Imagine if “Rudy” Ruettiger had actually been an outstanding athlete at Notre Dame, but blew out a knee after his senior year. Now imagine Rudy as an undrafted practice-squad project for an NFL team. Any doubt how it would end? Meet Danario Alexander, a feel-good story with Hollywood potential.
Alexander, a talented rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, went undrafted out of Missouri after injuring his left knee practicing for last year’s Senior Bowl. But he showed he still has legs on Sunday. Alexander had his breakout game for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered most – at home with a playoff berth at stake. He caught six passes from Sam Bradford for 99 yards, including three key first-down receptions – one a sensational 46-yarder to the 49ers’ 3-yard-line that set up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter (photo to right).
Don’t be surprised if a lot more people are talking about “D.X.” after this Sunday night’s NFC West winner-take-all finale at Seattle. Why? Everyone but the Rams gave up on Alexander, and that’s when Danario became the next Rudy.
My interest in Alexander’s story began September 2009, early in his senior season. I had attended Mizzou (School of Journalism) and later covered college and pro football for years, so I went to see the Tigers play against Nevada in Reno. It wasn’t a gimme-game for Mizzou. The Wolfpack played them tough (the nation saw the quality of the program this season in their upset of Boise State). The Tigers needed some big plays to escape with a win, and Alexander was the difference. He had nine receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns – one a 72-yarder.
After watching him play, I came away convinced Alexander had all the ingredients to be a top-tier pro player. First, he has good height (6-foot-5) for a receiver, an important advantage against cornerbacks in the NFL, especially on red-zone fade routes. He also had good speed even for the NFL – a much faster game than college. And coaches loved his work ethic. I also saw two other strong qualities – he caught the ball with his hands instead of body and was willing to block downfield for teammates. He simply was a complete player. The result:
- As a senior, Alexander led the nation in receiving with 1,781 yards – averaging 15.8 yards per catch and 137 yards per game. He finished with 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns, shattering most Missouri receiving records along the way.
- He was named a 2009 first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated among many other awards.
- He was picked to the Senior Bowl roster, but in practice the week before the all-star game he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury. That’s when Alexander showed he had more than great skills, but also great heart.
Alexander had surgery on the knee in February 2010, leaving him unable to work out for pro scouts at the NFL Combine or his pro day at Mizzou. Because of that, no team was willing to risk a draft pick on him. However, the Rams signed him to a free-agent contract on Aug. 22 – after the first two exhibition games. Three weeks later they cut him from the active roster, but then signed him to their practice squad.
At the time, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said the team was taking on Alexander as a long-term project, not rushing his progress on the chance the long-term payoff would be worth it. While on the practice squad, he worked hard to strengthen his knee. After five surgeries, the lingering problem became muscle atrophy around his left knee – raising fears he would re-injure himself compensating. Some folks even suggested he take a year off.
“He’s moving around well, we just want to make sure that you don’t put him in a position where he’s going to injure something else,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October.
However, Alexander’s determination and the team’s playoff hunt have accelerated his progress. Measurements in October showed the left leg had caught up, and he was looking better each week on the field. When starter Mark Clayton went down with an injury, the Rams finally signed Alexander to their active roster on Oct. 11. The results: Alexander has been a major factor in three of the Rams’ victories:
- In Alexander’s first pro game, his 38-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams beat San Diego, 20-17. He had four catches for 72 yards.
- Against Denver, he had four catches for 95 yards – including a 45-yard reception that led to a touchdown.
- In Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he had his best pro game when the stakes were highest. Using a four-receiver formation, the Rams were able to match Alexander in the slot against much shorter defenders – and took advantage. His leaping 46-yard reception was the difference.
“It was an awesome catch by Danario,” Bradford told Yahoo! Sports. “I think he always has great body position, seems like he can adjust to the ball wherever it’s thrown. He just keeps himself in good position and ends up getting the ball somehow.”
Though Alexander still looks stiff running routes compared with his college days, he loosened up as the game progressed and was able to get separation from defenders. The league is paying attention as the playoffs near. By beating the 49ers last week, the Rams put themselves in position to win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle. Don’t be surprised if No. 84 is a big part of the game plan on Sunday. And don’t be surprised if a lot of people are talking about him on Monday. This undrafted rookie could help the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season – after going 1-15 last year.
That’s when everyone will learn Danario Alexander is Rudy in disguise.
PS: An interesting side story involves Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who told Spagnuolo in early December he thought Alexander deserved more playing time. “He said, ‘put in some plays for Danario,’ ” Spagnuolo told the Post-Dispatch. “They’re going in now. They’re definitely going in. He’s got a lot of pull.” Alexander responded by pulling in passes.
New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)
Is St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford the second coming of John Elway? Bradford was on Sunday – passing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a road victory. The last rookie to do that regardless of location was Elway in 1983. I think the comparisons are going to grow, and quickly – not just between those two players, but their respective NFL draft classes.
The 1983 NFL draft shaped the league for the ensuing 16 years. Why? There was a rare glut of quality at a key position that affects game outcomes in the NFL. The “Quarterback Class of 1983” included future Hall of Famers Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. A record six quarterbacks were picked in the first round that year, and a QB from that group won 11 of the next 16 Super Bowls.
I believe we are seeing another influx of impact quarterbacks. That is bad news for Jon Kitna fans but great for the rest of us. Just the most recent two NFL drafts could rival the ’83 class in the long run. Why? To me, they have three very clear things in common:
- Chronic winners – This is an unusually large crop of athletes at a game-changing position who have been successful at every level. Any serious owner or GM looks at won-loss record first. So do these QBs. It’s a match made in parity heaven.
- Given a chance to play early in college – With the limitations in scholarships these days, many were three- or four-year starters. Others chose to go to college football’s middle-tier schools rather than sit for three seasons. Most come into the league with significant playing experience.
- Given a chance to play early in the pros – Many learned in college how to get up to speed quickly. That means they come to work prepared, interact with teammates well and know how to bounce back from losses. They have been successful because of their work ethic as well as athleticism, so even lower-round NFL picks are getting plenty of playing time around the league as first- and second-year players.
At the least we are watching the emergence of the next generation of superstar NFL quarterbacks, especially from the last two drafts. Bradford of the Rams is the poster boy, of course. My thoughts from two earlier posts:
- In April 2010, on Bradford being the #1 overall pick: “I think Bradford has a chance to be a top-tier pro quarterback. Most important: He can throw deep with accuracy better than anyone in many years. He’s a stud … and a great draft pick for the Rams.”
- In August 2010, when he won his first game: “I told you he was the real deal. Not just because he’s got good size and came from a top program. The scouts all said he was a very unique blend of accuracy and arm strength. Bottom line: He can throw pinpoint passes downfield with touch. Yep, if he stays healthy (always the big question in the NFL) he’ll be a star.”
That being said, Bradford isn’t the only young gun on the scene. I’ll talk about the others in my next SportS’mores. And I’ll explain why it’s happening.
— Stan Johnston
During a previous career as a newspaper sports editor, I often watched reporters settle for a cookie-cutter approach. Most were never athletes at a high level themselves, so they couldn’t understand why public competition is usually messy and rarely ends up how you expected. Just like S’mores. Since my campfire experience proves no two S’mores are alike, they seem the perfect metaphor for talking about related issues – such as music, movies, children, religion and sex. (No, it won’t be just a personal blog in disguise.) I’m blogging for three reasons:
- As a former reporter, columnist and editor who covered many major sporting events, I still enjoy and follow athletic competition – and try to keep a balance in my life between watching and doing.
- I also know that to stay sharp as a competitor or a writer, you must practice regularly.
- As a marketing executive and wanna-be songwriter, I figured the best way to understand blogs would be to write and publish one. Who knew?
In my first post tomorrow, I’ll compare the current crop of young NFL quarterbacks to the fabled Class of 1983 – which had six QBs picked in the first round, including three future Hall-of-Famers. Impact: A quarterback from the ‘83 draft won 11 of the next 16 Super Bowls. However, I think just the combined last two draft classes will rival that group’s success, and I’ll explain why tomorrow.
First, why read anything I have to say? Answer: I have a broader experience and perspective than most sports pundits. And I haven’t just been an observer. I also have been active myself – including mountain-climbing, tai chi, tennis, swimming cold lakes, playing guitar in a band, and throwing or kicking balls with kids.
I spent almost 20 years in newspapers, many in sports. But I saw their demise coming and left in the late 1990s for global marketing and communications, including HP – a subject for a rainy day. Still, newspapers were a valuable experience on many levels. Most important: Content ruled way before the internet. A great story always trumps great prose. That’s why I hope to look at trends and people, not just stats.
For those who insist on serious cred: Two careers ago I worked on five newspapers in four U.S. states – spending most of the 1980s as sports editor of The Sacramento Bee. That period included the San Francisco 49ers’ Montana-Rice-Walsh dynasty. I was at Jerry Rice’s first day of practice as a rookie and later covered their Super Bowl victory in Miami. Though I have written about many kinds of sports over the years (international soccer is a guilty pleasure), I admit to having a special fondness for the NFL because my big break in journalism was becoming a beat reporter for the Minnesota Vikings in the late-1970s. Call me sentimental. Later I also covered other teams and sports (including climbing Mt. Shasta), and I even won a few writing awards along the way from the AP Sports Editors.
After a stint as sports editor of The St. Louis Sun in the early 1990s, which included a season of locker-room access to my beloved Cardinals, I got out of the newsroom – and eventually left the newspaper industry altogether. (However, friends and family know I still dream of a songwriting career.)
Over those years, I’ve remained a reasonably informed and interested sports fan, much to my family’s chagrin. I hope my broader background brings a different perspective from the hard-core purists. It will be fun to do on a regular basis again, starting tomorrow.
— Stan Johnston