THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — There was commotion all around.
It was a Friday afternoon inside the Los Angeles Rams’ locker room, practice had run long and a caravan of buses was scheduled to leave the practice facility in less than 90 minutes for Los Angeles International Airport, where the team would depart for Detroit.
As teammates scrambled to drive home to pack their belongings for the rare three-day road trip, Rodger Saffold milled about at a glacial pace. In a veteran move, he already had packed his suitcase and was ready to go. There was no need to rush to his Encino, California, home and back in time to avoid being left behind or risk a fine for tardiness.
So Saffold settled on a small stool at his locker.
“So, what’s it like to be the longest-tenured player here?” he was asked.
“Yes, my life sucked until this point …” Saffold responded.
His tone was facetious, but the description had more truth than perhaps he would want you to believe.
In nine seasons with the Rams, Saffold, 30, has been on a two-win team and experienced enough mediocrity to last a career. But now, in Sean McVay’s second season as coach, the 12-3 Rams have clinched a second-consecutive division title and are poised to make a deep playoff run.
“He kind of sums up everything this franchise has been through to get to this point,” said D’Marco Farr, a longtime Rams radio broadcaster who played defensive tackle on the Rams’ 1999 Super Bowl team.
Saffold has started 30 games over the past two seasons and has proved himself as a reliable left guard for a team that boasts the second-leading rusher in the NFL in Todd Gurley II and has kept Jared Goff upright while allowing him to pass for 4,273 yards this season.
“What he enables us to do both in the run and the pass,” McVay said, “the combination of his athleticism, his ability to get to the second level, play in space, but then also play with power, get removal at the line of scrimmage. You’re not limited in any really scheme run-wise. He’s a great matchup.”
The Rams selected the University of Indiana product in the second round of the 2010 draft to protect the blind side of quarterback Sam Bradford. In nine seasons, Saffold has had so many coaches that it’s difficult to remember who has come and gone. Head coaches Steve Spagnuolo and Jeff Fisher preceded McVay. Saffold has seen six changes at offensive coordinator and has been instructed by three offensive line coaches. Oh, and he moved across the country when the franchise relocated from St. Louis.
“It’s just been crazy,” Saffold said.
At some point, the 7-9-ish seasons ran together. But there always were a few that stood out.
As a rookie, Saffold started every game at left tackle. It was a resounding accomplishment for a former two-star recruit from the tiny town of Bedford, Ohio — an eastern suburb of Cleveland.
But a season later, the reality of professional football hit. It was Spagnuolo’s third season as coach and the Rams were really bad. They lost six straight, then were 2-7 when Saffold suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the weight room and was placed on injured reserve.
“It almost was a godsend because it was such a struggle that entire year,” Saffold said. “It was just the epitome of depression.”
After a 2-14 season, the Rams fired Spagnuolo and Fisher was named coach.
Fisher’s teams never excelled, but they didn’t exactly fail. Mediocrity became the norm, even though with each new season Fisher vowed to bring a different result. Culture problems permeated everywhere with the Rams.
“It was tough,” Saffold said. “It was tough … trying to get those wins and going through those frustrating seasons, a lot of locker room changes.”
In 2014, after four seasons and three position changes, Saffold reached free agency and signed a five-year, $42 million contract with the Oakland Raiders.
But the deal was so rich that the Raiders received considerable blowback. Over the previous three seasons, Saffold’s durability was tested. He suffered knee injuries, a neck injury, a dislocated shoulder and pectoral tear and had not played a complete schedule since his rookie season. He took a physical, but the Raiders failed him, citing his shoulder.
“Everything fell through after everyone was giving me pretty much the red-carpet treatment,” Saffold said. “There probably was some buyers’ remorse and then used a loophole to kind of get me out of there.
“It was a s—ty feeling,” Saffold said. “To say the least.”
For all the concerns the Raiders had about Saffold’s shoulder, the Rams didn’t share in them. He returned to St. Louis on a five-year deal worth $31.7 million.
Saffold’s future was secure. The Rams’, however, was not. In 2016, after 21 seasons in St. Louis, the organization relocated to L.A., and Fisher vowed that he would not go 7-9 again.
“That was an emotional roller coaster,” Saffold said. “Just the chain of events that were going on, the problems that we were having just in the culture, coach Fisher trying to do everything he could to try to help us get wins. We couldn’t get it … I mean it was just really tough.”
Even with an anemic offense, the Rams slogged their way to a 3-1 start before a free fall that resulted in a 4-12 finish. That season, Saffold said, was the lowest point of his career.
But when Saffold first met McVay, he knew things would just be different.
“He does a good job of painting a picture with his words,” Saffold said. “You can see what is going to happen.”
McVay overhauled the culture in his first season and added veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan to play alongside Saffold. The line was instrumental in Gurley winning the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award, and the Rams made a dramatic turnaround from the lowest-scoring team in the league to the highest. They finished 11-5 and clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2001.
“The culture and the accountability were raised extremely high,” Saffold said.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, in his seventh season with the Rams, said Saffold deserved credit for his role in the turnaround.
“This team was full of a lot of followers and not enough leaders,” Brockers said. “He stepped up as a leader for the O-line and put a lot of younger guys under his wing.”
Saffold is in the final season of his five-year contract, and Sunday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against the San Francisco 49ers could be his final regular-season game with the organization.
The Rams are interested in re-signing Saffold, who earned Pro Bowl recognition for the first time in his career as a first-alternate, and Saffold wants to remain with the team.
Where he once chased the most lucrative deal offered, Saffold said his experiences with the Rams — the good and the bad — have helped him understand where he wants to play and what that alone is worth.
So yes, a hometown discount is on the table.
“You want to be paid fairly,” Saffold said. “But I think the culture and the team that I’m around is worth just as much as the extra money that I could get from going somewhere else.
“That’s just with getting older and understanding what I’m around. I want to be successful for years to come, and I think in order to do that — I’ve been with this team for so long already, it’s like why start changing now that it’s good.”
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News