Jeff Fisher is in unfamiliar territory.
In his 18th full year as an NFL head coach, Fisher has not once lost a starting quarterback for this length of time. He’s had his share of QB controversies, sure (read: Vince Young), and has had to split time once or twice over the years at the game’s most important position, but St. Louis’ most impressive ‘stache has never gone without his starting quarterback for more than five games due to injury at any point in his coaching career.
With quarterback Sam Bradford headed onto to the operating table in the near future, the Rams are prepared to move forward with career backup Kellen Clemens as their starter. The additions of Austin Davis and Brady Quinn certainly shore up some depth issues at the position, but to think that either option will induce panic among opposing defenses should Clemens not hold up is probably naïve.
All eyes are on Fisher at this point. Can he minimize the loss of Bradford by maximizing the rest of his young talent? Will he be able to rally his team around Clemens or did the image of Bradford being carted off the field last week in Carolina embody this season’s point of no return? On only two other occasions in his career has Fisher had to rely on backup quarterbacks as a result of long(ish)-term injuries. Both seasons came as head coach of the Titans and both yielded vastly different results.
In one of those seasons, as a matter of fact, the injury came early as well and almost derailed what would be a historic season for the franchise. In 1999, a year both Rams and Titans fans remember fondly, Fisher’s emerging fifth-year quarterback, Steve McNair, went down with an inflamed disk after the team’s season-opening 36-35 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. In stepped Neil O’Donnell, a league veteran who had led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl just four years prior. In McNair’s stead, O’Donnell was able to lead the team to a 4-1 record and keep them on track for what would become their most successful season as a franchise. McNair would return in Week 8 and guide the Titans to a remaining 8-2 record, a Music City Miracle, and a berth in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever played. Rams fans, I’m guessing you know how that one ended.
Ok now, come back to Earth with me for a second. While memories of ’99 must be a welcome distraction from the team’s current situation, let’s remember that McNair was able to return healthy for the Titans after just five games and a bye week that season. The Rams, as we all know, do not have that luxury. It’s certainly not out of the question to think that Clemens can steer this team to a few victories as long as they show that they can rally around him, but anything more than that may be a lot to ask of the 30-year-old journeyman.
Getting back to Fisher’s experience in the backup quarterback department, the 2004 season provides another glimpse at his resume. As McNair progressed in his career, his reputation as one of league’s toughest players became almost hyperbolic. However, even McNair couldn’t fight off the effects of a lingering bruised sternum that season. The Titans were looking to build upon a very successful 2003 in which they went 12-4 and reached the AFC Divisional Round before falling to the Patriots 17-14. However, Fisher was forced to start Billy Volek eight times that year, with McNair behind center in the other eight games. The two would trade starts as the season endured, but Volek would be forced to start the final five games and the team would never quite recover. Volek and the Titans stumbled to a 1-4 record over the final five games and finished at 5-11 overall.
Both of these case studies merely act as a small sample size for measuring Fisher’s success with backup quarterbacks as longterm starters. In one season, that stint went unbelievably well. In the other, the experience was largely a forgettable one. What we have here in St. Louis, however, is the first time in 18 years that Fisher doesn’t seem to have any incoming reinforcements on the horizon. McNair came back for a few games late in 2004, but by that point the season was basically a wash.
For the first time, Fisher must work with the quarterback talent on hand for the team’s remaining nine games. I’m even willing to make the argument that, when all is said and done, no other season will be a better pure measurement of Fisher’s coaching ability than this one. Fisher’s Titans teams at least featured other elite offensive skill players such as Eddie George and Derrick Mason to help alleviate some of the pressure resulting from McNair’s few injury spells. This season, however, will ultimately be judged on Fisher’s ability to squeeze every last drop of ability out of his stable of young, relatively unproven talent. Can the Rams take their youthful potential, turn it into on-field production, and salvage a Bradford-less season?
With kickoff against the division-leading Seattle Seahawks and their second-ranked defense in just a matter of hours, we’ll begin to see just how much magic Fisher can work.