Column: With fire in his eyes, Les Snead manages to make Rams into a Super Bowl contender
Sitting atop the clutter on the desk of the Rams’ steely general manager is a brown-haired stuffed doll.
Her name is Winnie, and Les Snead brought her here for the same reason he brought together the core of a team that is two wins from a Super Bowl.
He loves survivors. He admires resilience. He thrives on last chances.
Winnie is an adoption doll that has belonged to his wife Kara since she was a child. During the recent fires, their family was hurriedly evacuated from their Malibu home, and Winnie was left behind.
That night, believing that their house had been destroyed, Kara wept over the loss of her lifelong companion.
“Winnie,” she said, “is one of those things in your life that is irreplaceable.’’
It turns out, despite damage elsewhere in their neighborhood, their house was spared. When they were finally allowed to return home about three weeks later, one of the first things Snead grabbed was that doll. He promptly announced he was taking it to work, where it now sits safely and smiling amid reams of scouting reports on giant snarling football players.
“We’re not letting Winnie go again,’’ he said.
This is what Les Snead does. He rescues. He empowers. He does crazy things that turn into wonderful things.
For all their star power, these two-time NFC West champions have won on the backs of shadows, and it is in those shadows that Snead has shined.
He has discovered lesser-known players who have become impact players, with an incredible five-pick run in the 2017 draft in which the Rams did not have a first-round pick. That motherlode included tight end Gerald Everett, receiver Cooper Kupp, safety John Johnson, receiver Josh Reynolds and linebacker Samson Ebukam. Snead has acquired marginalized veterans and watched them become relevant again, among them receiver Robert Woods, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and running back C.J. Anderson.
And, of course, he engineered last spring’s shower of troubled or tenuous stars, from cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and receiver Brandin Cooks.
Oh yeah, Snead was also instrumental in the hiring that made all of this work, taking a huge chance on the youngest coach in NFL history by bringing in then-30-year-old Sean McVay.
“He’s always had that soft spot, that Robin Hood mentality,’’ said Kara, a former NFL Network personality. “He can always relate to the underdog.’’
The biggest underdog of all is Snead himself, a former walk-on tight end at Auburn who faced even greater odds two years ago after the Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher and refused to give the general manager a vote of confidence.
It was the winter after their 4-12 debut season in L.A., and everyone thought Snead — a holdover from St. Louis who had been closely tied to Fisher — was going to be canned.
Even Snead thought he might be gone, so much so that he had envisioned a concession speech.
“I admit that if Stan [Kroenke] had said, ‘We appreciate you, Les, but this is it,’” Snead said of the Rams owner, “I would have said, ‘Thank you, I’m sorry I failed you.’’’
He and Kara summoned their family together and prepared them for the worst.
“We sat the kids down and said there was a very good chance it could happen,’’ Kara said of the potential of her husband being fired. “But we also knew there was a chance he would still get a shot.’’
“When your back’s against the wall, and all you have is football, you better do whatever it takes to be good at it, or the clock strikes midnight,’’ he said. “That’s the kind of player I like.’’
Kroenke and Kevin Demoff, the Rams chief operating officer, saw enough in Snead’s tough makeup to wonder what he would be like with someone other than Fisher.
“We wanted to see what he could do with a different set of circumstances,’’ Demoff said. “He drafts and scouts with such conviction, everybody believed that under the right situation, he could improve this team and make a difference.’’
That situation presented itself with this kid McVay. Even though there were no guarantees yet that Snead would be retained, the general manager was the first Rams official to openly endorse McVay after his impressive interview.
“Les said, ‘I want to find a head coach who is best for the organization, and if that means I’m not here, I understand that,’’’ Demoff said. “Then he spoke up for Sean even knowing they may never work together, and that meant a lot to us.’’
Snead was unwittingly adhering to one of McVay’s staple sayings — “We Not Me’’’ — and the two men quickly hit it off.
“We were immediately on the same page, it really felt good,’’ McVay said. “We’re similarly wired.’’
It’s this connection that saved Snead’s job and changed the Rams’ fortunes. Since McVay arrived, the Rams are 24-8 in the regular season, tied for the best record in the NFL during that time, all while scoring more points than anybody in the league and maintaining the top scoring differential.
As another example of Snead’s contributions, besides filling those glamorous positions he also rebuilt the offensive line around veterans Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan.
“He is fearless in aggressively pursuing what is best for our team,’’ McVay said. “It’s all about finding guys who love football and can get better. He does that.’’
“It was like, wait a minute, there is an opportunity here, a window here, some other teams in our division are rebuilding, we have a chance to do something here,’’ Snead said.
And to think, he has engineered this spectacular show while sporting a daily wardrobe that includes a raggedy Rams T-shirt with a torn collar. In fact, he was wearing it for this interview while sitting in his Rams’ Thousand Oaks headquarters office in the middle of a workday.
It was the first shirt the Rams gave him when he became their general manager in St. Louis in 2012. There is no city designation on it, so he’s still wearing it, usually when he’s planning on riding an exercise bike for an hour in the draft room.
”They don’t make them like they used to,’’ he said.
The torn collar? When he’s pumping hard, sometimes he will stick the collar in his mouth and bite on it, sort of like Kobe Bryant used to do with his Lakers jersey, and the fierce image is fitting.
“The satisfaction is, our record, our standings, we were on the mat, a bunch of people in this building stayed and got better, new people came in and collaborated, we all pushed that boulder up the hill, and there was a breakthrough,’’ Snead said. “That’s the satisfaction.’’
It will be even more satisfying with one more late-season acquisition involving — who else? — Winnie.
Because Kara’s family is from Boston, the doll was wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey when it was left in the house. That jersey is still on the doll, which visitors to Snead’s office in Dodgers country might consider an eyesore.
He knows he needs to acquire another jersey, and fast.
“I screwed it up royally,’’ he said. “I was going to put an Aaron Donald jersey on it, and I haven’t gotten around to it.’’
He smiled, this renovator of a fun house where no toy goes unturned.
“But I will,’’ Snead said. “I will.’’
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.