Jeff Fisher’s teams have never been about radical change, so it wasn’t surprising that they were among the last to fill an open coordinator position this offseason—or that the change came from within.
“If you’ve followed my history in the past, we’ve promoted from within,” Jeff Fisher said at the press conference announcing his new play-caller. “I think if you’re doing things correctly, you should be able to do that, for the most part. Your terminology, your run-game philosophy, your game-calling philosophy, the understanding of your personnel—it’s ingrained in you. From an organization standpoint, I didn’t want to change any of that.”
So the Rams’ new offensive coordinator is Frank Cignetti, who spent the past three seasons as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Fisher selected Cignetti over Rams tight ends coach Rob Boras, who is now assistant head coach/offense in addition to his tight end duties.
“He’s done a great job with the quarterbacks,” Fisher said of Cignetti. “In particular, it’s his leadership skills, his experience in this offense, his flexibility—his ability to adjust. And I have no concern whatsoever about his play-calling ability because he’s called plays before.”
Cignetti spent his first decade of coaching in the collegiate ranks, much of it at Indiana University of Pennsylvania—where he played, his father was the long-time head coach, and his brother currently coaches. His first NFL job came with the Chiefs in 1999, and he’s also spent time with the Saints and 49ers as quarterbacks coach. His play-calling experience includes three seasons at Fresno State (where his offenses ranked fifth and seventh nationally in 2004 and 2005, respectively), North Carolina, Cal, Pitt, and Rutgers.
Cignetti also interviewed for the OC job in Cleveland this offseason. He replaces Brian Schottenheimer, who left the Rams to take over as offensive coordinator at the University of Georgia. And as you might expect with an internal promotion, things won’t change dramatically for the Rams.
“The foundation of the playbook is the same,” Cignetti said at his introductory presser. “Coach (Brian) Schottenheimer’s put a terrific system in place here, the same system I was a part of when I was with the San Francisco 49ers. The foundation is going to be the same. There’s certain things that we did in the past that we’ll be able to minimize terminology. So as an offensive staff, we’re going to evaluate everything. If there’s a better way to learn, if there’s a better way to teach, then we’ll make changes.”
Certainly, Cignetti’s relationship with erstwhile franchise quarterback Sam Bradford went a long way towards Cignetti’s promotion.
“Same system for Sam, same system for the rest of his teammates,” Fisher told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That was very, very important, and it was about how we get better. How we become more productive. I had a lengthy discussion with Sam prior to making the decision. It was part of the information gathering process. Sam was very forthcoming. He had some firm opinions. I really enjoyed and appreciated his input.”
And if Bradford wasn’t on board with Cignetti’s promotion, Fisher said, “We wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
The key for Bradford, of course, is finding a way to stay healthy; he missed all of last season and nine games the previous year, playing in 49 of a possible 80 games over five NFL seasons. That’s something that falls beyond Cignetti’s scope—as well as that of new quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke—but at least Rams’ quarterbacks won’t have focus on learning a new offense this preseason.
Another way to protect Bradford is to run the ball successfully. It’s a hallmark of Fisher teams, and it’s something that will continue in St. Louis under Cignetti.
“I believe in running the football. You run the ball to win,” Cignetti said at his introductory presser. “The quarterback’s best friend is running the football, but you also have to be flexible enough to do whatever it takes to win a game.”
Barring something unusual in free agency or the draft, that means plenty of Tre Mason with a dollop of Bennie Cunningham. Once Mason entered the lineup after the first month of the season he handled 75% of the carries and had double-digit totes in 10 of the final dozen games; Cunningham didn’t have more than four carries in a game over the final three months, while Zac Stacy had just 10 carries over the second half of the season.
Like most new offensive coordinators, Cignetti has indicated he’ll adapt his scheme and play-calling to the talent at hand rather than force an ill-fitting scheme onto a roster.
“If you go back and look at all the different places I’ve coordinated, I think it’s important you take advantage of players’ abilities,” Cignetti said. “Every place I’ve been, I’ve looked at the players and said, ‘How can I put them in a position to be successful?’ So, every stop along the way looks a little bit different in terms of thinking players, not plays.”
And while this is Cignetti’s first NFL play-calling job, evidence from his time as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator suggests he’s capable of following through on molding his offense to his play-makers.
“When you have a guy like Bernard Berrian, who was one of the best college football players, you want to get the ball in his hands,” Cignetti said of his three seasons calling plays at Fresno State. “Because you can throw him a little bubble screen and it might end up in the end zone. So you take a look at your personnel and how can you take advantage of their abilities. That’s just a quick example.”
And maybe a hint at how Cignetti might start getting more productivity out of former first-round pick Tavon Austin?
“Tavon Austin is an outstanding football player,” Cignetti said. “I’m fired up to get working with him. As Coach Fisher and I sat down, it was: Hey, you think players, not plays. Especially in tough situations. Tavon Austin’s a playmaker.”
Bottom line, the Rams didn’t change their scheme and, aside from getting Sam Bradford back, aren’t likely to dramatically change their personnel—in essence, returning last season’s 28th-ranked offense intact. But by simplifying the terminology and reducing the pre-snap movement, the expectation from Fisher and Cignetti is that it will take some of the confusion off the table and allow the Rams’ play-makers to do more “doing”. And it’s Cignetti’s job to make that happen.