It's fair to say that former St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney has stepped on a few cracked sidewalks through an NFL career that started in 1979, when he was hired as a college scout for a Washington Redskins team that went on to win three Super Bowls in a span of a decade. Devaney followed Redskins GM Bobby Beathard to San Diego in 1990 and lasted until 2000, when the regime that drafted Ryan Leaf in 1998 was sent packing. Devaney was also the Atlanta Falcons' assistant general manager for one year -- unfortunately, that one year was 2007, when the Falcons were dealing with Michael Vick's arrest and imprisonment, not to mention Bobby Petrino being ... well, Bobby Petrino.
After he left Atlanta, Devaney was hired by the St. Louis Rams to rebuild a roster that had aged ungracefully, with little to show in the way of upcoming prospects. He ran four drafts in a row for the Rams and stocked the team with some interesting talent, including quarterback Sam Bradford, ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, offensive tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, and linebacker James Laurinaitis. He also hired head coach Steve Spagnuolo, and after a 7-9 record and near-NFC West title in 2010, it was thought that the new Rams were ascending. A 2-14 decline in 2011 put that to rest, and combined with the 1-15 mark the team put up in 2009 (and other complications), it was enough to send Devaney and Spagnuolo packing. While Spagnuolo is now in a different kettle of fish as the New Orleans' Saints' defensive coordinator, Devaney retreated back to his home in Atlanta to reflect on how it all went wrong.
When he joined Rob Rang and myself on our KJR-AM "Chalk Talk" show last Saturday, Devaney was more than ready to dish about where the Rams started to nosedive again. He hadn't done so before to our knowledge, but Devaney was very forthright about what went wrong in St. Louis.
"I still ask myself that, almost every day," Devaney said, in response to that question. "The short version is when I was named general manager, we were looking for a head coach. And went through the hiring process, had great candidates, and knew [Steve] Spagnuolo from way back when I worked at the Redskins, he was an intern, so they hired Spags. As soon as Spags gets hired, the team is for sale. Chip and Lucia [Rosenbloom] inherit the team from Georgia Frontiere. Through a whole mess of legalese and tax issues, they tried everything they could to keep the team and they weren't going to be able to.
"So the team went up for sale. It was an old roster. Really old roster. There were some guaranteed contracts on there that we had to live with. Spags and I got together with Chip and we said 'Listen, this is going to be a complete overhaul, let's just bite the bullet and, rather than do it piece meal, let's blow the whole damn thing up.'"
When I commented that he inherited a roster that looked a lot like Steven Jackson and the Pips, Devaney didn't hesitate to agree. "That was it. And you know what? I would have probably been happier with some of the Pips, quite honestly."
After he made some unpopular moves, like moving on from Orlando Pace and Torry Holt, Devaney was undone by changes at the offensive coordinator position, injuries to the team (especially on the offensive line and in the secondary), an inability to find optimal targets for Bradford, and the sale of the team to Stan Kroenke.
"We lose Pat Shurmur to the Cleveland Browns, he's our offensive coordinator. And the decision was made to bring in Josh McDaniels and change the whole offense. And it kind of completely blew up on us," Devaney said. "It was the perfect storm. When you look at it, we had a ton of injuries, no offseason. It was just one thing after another. I could tell in training camp -- I mean early on, I don't even know if we started playing a preseason game -- things just, especially on offense, things just looked really ... nobody looked comfortable.
"And our  schedule was ridiculous. I mean, we were hoping, and this is -- we're trying to be optimistic -- we were hoping at the halfway point, we may have had two wins. We thought if we could scratch out two wins, the back end of the schedule, we could win a couple of more games. Well, I don't know if we won any. We may have won one, but by that time, the roster was decimated. We were working corners out on Tuesday and they were lining up and starting for us on Sunday. ... Five or six of those guys, I couldn't even tell you who they were."
Finally, there was the disaster on defense dictated by an injury-depleted roster. "You can't hide corners. Not in this league," Devaney added. "Spagnuolo was handcuffed [in] what he liked to do. We had new guys, rookies, guys that never played in the NFL. So we had to play very vanilla. We couldn't do all the exotic stuff that Spagnuolo likes to do on defense. So, it was just a nightmare. It was just one of those years, everything that could go wrong, went wrong for us."
In the end, Devaney found himself replaced as the man in charge by Jeff Fisher. He's got a good record of personnel evaluation and he'll almost certainly work again in the league when he wants, but for now, it's time to shake loose an experience that could have gone a lot better. Devaney still believes in a lot of the talent he brought on board (especially Bradford); we'll just have to see how much Fisher and new GM Les Snead can make of what Devaney left them.
One thing's for sure -- Billy Devaney left the Rams in better shape than when he came on board. Sadly, that wasn't enough.