Jeff Fisher has a perception problem. Whether it carries over into Sunday’s game against the Bears, his old team and where some of this may have started.
The St. Louis Rams coach played under Buddy Ryan with the Bears (under the cuddly moniker of “Guppy”) and coached with him in Chicago (the ’85 Super Bowl year) and Phladelphia. Ryan’s reputation included targeting opposing players for hits of debatable intent.
When Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans, his cornerback Cortland Finnegan proudly wore the label as one of the league’s dirtiest, to the point of stating that he was “aspiring” to be the No.1-ranked NFL’s dirtiest in 2010 after he finished a disappointing (for him) sixth in the dirty player rankings.
When Fisher took over coaching the Rams in 2012, he brought Finnegan with him under a $50-million contract. Fisher also hired Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, then waited for Williams to serve his one-year banishment in connection with the bounty scandal from his time as New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator.
Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told Sports Illustrated’s on Wednesday that Williams “deserves” the reputation as dirty.
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Then along came last Sunday’s Rams-Minnesota Vikings game, in which Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner hit Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the head as the latter was going into his give-up slide. Bridgewater suffered a concussion.
In the aftermath, fury was directed at Joyner, but even more at Williams, and ultimately at Fisher by former NFL safety Rodney Harrison. Fisher retorted by citing Harrison’s long history of incidents, but the cloud still hangs over Fisher because of his history.
“I think things got blown out of proportion so I responded,” Fisher said. “And then to go on the record, why I commented about Rodney, I didn't think that was appropriate. His assertion for what he implied and what he stated was absolutely incorrect.
“I'm not defending our players; I'm defending the organization. Our defense is going to play hard and fast and we're, like any other defense, we're gonna tackle, play hard, that's part of the game. By no means do we have any intent of injuring the quarterback and immediately after the game I was hoping Teddy was gong to OK and I'm happy he is.”
A fellow head coach from the defense’s side of the football has some understanding of such things.
“It’s definitely a fine line,” Bears head coach John Fox said. “You want guys playing to the whistle. Sometimes there’s mishaps. That’s part of hustle. That’s part of how you win games, too, is finishing plays, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. You just have to coach it the best you can, and sometimes emotions become part of the game.”
Sometimes perception can become reality. Former NFL offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player,” once remarked that he liked the honor because it meant opponents were thinking about that instead of more important things.
“Some people get vasectomies,” Dobler once said. “I used to give ‘em.”
Being on an opponent’s mind for reasons of foul play can backfire, however.
“I don’t know if it’s an advantage because it might make the opposing team play that much harder,” Bears linebacker Sam Acho said. “I don’t think St. Louis is a dirty team; I’ve played against them for years and they play hard.”
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Against the Vikings, seven different Rams defensive players were hit with penalties, nine total on the St. Louis defense, with the Rams having 12 total penalties walked off against them.
"We're just an aggressive team,” said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, last year’s NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. “We've got to fix the little mistakes, sometimes try to cool it down a little bit. We fixed it and it won't happen again. That's something to learn from and that's what we did and we're going to move on.
"Everybody's always got their own opinion. The game of football is a physical game; we're a physical team, play fast, but our mindset is never go out there and injury nobody. We're just doing our job of playing fast. Like I said, everybody's got their own opinion. Can't focus on what other people think and just play your game."