ST. LOUIS — The battle for the St. Louis Rams’ center position was tough to call, even for the participants. Until Monday, when coach Scott Linehan ended the suspense, Brett Romberg worried he’d be the backup.
“Nobody knew who it was until the last second,” Romberg said. “I actually thought a little while ago that Andy (McCollum) was going to be the guy and I was kind of a little upset. I just kept working to see if I could persuade their mind a little differently.”
The Rams ultimately chose youth over experience in assessing a pair of players who followed similar career paths, both rising through the ranks. McCollum, 37, had played in 196 consecutive games before suffering a season-ending knee injury while starting at guard in the 2006 season opener, while Romberg will be 28 in October.
Linehan said age factored into the decision, but emphasized that Romberg, who started the final three games last year, won the position on merit. The line is extremely young aside from 10-year veteran tackle Orlando Pace, including guards Richie Incognito (24) and Mark Setterstrom (23), and tackle Alex Barron (24).
“You’re going to put the best five out there, and we just feel that Romberg is one of the best five right now based on how he’s played,” Linehan said. “That he’s younger is not as big of a factor as you would think.
“It was part of the decision, not a big part.”
Center was the only starting position up for grabs in the preseason. The Rams play their final tuneup on Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs, and Linehan said it was important that the decision be made before the team got into heavy game-planning for the Sept. 9 opener against the Panthers.
Linehan said Romberg’s play at the end of the year, combined with a strong showing in the minicamps and training camp, gave him the edge. He said McCollum’s play was pretty much back to where it had been before his injury.
“He was as close to the same as he could get himself and has performed very well,” Linehan said. “But trying to keep the continuity of what we had going at the end of the year was part of it.”
McCollum declined to speak to the media, through a team spokesman. Linehan said McCollum would also be available for backup duty at guard, where he also has starting experience.
Romberg won the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center at Miami in 2002, and then slowly proved himself all over again in the NFL. Undrafted, he spent most of 2003 on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad, dressed for six games in 2004 and then went back to the Jaguars’ practice squad for the first 12 weeks of 2005 with no game-day action that year.
Romberg said his wife, Emily, was a key to his eventual success. Rams coaches also gave him enough positive feedback that he was motivated to add about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
“I had started to doubt myself, would I be able to play in this league?” Romberg said. “My wife was constantly reassuring me that I can play at this level.”
The Rams signed Romberg off the Jaguars’ practice squad last September and it ended up being his breakout year. He appeared in 10 games, then capitalized on his shot at the end of the season.
“It’s a dream come true,” Romberg said. “I’ve worked very, very hard and it has been a long, tough road.”
McCollum toiled in the Arena League and practice squad duty before getting his chance and has 145 career starts. He started on the Rams’ 2001 Super Bowl team and was a backup on the 1999 Super Bowl championship team.
“He kind of did the same road that I did, just worked and worked and worked and put his head to the grindstone every day,” Romberg said. “It’s part of the business, but Andy’s still here.”
“It’s always up for grabs. I’ve got to come to work every day and keep my job.”