After you've been around St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil for a short time, you learn this: He can flick a switch and become his own shrink. "I say I'm not going to live and die with this team," Vermeil said upon his arrival at the Rams training camp in Illinois in July. "But you know what? I know I will. For years that's what was missing from my life. I wasn't on a team. I needed that."
Vermeil knows his needs now. Sessions with psychotherapists in the 14 years since he walked away from his job as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles taught him much about himself, including the fact that he badly wanted to coach again. Since leaving Philadelphia, Vermeil had turned down offers from four NFL teams—the Bucs, Rams, Falcons and Eagles—but last January, at age 60, he said yes to the Rams, the losingest NFL team of the 1990s.
Vermeil knew that he would win with this mediocre bunch only if he could make young players, with their signing-bonus millions, buy into an old-fashioned coach's work ethic. The last time Vermeil was at the top of his game was during the Eagles' Super Bowl season of 1980. Lawrence Phillips, who would be Vermeil's biggest challenge on the Rams, turned five that year.
Chris Rock, meet Ward Cleaver.
To many NFL people Vermeil's selection as Rams coach—and his subsequent hiring of six assistants aged 55 or older—was a recipe for failure. "I disagree," Vermeil said in July, smiling the smile of a man who had not yet been through a single skirmish. "From what I've seen so far, the player of today wants to be great. He wants to work hard to achieve."
In the NFL everyone's optimistic in July. Over the ensuing six months Vermeil's optimism would be shaken. This is a look inside the coach's second rookie year.
FRIDAY, JULY 4 Earth City, Mo.
Carol Vermeil left two days ago for the family ranch in southeastern Pennsylvania, her home base while the Rams are in training camp, so it's playtime for her husband. Playtime for him is 14 hours of work on Independence Day at his office in the Rams' complex 12 miles west of St. Louis. No phone calls. No office schmoozing. Just Vermeil and his reading glasses and the playbook he is writing from scratch.
He writes out the schedule for each day of training camp and the regular season in a three-inch-thick loose-leaf binder. Practices are planned down to the minute. For instance, the afternoon workout for July 18 has a slot marked "4:02/4:07—Team cadence-pursuit-tackling." In other words, beginning at precisely 4:02 p.m. the offense will spend five minutes familiarizing itself with the rise and fall of the quarterback's voice on the snap count, while the defense runs through tackling drills.
Once Vermeil finishes writing, his secretary, Suzette Cox, will type the schedules and the coach's 37-page treatise on team goals and philosophy. "I gain confidence by being prepared," Vermeil says. "And I've never felt more prepared for a camp in my life."
Asked if he has any early regrets about returning to coaching, he says, "One—that I didn't do it sooner."
TUESDAY, JULY 15 Macomb, Ill.
It's Day One of training camp for rookies, free agents, quarterbacks and some veterans; and three hours north of St. Louis, in the middle of America's corn and soybean belt, the Dick Vermeil Rams begin to take shape. Ninety-three-degree heat bakes the asphalt on the campus of Western Illinois University, and already Vermeil has his first controversy. Quarterback Tony Banks has brought his six-month-old rottweiler, Felony, to camp. "She's like my daughter," Banks says, beaming. The coaches do not beam. Dogs are not allowed in dormitories at training camp. Banks has committed only a training-camp misdemeanor, but Felony must go. Two of Banks's cousins drive up from St. Louis, and the quarterback bids his dog farewell. He is bitter.
Banks, 24, could be a problem for Vermeil. His response to the hiring of the coach and his elderly assistants was, "Why are they bringing the dinosaurs back?" A second-round pick in 1996, Banks won the starting job in his rookie year and performed so well that the Rams decided not to chase free-agent quarterback Jeff George in the 1997 off-season. But Vermeil is concerned that football isn't as important to Banks as it should be. Exhibit A: Banks blew a $25,000 bonus (his base salary is $300,000, lowest among NFL full-season starting quarterbacks) by not attending at least 50% of the Rams' off-season workouts. The weightlifting, he said, was messing up his basketball game. "Nobody's gonna stop me from playing basketball," he says. "Nobody."
Coaches are usually intense at training-camp practices, setting a serious tone for the season to come. Vermeil, in contrast, is a happy crusader, moving from group to group and effusively praising even the smallest success. In a blocking drill for the running backs, Phillips knocks a rookie almost to the cornfield beyond the players' dorm. Vermeil yells, "Super play! First day of camp, and that's a super play!"
After the two-hour workout he gathers the players together and gives them a high school pep talk. "Men," he says, "that was your first taste of contact. Good job! Good things happened out here today, big guys!"
In the locker room he makes a point of going up to the tired Phillips. During the off-season Vermeil has kept close tabs on the troubled running back, going so far as to pick Phillips up and fly with him back to St. Louis after he was released from jail in Nebraska on April 12. (The running back had pleaded no contest to a June 1996 drunk-driving charge in California, violating his probation on an earlier assault conviction in Nebraska, and had served 23 days.)
The coach has organized a large support system for Phillips: front-office people, a psychotherapist, lawyers and peers. Rams vice president Lynn Stiles devoted much of the off-season to helping Phillips resolve his myriad legal problems and schedule his community service. Kevin Warren, another Rams vice president, has just joined the team and is also on the Phillips watch.
Now, in the locker room, Vermeil talks to Phillips as a proud father would talk to a mischievous but promising son. "Here's the man," he says to everyone within earshot, "who's going to be one of the best running backs in the NFL this year! Good job out there today! How you feeling?"
"Crampin' up, Coach," Phillips says.
"Now, Lawrence," Vermeil says, "you know that wouldn't have happened if you'd worked out as hard in the last month of the off-season as you did the rest of the time."
"Had to take care of business, Coach," Phillips says quietly, seated at his locker.
Vermeil bends down and puts his hands on Phillips's shoulders and his mouth four inches from the player's ear. "The only business you have to take care of now," he says in a near whisper, "is being the best football player you can be."
Wrong. Phillips has one more chore to take care of before Vermeil gets him back for good.
THURSDAY, JULY 17 St. Louis
All season long, Vermeil will make little concessions to the '90s. In Philadelphia he never had to excuse a player for 28 hours so he could finish his community service in order to avoid going to jail. But late yesterday, hours before veterans were to report to camp, Warren spirited Phillips out of his dorm and drove him to St. Louis. Today the player will complete the 80 hours of off-season service he was ordered to perform after his probation violation. He presents himself at the city morgue to do manual labor. He and Warren are ushered into a room where the coroner unzips a body bag.
Inside it lies the corpse of a woman riddled with 16 bullet holes, most around the groin. She was shot outside a riverboat casino, reportedly by an angry boyfriend. Phillips has never seen anything so gruesome. "Her poor family," he says. He and Warren see other bodies—one of a man who overdosed on heroin and another, badly decomposed, of a man found in the woods.
Warren and Phillips skip lunch. On the way back to camp in the afternoon, Warren pulls into a McDonald's drive-thru. Phillips orders nothing. Still too shaken.
FRIDAY, JULY 18 Macomb
At 10 a.m., 80 players report to the practice field for the first full-squad workout. First they take a conditioning test. They must run the width of the field (53 yards) and back twice in 38 seconds, rest 90 seconds, do it again, rest 90 seconds and do it a third time. Afterward even some well-conditioned players are dying. Wideout Isaac Bruce, spent, lies spread-eagled on the ground.
In the afternoon players hit the field at 3:45 for a 3 1/2-hour practice. They perform calisthenics, stretch and go immediately into a hard workout. The defensive players begin with 30 "up-downs." The up-down is the oldest, most punishing football drill; Vermeil might be the last coach to run it to this extent. In full pads players sprint in place and, at the whistle, fall to the ground and thump the earth with their chests. Then they rise quickly and resume the sprint. Thirty times the Rams defenders do this. Later, shell-shocked players say they had never done 30 up-downs in a row at any level of football.
One day into the Vermeil era, veteran pass rusher Leslie O'Neal is ready to quit the game. He's 33. He has played in the league for 11 years and made more than $18 million, and he's thinking, Why am I doing 30 up-downs? Why is this man trying to break us mentally as well as physically on the first day?
The intensity of the workouts stuns the players. "Surprised isn't the word," defensive tackle D'Marco Farr says. "Try shocked. Horrified. I looked around at guys who were wavering or couldn't make it, and I said to myself, This one's dead. That one over there's dead. They'll never make it through this camp."
Most days the players will work in full pads for six hours under the sun in temperatures above 90 degrees. Reporters who come to Macomb shake their heads. Most teams that do two-a-day practices aren't out in the heat of summer for more than 4 1/2 hours a day. Few have double sessions in full pads more than occasionally, and Vermeil has them almost every day. But the coach knows the Rams were outscored by 83 points after halftime in 1996, and the reason wasn't just lack of talent. He won't allow poor conditioning or weak wills to be an excuse in '97.
At night in a team meeting Vermeil lays down the law. He discusses team rules and reviews the previous season, the Rams' last under coach Rich Brooks, who was fired last December. "The Rams gave up 57 sacks in 1996, placing the team last in the NFL," reads a Vermeil handout. "Tough to win doing this!" Then, just so no one ignores the "Philosophy and Goals" section in the new team handbook, the coach reiterates its points.
"Don't take anything for granted," Vermeil tells the players. "Nothing in life gets better by accident. It will take a degree of concentration you've never experienced as a Ram to succeed. Winning is not complicated. People complicate it. Consistent winning motivation comes from within. As I build this team, I will eliminate those who aren't motivated enough to win on a weekly basis and replace them with the people who have a deeper desire to excel—a desire that was implemented long before I ever came in contact with them.
"The true winner celebrates exhaustion as a measure of his complete effort. The players who do the most complaining are normally those who have invested the least amount of time preparing. Don't come complaining to me. It might get you fired." He goes on. No one nods off. Finally Vermeil says, "This is the last time we'll talk about last year."
There will be no stories of drinking and debauchery at this camp. The players meet in position groups until 10:50 or so every night. Curfew is at 11, but that will soon be moved back to 11:30, because some meetings last past 11. Coaches meet until 12:15.
Exhausted but content, Vermeil turns in. "It's a very good feeling," he says, "to be the leader again."
SUNDAY, JULY 20
Vermeil is mildly surprised by the speed of his players and by the amount of incidental contact. He decides to make each player wear thigh and knee pads to help prevent full-speed accidents during training. Most NFL players like to have their knees unencumbered, and there's some grousing among the Rams.
At the next practice Vermeil notices that only a handful of guys are wearing knee pads, and he goes bonkers. He gathers the team at midfield and yells, "This is nothing but an act of defiance! Do what I tell you! Don't f--- with me!"
After practice, defensive line coach Carl Hairston says the players are seeing vintage Vermeil, the man he knew as a player with the Eagles. "He makes hard work automatic," Hairston says. "Dick's running the same practices we ran in Philadelphia."
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 13
Camp breaks on a steamy afternoon, and Vermeil chokes up as he talks to the players. "Everybody told me coming in that players have changed," he says. "Not you guys. Thanks for accepting the program and working."
He keeps saying the players are the same. But are they? Phillips had his community service to perform. Defensive lineman James Harris was dragged out of camp by federal DEA agents to face a cocaine rap. (Cut by the Rams on Aug. 17, he will later be acquitted of the charges.) Tackle Gerald Perry flew into a rage at criticism of his play by assistant coaches and simply quit football one afternoon. Vermeil imported fullback Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, hoping he'd be a leader as well as a good player, and he showed up 22 pounds over his designated weight of 265. Bruce, the best player on the team, had skipped most of the off-season workouts (which might explain his reaction to Vermeil's up-down drill). Offensive tackle Orlando Pace, the No. 1 pick in the '97 draft, was holding out and wouldn't sign for two more days.
FRIDAY, AUG. 15 Dallas
In the third of the Rams' four preseason games, the Cowboys play their first unit the entire first half, but 20 minutes into the action the Rams have shut down Emmitt Smith and the Dallas passing game. St. Louis leads 10–0. Though the Rams will lose 34–31, they look good. "If that's the best Dallas can give us, then we're a lot further along than any of us thought," says linebacker Robert Jones. "The Rich Brooks camp didn't mold players into a winning football team. I feel this one did. We'd be totally exhausted out there, but Coach Vermeil's point was that we had to find some reserve, somewhere, to make another play. There's no way we'll give up in the fourth quarter of games."
SATURDAY, AUG. 30 Earth City
Vermeil drives the 10 minutes to his office, as he does every day, with kindred spirit Mike White, his assistant head coach. Vermeil is weary of the media attention focused on his return to the game and on his Week 1 matchup with another comeback coach, Mike Ditka of the Saints. "The game is bigger than I ever remember it being," Vermeil tells White. "Sometimes I feel like a damn sideshow."
Later that night, the eve of his first game as an NFL coach since 1982, Vermeil stands in front of his team in a St. Louis hotel conference room. "As you can tell," he says, taking a deep breath, "I'm a little uptight. It's my first time doing this in 14 years."
"WOO-WOO-WOO!" the players howl.
He introduces the captains for the year—Bruce, Keith Crawford and Roman Phifer—and then launches into a 12-minute talk. "We are fortunate to be here, men," he says, his self-assurance growing, his voice now staccato. "This is going to be the best organization in football. It won't happen tomorrow, or in six weeks. But we're way ahead of where I thought we'd be. We're going to be a winning football team, but I can't guarantee it'll be this year. You want guarantees? Join a union. Get tenure. There's no tenure in the NFL. Here you're challenged every day.
"You know, I just left the television business. In that business some people who don't work very hard are stars. That's not for me. I had to come back to the most demanding way to make a living in America, in a business that forces us to be at our absolute best every single day.
"You will experience adversity tomorrow. But when something goes wrong, this is what you think about the guy across from you: I'm going to kick your ass the next play and on every play till the end of the game.
"The finest coach who ever lived, John Wooden, once told his team that the only way to be great is to keep the pressure on your opponent every second you're out there. Put the pressure on them tomorrow right from the start. But be smart. We must play like winners before we become winners. Remember that."
You can see the emotion swelling in Vermeil. He adjusts his glasses. "And I want to tell you guys I appreciate what you've done for me. I appreciate the acceptance...." He chokes up. He says that's it and hands the meeting over to special teams coach Frank Gansz for some of the fire and brimstone at which Gansz excels.
The players are desperate to believe in Vermeil, to think he'll take them to the promised land. "We love him," safety Keith Lyle says, but they just don't know what their prospects really are. They're in the same division with NFC powers Carolina and San Francisco. They play Green Bay, Denver and Kansas City.
"He's getting respect from the players," Bruce says, "because he's earned it. But he's a little rusty with the game, with all the new wrinkles. We hope his way works, because we've only seen the downside to NFL life in St. Louis."
SUNDAY, AUG. 31
The Trans World Dome is pitch black, except for a lone spotlight on the tunnel through which the Rams have taken the field. The team has been introduced, to thunderous response, by Michael Buffer, the let's-get-ready-to-rumble guy. One man remains in the tunnel. Buffer calls, "The coach of your St. Louis Rams... Diiiiick Verrrrrmeil!" He sprints from the tunnel as though shot out of a cannon, pumping his fist and leaping into the arms of tackle Fred Miller. He head-butts defensive end Kevin Carter, who is wearing a helmet.
The day is close to perfect. The Rams struggle early and are down 17–14 at the half, but, sticking with the run, they roll over the Saints in the second half and win 38–24. Phillips rushes for 125 yards and three touchdowns. After the third, Vermeil goes to 13 players to offer congratulations. When the game ends he hugs an uncomfortable-looking Ditka, twice. In the locker room the coach's lip quivers again. "Pay attention!" he says, quieting the din. "You couldn't ask for a better scenario. You came back, whipped their ass physically and they just wore down....
"Gimme the ball," he says, palming the game ball. "Game ball goes to one man. I'm so proud of this guy. He's been through so much. I've been to jail with him, and we've talked about everything. Now his life's turning around. It's all looking up for him now.... Lawrence Phillips!"
The players pump their fists and yell "WOO-WOO-WOO!" All eyes are on Phillips. He takes the ball, casts his glance toward the floor and mumbles, "Can't do it without the linemen." That's it. Phillips turns and goes back to his locker. Vermeil can't believe how the kid threw a wet blanket over the moment.
MONDAY, SEPT. 8 Earth City
Just like that, the optimism is gone. Vermeil had the team buy a center-snap machine in the off-season to help Banks, who led the NFL in fumbles in 1996, stop botching snaps, but yesterday, against the 49ers, he fumbled three times. Two other St. Louis fumbles led to all the 49ers' points in their 15–12 win. The Rams are a young team, making kids' mistakes. There will be no quick fix.
Vermeil tells the defensive players how proud he is of them and how sorry he is the team didn't win. His voice cracks. Then he leaves the facility for 45 minutes and walks aimlessly around the Earth City area. "I was feeling so emotionally drained, so overwhelmed, I had to get out," he says.
"I can see how he got burned out the first time," Farr says. "I think you have to have a certain ability to let things go in this game, or you'll kill yourself."
At times like these the mental hammer Vermeil's father held over him as a youth returns. Louis Vermeil, an auto mechanic, was a perfectionist, and no job Dick did was precise enough to please him. "My father was a wonderful man, but he invented the phrase verbal abuse," Vermeil says with a sad chuckle. "I was 16 before I realized my real first name wasn't Dumb Bastard. You don't erase those scars."
He has tried. When Vermeil left the game in 1982, after years of sleeping on the couch in his office three nights a week—there simply weren't enough hours in the football day for him—he had several sessions with a New York therapist who specialized in burnout. Years later Vermeil found himself snapping at his wife for the smallest things and thought she deserved better, so in 1993 he began seeing another therapist, in Pennsylvania, and spent a couple of years dealing with his anger and perfectionism. Eventually he learned to pat himself on the back. "I learned to accept praise as a truth, not to just blow it off," he says. "I continued the sessions even when I felt better about these things, because I just liked it. There's such a stigma in this country about seeking help like that, but I can tell you it's one of the best things I've ever done. It has really helped me in this job. Instead of trying to make this place into Vermeil's perfect world, I've learned to accept some things as they are."
He even hired a part-time team psychotherapist, Phil Towle of Topeka, Kans., who talks to players and coaches a few times a month. Towle sends Vermeil little typed missives. One reads, "Burnout is not caused by stress. Burnout is caused by resisting opportunities that stress provides." Another says, "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within."
Towle is not beloved in the locker room. Players hate shrinks. "I wish they'd just keep that guy away from me," one prominent player says. "I walk the other way every time I see him."
SUNDAY, SEPT. 28 Oakland
After this afternoon Banks is lucky to have a job. He throws three interceptions in a 35–17 loss to the Raiders. In the middle of the game he starts jabbering with belligerent fans behind the Rams' bench. Vermeil tells him to shut up. "Tony's at a crossroads," Vermeil says. "If he makes the plays he missed today, he'll be a great quarterback. If he doesn't, he'll stay the lowest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Deservedly so." The Rams are 2–3.
MONDAY, OCT. 13 Earth City
Nice weekend. Before yesterday's game Vermeil harped on the Rams about poise, and then the players got into two fights in a 30-10 loss at San Francisco. After one of them J.T. Thomas got tossed out in the first quarter, leaving St. Louis with only two healthy wideouts. The Rams gained just 113 yards on offense, and after the game even Carol Vermeil told her husband—who doesn't call the plays—to grab hold of the offense and start calling the shots. But he can't because it's not the offense he ran in Philadelphia. It's the old Redskins offense, imported by line coach Jim Hanifan and offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome.
There's one more problem: Phillips doesn't show up for team meetings today. He is angry over having been deactivated yesterday because of a nagging turf toe. Vermeil fines him $2,000. He doesn't blister Phillips, though. "He's a good kid," Vermeil says. "He just wants to play so damn bad." But is a good blistering what the Rams need?
Vermeil may be easy on his players off the field, but he drives them hard during practices. O'Neal questions the three-hour Wednesday and Thursday workouts in pads. "Wednesday is not a game," O'Neal says. "Thursday is not a game. We should be building up to a game, not playing two during the week."
Outside observers scoff at such grousing. "I played in the Super Bowl in 1981, ’84 and ’92, and we killed ourselves on Wednesdays and Thursdays," says former NFL linebacker Matt Millen. "These guys have to learn how Dick Vermeil plays football. When they do, they'll win."
TUESDAY, OCT. 21 Earth City
Tuesday's an off day for players. But this will be one of Vermeil's busiest days of the year. He slept only three hours last night. He awoke around 4 a.m. and thought about the offensive problems plaguing his 2–6 team: the horrible third-down execution, the red-zone collapses, the quarterback's inefficiency. He thought about how to handle Bruce, who caused a commotion after Sunday's 17–9 loss to Seattle by saying some members of the offensive unit weren't playing hard. Vermeil snapped back that Bruce wasn't being paid to evaluate effort. The incident is all over the St. Louis media. Worse, Vermeil must break up his day to travel downtown and testify in the trial of the city's antitrust suit against the NFL.
Vermeil looks at tape of all the situations in the past four games, three of them losses, in which the Rams had third down and between two and five yards to go. He seeks the best plays for this week's game against the Chiefs. Then, from 11 to noon, he meets in his office with Bruce. They declare a truce. "I need Isaac," Vermeil says later. "He needs me. I think the problem was, I should have invested more time in Isaac. Sometimes you don't spend enough time with the good guys. We've got to stop running off our stars. They've run off Jerome Bettis, Troy Drayton, Sean Gilbert—good football players. We've got to keep our good ones."
The trial in St. Louis consumes a precious two hours of Vermeil's day. On the ride back, Bruce's complaints are still bothering Vermeil. He turns to a writer in the backseat. "I'm going to give you the coaches' tape," he says. "I want you to watch all three phases of our game against Seattle, and you tell me the truth. Tell me if we dogged it."
For two hours the writer watches tape of the Seattle game. The Rams' defense is on the field for 67 snaps, and it's as hustling a group as there is in the NFL. The special teams, on 24 snaps, are unimpressive because they have no kamikaze players. But there's no lack of effort. The offense has 50 snaps. First series: On third-and-two at the Rams' 42, Banks turns to the right to hand off to Phillips. Phillips mistakenly runs left. The play dies. Punt. Second series: On third-and-five right tackle Wayne Gandy protects poorly, and Banks is harassed into an incompletion. Punt. Third series: On third-and-nine Banks fumbles a reverse. Six-yard loss. Punt. Fourth series: Bruce drops a first-down pass, and on third-and-six Banks forces a ball into double coverage, intending to hit back Amp Lee, but it falls incomplete. Punt. Fifth series: On second down Gandy is pushed back into Banks, causing the quarterback to throw a duck. On third-and-seven Banks underthrows his target. Punt. And so forth.
It isn't a lack of effort that's killing the Rams. It's their offense. It stinks. The system relies too much on the struggling Phillips, who dives every time he hits a little traffic. Banks has consistently let them down, and they don't get enough production from their real weapons: Bruce, Heyward and Lee. But hustle? Hustle is there.
Late in the afternoon Suzette Cox absorbs a wrathful phone call from a ticked-off fan while Vermeil watches tape down the hall. She's been busy on Monday and Tuesday after each of the Rams' five losses, screening such angry calls. Cox worked for the 49ers for 12 years, then moved here to organize Vermeil's coaching life. "The callers seem angrier now than they used to be," she says. She thinks it's because the fans now consider themselves quasi-owners, having paid personal-seat license fees to help build the Trans World Dome. "They feel they have a stake in the team and ought to be able to talk to the coach. But he doesn't need to hear it."
Vermeil walks in. "How's it going?"
"Fine," Cox says. "Everything's quiet."
At night Vermeil watches more tape in the offensive film room, preparing for Kansas City. White is there. Rhome, Hanifan and receivers coach Dick Coury float in and out with ideas. As they watch the Chiefs defense, White says, "I'd love to see you go no-huddle against these guys, Dick."
"We're having enough trouble with the huddle," Vermeil says.
He finishes 10 reels of tape by 11. Then he goes to his office to organize tomorrow's practice. He could leave by 11:45, but he'll stay more than an hour longer. "I can't leave before my coaches," he says. Around midnight he ponders his day and his year. "In Philadelphia," he says, "if you'd told me I had to go testify in court for something on a Tuesday, I wouldn't have done it. But I don't fight things I can't beat anymore. I think I know myself better. When I go home on Sunday nights after a loss, I don't let it be a wake. I knew what I was in for, coming to the losingest team in the '90s, and it's been one crisis after another. But we've overcome our share of them. What we have to do is play better offensively. That's frustrating. Everybody's screaming at me to bench Banks, but these are our guys. We're married to 'em. We can't divorce 'em when they lose and remarry 'em when they win."
As he gets in his car just before 1 a.m., his eyes are slits, but he's smiling after his 21-hour day. "I failed the test after 25 years of coaching last time," he says, conjuring memories of his messy divorce from the Eagles. "Every time I pass a test now, I'm happy."
MONDAY, OCT. 27 Earth City
For the third time this season Vermeil has a black moment, a time he feels so down that he leaves the training complex and walks outside for nearly an hour. He gets this way after a crushing disappointment in the face of which he feels helpless. This time it's because the defense performed so well yesterday and the Rams came away with another loss, 28–20 to the Chiefs. Another weakness was exposed: Because the offense doesn't have a system of hand signals to back up the coach-to-quarterback radio system, the Rams had to burn four timeouts yesterday because of electronic snafus.
Vermeil walks in a circle around the complex, talking to himself and thinking. At one point he thinks, These players would be so much better off without me here. When he stops believing that, he returns to his desk. For 12 more hours of work.
THURSDAY, NOV. 6 Chesterfield, Mo.
It's just after 9 p.m., and Carol and Dick Vermeil are home having a glass of California Cabernet when the phone rings. Trainer Jim Anderson calls with bad news: Pace, the Rams' best offensive lineman, will miss up to three weeks with a partially torn patella tendon in his right knee. On Sunday the Rams will have to face the Super Bowl champion Packers in Green Bay without him. "In the past I would have overreacted, done something stupid," Vermeil says. This is what he does now: He pulls an anatomy book from the shelf, and he and Carol study the structure of the knee.
"We all mature as we get older," Carol says. "Dick doesn't fly off the handle at things now. He analyzes."
FRIDAY, NOV. 14 Earth City
Vermeil is careful to make no single game seem critical, because he knows the franchise is going nowhere in '97. But Sunday's game with Atlanta is a big one. The loser takes sole possession of last place in the bottom-heavy NFC West with five weeks to play. What's more, Brooks, the Falcons' defensive coordinator, is the guy the Rams dumped to bring in Vermeil as their savior. To be 2–9, staring up at Atlanta and New Orleans—well, this may not be the Armageddon Bowl, but it is at least the Referendum Bowl. "If we lose," Vermeil says, "I can see the ownership saying, 'We should have kept Rich Brooks. This guy's not getting it done.'"
Told of Vermeil's comments, club president John Shaw says, "That's shocking. I don't second-guess dismissing Rich, or hiring Dick. I don't question my belief that we'll get this right."
Within the team's upper management, however, there is a growing sentiment that Vermeil's unbending loyalty to his players is one of his big problems. The Bill Parcells school of coaching says players need to have that living-on-the-edge-of-the-roster feeling so they'll play with abandon and continually prove themselves. Vermeil has told his guys they're the future. If they miss a block or have a couple of off weeks, so what? They're secure. Rams management, which was expecting fire-and-brimstone Vermeil, wonders if it has instead gotten Vermeil Lite.
"I can't do it Bill Parcells's way," Vermeil says. "I believe strongly that there's a better way to motivate than through intimidation. If you can help a person feel he's responsible for changing the fortunes of a football team, that can bring a stronger commitment than if you're standing over him, screaming. I want these players to want to win as bad as I do. I don't think you do that through intimidation."
But can that work in 1997? "Let's face it," Heyward says. "We can talk about loyalty, but we're playing for money."
SUNDAY, NOV. 16 St. Louis
The Rams lose to Atlanta 27–21, and their record drops to 2–9. It's bad enough that Dennis Rodman and his entourage are in the locker room after the game, yucking it up with Lyle. What's worse is the I.V. line stuck in Phillips's arm. Vermeil says the running back has the flu. What he has is the alcohol-related flu. Already getting fined daily for being eight pounds over his prescribed playing weight of 225, Phillips is still dehydrated after a Friday night of drinking.
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 19 Earth City
Vermeil and his staff have spent a couple of days gathering facts about Phillips. They add the drinking bout—in violation of a rider Phillips signed to his rookie contract—to the approximately 20 fines he has accumulated this year for mostly minor infractions. (It was also widely reported that Phillips failed a substance-abuse test earlier in the year.) Then they throw in all the man-hours the team has devoted to grappling with Phillips's legal problems, and Vermeil thinks he may have to fire the Rams' 1996 first-round pick.
Vermeil calls Phillips and tells him that he isn't sure what he's going to do, but that this accumulation of black marks will have some consequences. "When you go to practice today," Vermeil says, "you'll go out as Jerald Moore's backup."
The coach sees no difference in Phillips's demeanor. He doesn't get the apology he wanted. Finally, he says, "Lawrence, tell me something. What would you do if you were me?"
Phillips thinks for a moment. "Coach," he says, "I'd cut me."
Phillips leaves the building and skips the day's team meetings. He's making Vermeil's decision for him.
THURSDAY, NOV. 20 Chesterfield, Mo.
Before he's out of bed, Vermeil has made up his mind. He doesn't want to reward Phillips by giving him his freedom, but the coach has little choice. He thinks to himself, If I can't make a tough call now, how am I going to make the tough decision in three years, when we're great? Phillips is history.
Just before 9 a.m. Vermeil meets with Phillips and Warren in Warren's office. "Lawrence," Vermeil begins, "playing in the National Football League is a privilege. You haven't made the most of that privilege, and we're going to have to let you go. But please, wherever you go, you have to learn one thing. You have to learn to listen."
The kid is so hard. He will lose his entire salary and bonus payment, a total of $2.25 million in 1998, because no team would be stupid enough to pick him up on waivers and have to honor his Rams contract. Amazingly, Phillips shows no sadness, no anger. Nothing.
"I allowed myself to get too close to the kid," Vermeil says afterward. "This will eat at me for a long time." He should want to kick the kid all the way down Rams Parkway. Instead, he will do something very strange. Vermeil Lite will help him some more.
FRIDAY, NOV. 21 Green Bay
At 7:45 a.m. the private line in Mike Holmgren's office in Green Bay rings. It's Vermeil, trying to persuade the Packers' coach to pick up Phillips on waivers. Phillips has not only ruined his future but also screwed Vermeil and the Rams, but Vermeil still feels a need to help this lost soul. "Mike," Vermeil says, "he's so close! So close! If you get him there with the leadership of Reggie White to help him, I think he can really help."
Holmgren declines to play Mother Teresa. Ten days from now, after he has cleared waivers, the Dolphins will pick Phillips up. Coach Jimmy Johnson will say that he thinks Vermeil's coddling of Phillips was the wrong approach. Vermeil will say, "Jimmy's a better coach for Lawrence than I am."
SUNDAY, NOV. 30 Landover, Md.
The Rams play hard, and they play with emotion. They beat the playoff-dreaming Redskins 23-20 to break an eight-game losing streak, the longest in Vermeil's career in the NFL. St. Louis gets more production out of the backfield without Phillips than it ever did with him, as Moore and Lee combine for 92 yards rushing and 134 yards receiving. Afterward the players pick up Vermeil and toss him in the air. "Game balls for everyone!" he says.
SUNDAY, DEC. 7 New Orleans
For the second straight week St. Louis trails by at least a touchdown with 12 minutes left and pulls out a victory. Three times in those last 12 minutes the Rams drive for touchdowns, and they beat the Saints 34–27. Banks makes few mistakes. It's the first time in the '90s that the Rams have overcome a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. "You can feel the difference on our sideline," Vermeil says later. "Now they think they're going to win in those situations. The hard work's paying off."
THURSDAY, DEC. 18 Earth City
For the second time this year, Banks's rottweiler torments Vermeil. Felony runs out of Banks's house in St. Louis and is struck by a car. She suffers a broken hip and other injuries. A distraught Banks rushes to be with her. As the Rams' offense installs new goal line and short-yardage pass plays for this week's game against Carolina, the quarterback skips practice to be with his dog.
SATURDAY, DEC. 20 Charlotte
Sitting on a couch just off the hotel lobby, Vermeil looks fresh. He smiles. Winter Wonderland wafts from the P.A. system, and Vermeil thinks about how happy he'll be to return to his Pennsylvania ranch for Christmas after 11 months of his return to the NFL. He is asked if he's glad he came back to coaching.
"I'm not sorry I did," he says. "But I'm not sure I'd do it again. What it's done to my wife—she's not happy—has been tough." Yet he quickly adds, "I'm happy. I needed this fulfillment in my life, and I really like our chances to turn this thing around. We've been asked to put Band-Aids on some cancers, but I'm very confident we'll win. I'm excited, really excited."
In the afternoon against Carolina, the Rams play with the same spirit they showed in the season opener. Banks is error-free. Moore is a steamroller. The defense smothers Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins. Midway through the third quarter the Rams lead 23–0. They win 30–18.
In his first year with the Rams, Vermeil finishes 5–11. (His rookie season in Philadelphia, 1976, the Eagles were 4–10.) The players are giddy. They want to go again next week, to prove they're better than their record. "Coach Vermeil has put together the infrastructure of a championship organization," says cornerback Ryan McNeil, who, after leading the NFL with nine interceptions in 1997, will be a big-money free agent. "If everything on the market is equal, I'm staying. Coach Vermeil has made me love it here."
Vermeil's eyes are already moist when he gets the surprise of the day: Two Eagles special-teamers from the '70s, Dennis Franks and Vince Papale, burst into the visiting coaches' office at Ericsson Stadium. The former players and their old coach share a back-breaking three-man hug and exchange hearty claps on the back. "Coach, you got 'em up today!" Franks screams. "You kicked their ass! We loved it!"
"In 1978," Vermeil says, "I had to cut Vince. I got to the stadium early that day, about 6 a.m., and just walked the parking lot, crying and wondering how I was going to do this. I loved the kid."
Vermeil tells Franks and Papale how it's going with the new job, how he just needs to get every guy in the locker room to trust him. "Coach," says Papale, "nothing's changed. All they have to do is look in your eyes, and they'll trust you."
When the Rams' coach walks out of the locker room for the final time in 1997, his wife is waiting for him. They hug. "Oh, fix your tie," she says, straightening his NFL Throwbacks neckpiece. Then Dick and Carol Vermeil walk arm in arm into the off-season.