlight films. I was supposed to be on the other side on that play. (Safety) Michael Stewart was trying to tell me to move over, but I was concentrating so hard on what was going on that I didn't really hear him."
Too bad, as Craig took the handoff that day, dashed around the left end (where Strickland would have been had he not botched his assignment), cut back toward the middle, broke about a half dozen tackles and then staggered into the Ram end zone. It was a memorable 46-yard touchdown run, one that Strickland won't forget. Ever.
"My worst moment," he said.
Jogging back to the sidelines that afternoon, Strickland didn't know he had erred. Then he saw the defensive coaches waiting for him. Then he got a phone call from the other defensive coaches stationed in the press box. And a day later, in the team's regular Monday meetings, Strickland had to sit quietly as the game film was played over and over. And every time it showed Strickland glued to the wrong spot as Craig, the human highlight, began his 46-yard journey.
A rookie's education, as told by defensive tackle Bill Hawkins, Class of '89:
"The first thing you realize is that everybody is good here," he said. "It's going to take some time."
Time isn't something Hawkins, the Rams' No. 1 draft choice this spring, has in great supply. A contract dispute and subsequent holdout delayed his training camp arrival until mid-August. Now, as the season fast approaches, Hawkins finds himself in an accelerated learning program.
He played in his first exhibition game only a few days after coming to camp. The mistakes followed soon thereafter. He said he was nervous, excited, anxious--all the feelings you have when you enter unchartered territory.
"It felt good to get back into it," he said, "but I've still got a long way to go."
Strickland and Hawkins are separated by a season's worth of experiences, but, at the same time, tied to a single purpose. They are the next wave of replacement parts, dual cornerstones of a Ram defense that relies heavily on its inside linebackers and interior linemen.
Strickland went through his apprenticeship last season and, at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he etched a place in the memories of Ram coaches rather early. John Robinson couldn't believe his good fortune, that is, finding someone built like Strickland still available late in the second round of the draft. Better yet, Strickland's play mirrored his build: powerful, intimidating.
In one of those draft day quirks, where everyone over-analyzes, Strickland went untouched through the first round and well into the second. The Rams, who had three picks that round, took receiver/defensive back Anthony Newman, then receiver Willie Anderson, then, still sitting there, Strickland. They still pat themselves on the back for that one.
"He was an inside-outside guy who had played for a couple of different coaching staffs (at Purdue)," defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur said. "He had moved around a lot and as a result, wasn't real productive as a college player. But our scouting people were aware of his potential. He was picked pretty much on athletic ability and projected to play a specific position--inside linebacker--in our defense. As it turns out, he had spent enough time as an inside guy and an outside guy that those multiple skills really helped him.
"No question, he's a big-play kind of guy. He had a big impact."
Strickland spent much of last season asking linebacker Carl Ekern (since retired) to tutor him on the nuances of the Ram defenses. When Ekern was busy, linebacker Kevin Greene and defensive tackle Shawn Miller took turns quizzing Strickland on various formations.
Something clicked. Strickland found himself spending more time in games and less time on the sidelines. And if he bumbled an assignment, well, it happens.
"I can remember not knowing the defenses that well and just playing on ability," he said. "Now I know the defenses well enough that I can help other people."
Strickland's progress came in measured doses. He began to notice fewer mistakes when reviewing the game film. The coaches weren't always waiting for him on the sidelines. His teammates started to compliment him on his performances. This was an evolution of skills.
As you might expect, veterans generally aren't crazy about rookies. Rookies tend to make rookie mistakes, which means the veterans have to overcompensate, which means their own play can suffer. Strickland went through it last year. Hawkins goes through it this year.
"As soon as (the veterans) think you know what you're doing, that makes it a lot easier for them," Strickland said.