By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Thomas has been coming to Indianapolis to cover the National Football League Scouting Combine since 1991.
Like his first few years at the Combine, he does not have a specific team to cover this week. That’s because Thomas was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Rams beat writer for the team’s entire stay in St. Louis, from 1995 through the 2015 season. With the Rams back in Los Angeles, he’ll be covering the NFL at-large for the Post-Dispatch.
Thomas started working at the Post-Dispatch in 1975 as a copy boy. In 1991, he took over as an NFL at-large writer when St. Louis was trying to get an expansion team, covering the Combine, league meetings and League-wide stories. He covered the last six regular season games of the 1994 Los Angeles Rams when it looked like they may be moving to St. Louis.
Thomas said he has covered every St. Louis Rams preseason, regular season and playoff game: 431 games in total.
Frank Gogola: Did you start searching for a new job when the Rams left, or did the Post-Dispatch guarantee they’d keep you on staff in a different role?
Jim Thomas: Either way, I was going to have a job. A lot of people make the assumption because the team leaves that you don’t have a job. I had a job at the Post-Dispatch before the Rams came here, and I’d have one even after they left. Now, there will be some times where there will be lulls in covering the League at large where there wouldn’t be if there was a team here, like in June the teams have the OTAs [Organized Team Activities].
Without a team in town, even for a national NFL writer, there’s not a whole lot to write. So, I may do some other stuff. I may get to help out with our college basketball coverage. I get a big chunk of time off in late spring to early summer because of the demands of the NFL beat; you rarely have days off from the start of training camp to the end of the Super Bowl. So, I’ll get some down time there. The plans are I’ll maybe help out with Cardinals baseball; we can never have enough Cardinals baseball guys.
But, we’ll still be very much with covering the NFL. We’ll still be at the Super Bowl, we’ll be at the scouting Combine, and we’ll go to the March meetings, the owners meetings. We’ll also cover Pro Days, as well: Mizzou’s Pro Day, Southeast Missouri State has a good NFL prospect at wide receiver, so I’ll probably go down and cover them. There will still be a fair amount of work in the spring up until the Draft; it may not be a normal workload if you’re still covering the team, but it’ll still be enough to keep me busy.
FG: So, what will the Post-Dispatch’s NFL coverage look like?
JT: I’m going to be kind of an NFL guy at-large. The thinking at our paper is that the NFL, even if it’s not in St. Louis, it’s still a big thing and we’re going to have people in St. Louis that want to read about the NFL. Our coverage will be broader. We’ll still do Rams-related stuff, but not nearly as much as we’d do if they were in town. Our thought process is that there are still people in St. Louis that are going to be interested in the Rams, especially with the prospect for no team in the near future to come to St. Louis, and maybe 2/3 of them will be rooting for the Rams to lose. [laughs] There will still be interest in the team.
Our thinking is while they’re still St. Louis players – players that played in St. Louis and players that played prominent roles with the team in St. Louis – there will still be some interest. And maybe as those guys fade away, which can happen pretty quickly in the NFL in 2, 3, 4 years, and then we’d cover less and less. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not covering them in any way, shape or form like we did when they were here. Recently, this weekend we wrote the release of Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Jared Cook, but mainly Long and Laurinaitis. We wrote that as if the team were still here just because those guys had been long-time Rams. They’d been in St. Louis just about as long as any Rams players had been.
FG: So, what will you be covering at the Combine without the Rams in St. Louis?
JT: We’ll probably cover the media sessions of [Rams head coach Jeff] Fisher and [Rams general manager Les] Snead at the Combine. But, otherwise, we’ll broaden out the coverage. We’ll maybe concentrate on some local guys that are at the Combine, including [Ohio State running back] Ezekiel Elliott, who’s from St. Louis. Obviously, the Missouri program always has some players there. There’s also at least one other local guy, a defensive tackle from Nebraska, [Maliek Collins]. We’ll also do some League-wide stuff. To me, it’s a fascinating quarterback picture this year, especially with a guy like Carson Wentz from North Dakota State. He has a lot of momentum seemingly, with his work at the Senior Bowl and North Dakota State winning the FCS title. Still plenty to talk about, and the Combine is so popular because even in a ‘baseball town’ like St. Louis, the two most popular sports in the country are the NFL and then No. 2 is college football. And those two sports collide at the Combine and the Draft.
FG: ESPN can move its NFL Nation reporter [Nick Wagoner] to LA to cover the team. Has the Post-Dispatch considered having you still cover the Rams in Los Angeles in any capacity going forward?
JT: Partly, it’s interesting because even in discussing covering the League, we’re still not quite sure what we’re going to do in terms of Rams coverage. We’re going to pay some attention to them. No, they haven’t considered [moving me to LA]. Once the season starts, I think we’ll probably be at the first weekend of training camp in LA and then maybe the first home game. That would probably be about it, unless they’re somewhere close in the Midwest. And I don’t really think they are this year; I think the closest they are is Detroit.
There may be times over the course of the season where there may be something happening with the team that I feel is interesting enough to write about. Other than that, there won’t be a whole lot of concentrated Rams coverage. Again, it’s kind of an interesting dynamic because even the story I wrote in Saturday’s edition about the cuts of those long-time Rams, it was the most read sports story in the paper that day. And we’ve got about 27 people down covering Cardinals training camp already. [laughs] Also, it was the second-most read thing in the entire paper that day, so that tells you even right now there’s still pretty good interest in the team.
FG: Has anyone from a media company in LA approached you about moving to their organization and covering the Rams beat given your familiarity? If they have or do, is that something you’ve considered or will consider?
JT: I don’t want to get too much into this. But, yes, I have been approached by some West Coast … a news organization out there, and we have talked. It’s an interesting question because I’ve always found that it takes – and not just my experience; I’ve always had a backup so to speak, at least from the start of training camp to the beginning of the season, who was at Rams Park almost as much as me – anyway, it takes about two to three years to really feel comfortable covering the NFL if you’re not used to it, just getting to know the routine, get to know the team, develop not only some sources but maybe some secondary sources. The thought process being maybe have me come out there and be the lead beat guy for two or three years and kind of help train a young person on the way and then flip roles where I’m the backup and they’re the main guy and then I ride off into the sunset and retire because I’m not that far away from retirement age. So, that has been talked about, but I don’t want to really get into any more specifics.
FG: So, do you feel covering the NFL at-large and staying in St. Louis just fits you better at this point in your career?
JT: Well, there’s a lot of factors involved. I’m a St. Louis native. On the job you do a lot of traveling, so I’ve been to a lot of places, went to school out of town for a couple years in Washington D.C. way back when. It is the allure of the hometown, the factor that I’m pretty far along in my career, and I have an oldest son, a West Point graduate who just within the last six weeks came home from a year-long tour in Afghanistan. Anyway, he’s about to move back home, or plans to within like the next six months. He’s now stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. And so the thought is, ‘Your son’s going to move back with his wife and raise a family here in St. Louis, but you’re going to move out to California?’ That doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. A lot of factors, and I’m still talking to the people in L.A., but right now it’s probably doubtful that I’d end up out there.
FG: Recently, ESPN The Magazine came out with its behind-the-scenes story about the Rams’ move to LA. I know you wrote a reaction to the story, but was there anything from the story that surprised you that you didn’t know or didn’t have a pretty good clue about being on the Rams beat.
JT: That’s an interesting question. Being on the Rams beat, I was kind in and out of the relocation story because once the season starts you have to cover the team. The Rams, like every other team, had all sorts of stuff going on: quarterbacks changes, a wide receiver [Stedman Bailey] getting shot in Florida. David Hunn, of our city desk, kind of did the heavy lifting on a lot of the story, but I worked with him whenever I could.
Anyway, it was very interesting. Our editors just wanted me to read it and pick out some highlights and elaborate on it or give my take on it. I picked out five or six things in the story. But, if nothing else, to a large degree it just reinforced and embellished or added more detail to stuff that we had reported, particularly the work of David Hunn. I think the real value of that story was just the very rich detail it had. It really took us into the meeting room or behind the curtain, so to speak, on some occasions.
I thought that was a fascinating part of the story how [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones stopped [Arizona Cardinal owner] Michael Bidwill in his tracks when Bidwill was saying we shouldn’t exist as a League to make rich men richer. And the ESPN article quoted Jerry Jones as saying well, why did you move the [football] Cardinals out of St. Louis? Didn’t you move to make more money? So, we had known and we had reported that Bidwill was an ally for St. Louis in this, but to get that kind of detail was fascinating to me and I’m sure to many readers.
FG: Like you mentioned, you focused on covering the team when the season began but followed along with the potential relocation. When did you realize the move was inevitable and would happen?
JT: Well, a lot of people acted like they knew what was going to happen, and a lot of people after the fact patted themselves on the back and said ‘I knew this was coming.’ But you really had a 50-50 chance, right? [laughs] But, I think it was very uncertain right until, as we approached the meeting. To the point where the NFL had even scheduled, I believe it was the following week or maybe following month, they had reserved space in Dallas to have a meeting if it didn’t get resolved in the Houston meeting.
Anyway, I would say a couple things here. In early December, Robert McNair, a member of the L.A. Opportunities Committee, the Houston Texans owner and also the chair of the Finance Committee, he’s giving an article in the Houston Chronicle, and they were asking him about the relocation process. He said that he thought St. Louis was getting pretty close to having a very attractive offer for a stadium and if they followed through on that the team would likely stay there. So, for using a Civil War vernacular, if Gettysburg was the high-water mark of the Confederacy, I would say that McNair interview in early December was kind of the high-water mark for the St. Louis plan. Optimism was starting to run high. McNair’s saying their plan’s pretty good, they have a good chance.
But, it seemed like from that point on it was nothing but bad news delivered by the League. [NFL executive vice president] Eric Grubman, the point man, had a radio interview locally in which he said the St. Louis plan was unacceptable. Roger Goodell took the trouble of publishing a letter saying that this so-called extra $100 million that the St. Louis Task Force was saying was available to them was fundamentally inconsistent with what the League does. It was the Saturday before the week of the owners meeting, so three or four days before the vote, Goodell came out with his recommendation. And his recommendation said that none of the plans were acceptable in the three home markets. So, when I saw that, that it was the League’s opinion that St. Louis had not met the relocation guidelines, I knew the fix was in, so to speak. [laughs] There’s no way on God’s green earth that [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke met the relocation guidelines, which call for you to exhaust all options to get a stadium built. He could have cared less about getting the stadium built in St. Louis. When I saw that Saturday, that’s when I knew this is not going to happen.
My wife, who over the years has become a big fan of the Rams, when she dropped me off at the airport Monday evening to fly to Houston, I told her, ‘You know, when I get back St. Louis isn’t going to have a football team.’ So, I’m pretty late in the game, I guess, when I saw the handwriting on the wall, so to speak.
FG: From comments from readers, interactions on social media and elsewhere, where do you see NFL fans in St. Louis heading? They could still follow the Rams in LA, the Chiefs are in-state, the Titans and Bears are close by. And the Colts even made a play on Twitter for football fans in St. Louis.
JT: I suggested that we run an online survey, not that it would be a scientific survey, about what would you [the Post-Dispatch readers] like to see coverage of. I have gotten some emails and have heard some people that want more coverage of the Chiefs. The metro area of St. Louis across the Mississippi River is Illinois, so there’s some Bears fans and I’d think there’d be some Bears interest.
I think there’s still some people that want to see Rams coverage. I’ve gotten responses from kind of all over the spectrum on that, including a vocal minority who are upset every time – they’re still very, very mad at Kroenke for moving the Rams – every time we write anything that has to do with the Rams. They’re upset and say, ‘Why are you covering the Rams? Why are you wasting your time covering the Rams?’ I reply, ‘Well, you still must have some interest in the Rams, even if it’s hating the Rams if you took the time to read the story and reply to me.’ It’s going to be interesting to see what these fans do. I even think maybe some of the fans that are just so upset, they just can’t seem to hear or see anything related to the Rams, maybe when the season starts I bet they’ll probably watch the games. I don’t know what the plans with local television are, but I think at least early in the season they’re going to show a lot of Rams games, and if the ratings are there they’re going to keep showing them.
FG: Lastly, covering the Rams their entire time in St. Louis, what game/interview/story/etc. are you going to remember most about covering them, and why?
JT: There’s been a lot of losing football, now. This is one of the worst franchises in the League. They haven’t had a winning record since 2003. They haven’t had a playoff berth since 2004; they made it in 2004 as an 8-8 wild card. So, a lot of bad football.
I guess you would have to say The Greatest Show on Turf times. It was a relatively short period. They went to the playoffs five times in a six-year period and two Super Bowls and won three division titles. It was just spectacular football, offense and a way of attacking that is more commonplace now in the NFL. It was really way ahead of its time back then. And with just how bad the Rams were before then to be so historically good. So, just definitely that era and covering the Super Bowl game, the victory over Tennessee. The NFC title game such a close game, it was a defensive struggle; Tampa [Bay] had the beginnings of one of the defenses of all time there in 1999 and win the Super Bowl three years later. It was a tremendous game, 11-6, a very physical game.
But, also, I’d have to say sticking in my memory is the playoff opener that year against Minnesota. It was the first home playoff game in St. Louis football history, counting the 28 years of the football Cardinals from 1960 through the 1987 season. Not only was it the loudest I’ve heard that building, I would say it was probably one of the loudest NFL stadiums, maybe even the loudest, I’d ever heard, at least at the beginning of that game. And the very first play for scrimmage for the Rams, Isaac Bruce caught a long touchdown pass and the building was shaking.
FG: Anything else you want to add?
JT: I do feel bad for the people of St. Louis because they didn’t deserve this. Regardless of what the national spin was or the League spin, St. Louis had a good stadium plan. When you’re offering $400 million of public money, that doesn’t happen every day. It shows you how arrogant, to a degree, the NFL has become that they could turn their backs on all that money. And I understand they had a chance to build a showcase stadium in LA and get back into the nation’s second-largest [TV] market. It’s just too bad there wasn’t a better way to do this without alienating the St. Louis market. And it’s possible they could end up alienating either San Diego or Oakland. The NFL’s a huge business, and it’s the gold standard certainly for American sports.
You can check out Thomas’ work here and follow him on Twitter here.