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Les Snead's bold approach lifted Rams from cellar to Super Bowl

ATLANTA -- Rams general manager Les Snead is so L.A.

He's strikingly handsome, moves with a slow-mo flow that rarely lets his blondish locks move, even in the wind. On game days, the 48-year-old football lifer walks around the stadium giving off vibes more of Matthew McConaughey than a stereotypical NFL roster builder.

Then, when Snead speaks, you listen, initially, to how he greets you instead of the actual greeting.

You realize Snead truly is L.A.

Lower Alabama.

Eufaula, to be exact.

"Les is a great example of 'You can't judge a book by its cover,' " Rams COO Kevin Demoff said. "The Southern accent, the Les-isms, the Hollywood looks. People don't realize he is one of the smartest people I've ever met. He has a quiet intensity that's underneath it all. It makes you realize a method and approach that makes you appreciate every day with him."

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff certainly doesn't underestimate his former colleague.

"Les always has been -- before and when we worked together, and watching from afar -- he's always had an edgy, ballsy side to him, as far as making moves and acquiring talent. It's admirable, not always easy," said Dimitroff, whom Snead worked with in Atlanta from 2008 through 2011 before leaving to become GM of the St. Louis Rams. "He comes from the Southeast. He understands the importance of football and making aggressive moves to win. He's not always on the hunt for the most Angelic souls. He's a guy who is going to look at what's best for the football team."

Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters. Three supposed chemistry disrupters added last offseason to an up-and-coming Rams team that, under second-year coach Sean McVay, changed its culture of losing.

Edgy, ballsy moves.

They've worked out in every way. No problems. Strong production. Other moves -- like trading a first-round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, and in-season acquisitions of outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and running back C.J. Anderson -- also have worked out. Big time.

The Rams are in the Super Bowl, and seemingly every move Snead has made over the past few seasons is one step from paying off the ultimate prize.

"We say all the time we're building a team, not a collection of talent," Snead said. "You always look at the guys and what that locker room is going to be like because that is a tight-knit neighborhood. It's a very limited space for a lot of people. All these guys can play football, but is there going to be a chemical element that leads to poise and character. Do they love football? Do they want to work at getting better? Because you have to want to be better."

Of course, there was no bigger acquisition made by the Rams than that of McVay in 2017. The now-33-year-old head coach took a franchise that was a mess and a then-questionable No. 1 overall selection in Jared Goff, and, in one season, flipped both into playoff-caliber phenomenons.

Snead was big on bringing McVay to Los Angeles, but there was no guarantee that Snead was going to be there with McVay. After five seasons as the Rams GM, Snead had never been part of a winning team, despite drafting studs like running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

"It was an organizational failure. We were all 4-12," Demoff said. "At the same time, from [owner Stan Kroenke's] perspective, we all believed in Les, but we wanted to make sure that we weren't giving the personnel department and him a free pass. It was possible that we might have hired a coach who needed personnel control. Les knew that if we hired some of the people on our search list, he'd be out of a job."

Snead confirmed: "I wasn't assured of returning at that point and time. Stan had given me a rare opportunity. There are only 32 of these GM jobs and the record would have merited an exit if Stan and Kevin felt that was the best thing to do. I'm very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work with Sean."

So, like the Hollywood looker with the Southern accent who represents two vastly different versions of L.A., what kind of GM is Snead?

We often hear of teams who want their GMs to be CEO types, but everyone you speak to about Snead points to his scouting acumen and acquisition aggressiveness as his modus operandi. He's not the rigid, jacket-and-tie controller with his hands in every facet of the club.

"Les is a coach's GM," Demoff said. "He is going to listen to Sean, (defensive coordinator) Wade (Philips), (run game coordinator) Aaron Kromer and say, 'I hear what you guys want. Here are the 20 people that fit.'

"I'd say Les and Sean are co-CEOs. One is in charge of the supply chain, the other is in charge of the product."

"You can see the great relationship with Les and Sean," Dimitroff said. "When they were putting that partnership together, Kevin did a good job understanding that a coach-GM partnership is the most important thing for the football-operations side. It is vital that the partnership is always worked on, too. You can't win in this league without a good communicative relationship between coach and GM. The days of chasms between management and head coaches are a thing of the past if you want to win."

In turning the Rams around in 2017, Snead and McVay focused on adding offensive pieces to support Goff and Gurley. They signed free-agent left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, who added experience, locker room guidance and on-field production to a line that also featured guard Rodger Saffold and tackle Rob Havenstein. Wide receiver Robert Woods was signed in free agency.

All paid immediate dividends. But the real genius of that offseason came in the draft.

Without a first-round pick because it was sent to Tennessee in 2016 in the trade that allowed the Rams to move to No. 1 and take Goff, Snead selected tight end Gerald Everett in the second round. In the third round, he took wide receiver Cooper Kupp and safety John Johnson. Then came wide receiver Josh Reynolds and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam in the fourth round. All are (or have been) starters over the past two seasons and all have made critical plays in the Rams' 2018 Super Bowl run.

The 2018 draft didn't produce nearly as many immediate-impact players, but that is in part because of the veteran acquisition bonanza that netted Suh, Talib, Peters and Cooks. To acquire Cooks and Peters, the Rams surrendered first- and fourth-round picks (with Peters also costing a 2019 second-round pick).

In the third round, L.A. selected tackle Joseph Noteboom, Whitworth's eventual successor, and center Brian Allen was taken in the fourth round to eventually take over for Sullivan.

"Coming into the season, with the moves we made, everybody said, 'Look at the Rams going all in,' " Demoff said. "What we did overall, that's the aggressive-but-not-reckless approach Sean and Les talk about."

The Rams weren't done. Although unbeaten at 8-0 to start this season, Snead and some coaches felt that they couldn't forge a deep run into the playoffs without adding an edge rusher. So they made a deal with Jacksonville for Fowler, who really has come on of late. He got enough of Saints quarterback Drew Brees in overtime to force an errant throw that was intercepted by Johnson in the NFC Championship Game. A late-season knee injury to Gurley also prompted a move to nab the out-of-work Anderson, who has been an incredible addition to the backfield, with and without Gurley.

"Even though we didn't know how it would wind up, we looked at trading for Dante and had questions because he has an expiring contract, he's not playing in Jacksonville all that much," Demoff said. "Then we were in a bidding war with three or four other teams. Les fearlessly said this is important to us this year. You could tell Les has learned over time that it's always great to have a ton of draft picks, but you don't always have time to develop guys. So you go get them."

Snead, the players, the coaches. The talent is in abundance. The chemistry. That's the difference. As Snead said, a lot of things go into adding a player, but when so many people pull together to make things work in a sport where one or two bad turns can ruin a season, then you know you've got to capitalize.

That might be what Snead is most proud of.

Gurley, who has been through some significant highs and lows in his four seasons with the Rams, expressed, maybe unknowingly, the type of selfless team that has been built in Los Angeles.

"It's not about me," Gurley said. "This sport has never been about me. It's never been about one player. Todd's only going to be with the Rams so much longer. It's going to be another dude that comes in just like me. This whole game is bigger than me.

"That's why I'm so happy. I've been 4-12. I've been broke. I got money. I've done had terrible seasons. I'm in the Super Bowl. It's a blessing. It's a blessing from God. It's like no better feeling than to be able to be at the bottom and you're at the top because you always wanted to be in that position -- and to be in that position is a great feeling."

I asked Snead -- after all the player moves, relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles, changes with coaches and now a run of success he'd never had with the Rams -- what was the most important component to finally reach a Super Bowl.

"I'll go with the most boring answer there is," Snead said in his all-too-L.A. way. "I don't know if you are ever a cherry-on-top away. It's been an accumulation of many decisions. Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley decisions help. The Jared Goff decision. The Whitworth decision.

"To truly get to the breakthrough, we hired Sean and he was charged with creating an environment that would allow us to have a chance to win by creating an environment for all the players and an environment for Jared to reach his potential. The timeline was a very important one."

Then Snead changed gears without saying what the timeline was. His shift said all that needed to be said.

That timeline is now.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter at @wyche89

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