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The Clutch With their offense stymied and time running out, the Rams kept their miracle season alive on a dramatic catch by an unlikely receiver

Jan. 31, 2000
Jan. 31, 2000

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Jan. 31, 2000

The Clutch With their offense stymied and time running out, the Rams kept their miracle season alive on a dramatic catch by an unlikely receiver

One 60-minute street fight--Sunday's 11-6 win over the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game--transformed the St.
Louis Rams from scary good to scary mortal. But we do know one
thing about the Rams going into their first Super Bowl in 20
years: They've got guts.

This is an article from the Jan. 31, 2000 issue Original Layout

Had them, really, 12 months ago when coach Dick Vermeil hired
professorial Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach Mike Martz,
48, as his offensive coordinator. "Dick, if I get this job,
we're going to attack the defense every game for four quarters,"
Martz had told Vermeil while being interviewed. Had them when
they chose to start the untested Kurt Warner after quarterback
Trent Green went down for the year with a torn left anterior
cruciate ligament. Had them in Week 3, when Martz said to a
fretting Vermeil through his headset, "Don't go chicken on me
now, Coach," and then called a 38-yard touchdown pass to wideout
Torry Holt that gave the Rams an early 14-0 lead over the
Atlanta Falcons. "If you've got a Mercedes," Martz said last
week, "you don't keep it in the garage."

Funny, because St. Louis sure seemed to do just that against the
fast, brash, physical Tampa Bay defense at the Trans World Dome
on Sunday. With multipurpose back Marshall Faulk bottled up and
two receivers slowed by injuries, the Rams trailed 6-5 late in
the fourth quarter, and NFL MVP Warner--who had thrown three
interceptions and no touchdowns while manifesting
uncharacteristically poor judgment--was looking like the
quarterback who fell to earth. Faulk, the league's Offensive
Player of the Year, had picked up 7.1 yards per touch during St.
Louis's dream season, but he was averaging only 2.4 yards on
this day. Holt, the Rams' number 2 wide receiver, had spent good
chunks of the game on the sideline, once spitting up blood after
suffering bruised ribs; number 3 wideout Az-Zahir Hakim had
become dehydrated and had been hooked up to an IV in the locker
room.

Then, here came the guts again. With 4:50 to go, the season on
the line and facing third-and-four at the Tampa Bay 30, Martz
called Flex Left Smoke Right 585 H-Choice. The play would send
Faulk four yards past the line of scrimmage, where he would
choose an open spot and await the pass for the first down.
However, if a safety blitzed, which scouting reports had said
might happen if the Rams used this formation, Warner would fling
the ball deep, not down the right sideline toward Isaac Bruce,
St. Louis's top receiver, but down the left sideline toward
fourth wideout Ricky Proehl. Instead of calling a play with safe
second and third options, Martz, who had been Ronald
Reagan-conservative after Holt and Hakim had gone out, called
for a safe first option and a home run second option. At the
snap Bucs free safety Damien Robinson blitzed, Warner went long,
Proehl fended off cornerback Brian Kelly with his right arm and
glued the ball to his body with his left. Touchdown.

"We are the champions...of the world!" Faulk sang along with the
Queen song blasting over the Trans World speakers as he left the
stadium floor. Not so fast. The Super (Moving Van) Bowl, between
franchises that were in Anaheim and Houston five years ago, will
pit 15-3 St. Louis against the 16-3 Tennessee Titans. After
Sunday's performance, the sobering reality for the Rams is that
their offense can be stopped, and they better be able to make
adjustments during the Super Bowl if they want to win their
first NFL championship since 1951. "We were nervous," Martz said
in the postgame quiet of the equipment room. "We were jittery.
We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. That's not us. Plus, we had
an awful lot in the game plan for Torry Holt and Az Hakim, and
when they went out, I could have handled the play-calling
better. But I think we'll be much better against Tennessee.
We've got a tough defensive game under our belts."

History will be tough on St. Louis, the third-highest-scoring
team in NFL history, if it flops on offense and loses the Super
Bowl. Stumbling against the Bucs was understandable; the Tampa
Bay defense is very quick and plays a disciplined, stifling
zone. Tennessee uses man-to-man coverage 90% of the time, which
may help the Rams' speedy receivers, assuming they can get off
the bump at the line that the Titans like to employ. Warner
threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns when Tennessee beat St.
Louis 24-21 on Oct. 31 in Nashville. "I don't think we'll be
remembered as one of the great offenses unless we go all the
way," said Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan, a 27-year NFL
coaching veteran, two days before Sunday's game. "If we screw it
up, you won't be thinking how great this offense was."

He's right. Detractors will point to a cushy schedule as the
reason for St. Louis's bloated offensive numbers. During the
regular season the Rams played one opponent with a winning
record (Tennessee), and only two of St. Louis's 18 foes,
including those in the playoffs, had a defense that ranked among
the NFL's top dozen in yards allowed. The Rams' four NFC West
rivals ranked 25th (Atlanta Falcons), 26th (Carolina Panthers),
28th (New Orleans Saints) and 30th (San Francisco 49ers) in
scoring defense.

For now, give St. Louis the benefit of the doubt and posit that
Sunday's 11-6 outcome was a blip on the Rams' radar screen.
Instead, consider how St. Louis got from the disaster of 4-12
last year to the Super Bowl.

The Rams' backfield at the end of the 1998 season--quarterback
Steve Bono, running backs June Henley and Derrick
Harris--offered no hope for the future. The reconstruction
started with the January 1999 hiring of Martz, who believes in
multiple sets with lots of motion and lots of four-receiver
plays. As the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, he
pondered getting out of coaching after the Sun Devils staff was
dismantled in the fall of 1991. Then his wife, Julie, told him,
"The kids and I love your job as much as you do," and he didn't
give quitting another thought.

It was the turning point in Martz's career. Leaving Julie and
their four children in Arizona in the summer of 1992, he showed
up on Rams coach Chuck Knox's doorstep, asking for an unpaid
assistant's job under offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who
believed strongly in an aggressive passing attack. "Chuck said
he'd take me on for six months," Martz says. "At the end of the
season, if I was any good, he'd either give me a job or help me
find one in the league."

Over the next seven years, Martz coached tight ends, receivers
or quarterbacks with the Rams and Redskins, returning to St.
Louis under Vermeil. "What did I have to lose?" recalls Vermeil,
who was a combined 9-23 in his first two years with the Rams.
"Most people in St. Louis had already fired me."

Last week the Rams rewarded Martz for this 526-point season and
kept him off the market by signing him to a two-year contract
that anoints him as Vermeil's successor. Martz will make about
$550,000 a year until Vermeil, 63, retires, probably in 2002, at
which point Martz will make more than $1 million per year as the
boss. "I'm so lucky," he says. "I'm in a special place in time."

Three other moves made the Rams super:

Trading for Faulk. The week before last April's NFL draft, the
Rams and the Baltimore Ravens were in fierce competition to
acquire Faulk from the Indianapolis Colts. Indianapolis
president Bill Polian feared the 26-year-old Faulk would hold
out in a contract dispute (he says he would have) and didn't
relish paying an edge runner--i.e., one that doesn't do all that
well rushing between the tackles--franchise-back money. Faulk
still chafes over the Colts' thinking: "When they wouldn't pay
me, and they paid a free-agent defensive end, Chad Bratzke, a $9
million signing bonus, I'm thinking, Hello? I've been taking
this ass whipping on a bad team for what?"

Baltimore offered Indy second- and third-round picks for Faulk.
St. Louis bid second- and fifth-round choices, but the Rams'
second-round pick (36th) was six slots higher than the Ravens'.
Polian, glad to get Faulk out of the AFC, made the deal with St.
Louis. The Rams have employed the 5'10", 210-pound Faulk, who has
4.45 speed, as a running back, slotback, flanker and wide
receiver. He responded with the most productive rushing-receiving
season by a back in the NFL's 80-year history--1,381 rushing yards
and 1,048 receiving yards.

Drafting Holt in the first round. With Faulk onboard and a
wideout triumvirate of Bruce, Hakim and Proehl in place, the
draft-day priority seemed clear: anybody but an offensive skill
player. Cornerback Champ Bailey and defensive end Jevon Kearse
were still on the board--positions of need for St. Louis--but
the Rams picked the burner of the draft, North Carolina State's
Holt, who runs the 40 in 4.44. "It was Holt all along," says St.
Louis's vice president of player personnel, Charley Armey. "When
you find speed like that, you never pass it up." Now, in
three-receiver, one-back sets, the Rams field one of the fastest
offensive units in history.

Making Warner the starting quarterback. After Green's knee
injury on Aug. 28, most of the St. Louis coaches and players
were distraught, including Martz, who had worked with Green in
Washington and had helped the Rams sign him as a free agent last
February. "Isaac Bruce grabbed me that day, which freaked me
out," Martz says. "Isaac might say two words to me in a month,
but that day he said, 'Mike, don't worry about us. Kurt's going
to be fine. I know it.' Dick wanted Kurt to be the backup to
Trent all along. He had a lot of confidence in him."

Vermeil had almost as much confidence in Proehl. Seventeen Rams
combined to score St. Louis's 72 touchdowns in 1999, yet Proehl,
signed by Vermeil as a free agent in '98, had none of them. He
had played on five teams in 10 seasons, had never been to a Pro
Bowl and, until this month, had never played in the postseason.
"General managers want bigger, faster, slicker cars than a Ricky
Proehl," Vermeil said after Sunday's game. "I'll tell you why I
like Ricky. Not only is he a reliable receiver, but I trust him
in every way. He has his family and professional priorities in
order."

On third-and-four at the Tampa 30, with 4:50 left to play,
Warner reminded Proehl during a Rams' timeout that he would be
the target if a safety blitzed on the next play. Warner also
told him the cornerback on that side, Kelly, would be ready for
Proehl to run a short hook or out, anticipating a quick pass. "I
got it," Proehl told Warner. Proehl got a step on Kelly, who did
think the play would be a short throw, and Warner launched the
pass. "I was already thinking of what we'd call on
fourth-and-four," Martz said afterward.

"I bobbled the ball a bit and pinned it against my shoulder,"
Proehl said of the catch.

"That play," said tight end Roland Williams, "is our offense.
That's Kurt Warner and Mike Martz. Don't get chicken. Stay
aggressive. That's about as aggressive a throw as you'll ever
see."

The Rams will need a few more of them to beat Tennessee. When
Martz and Vermeil finally found each other on Sunday night in a
corridor near their locker room, they hugged for a full 10
seconds. "Hardest game I've ever been in," Martz said in
Vermeil's ear.

Where the Rams are going, they don't get easier.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER CATCH AS CATCH CAN Proehl outran Kelly to make his first touchdown reception in 17 games.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER THE BUC STOPS HERE With St. Louis's offense stagnant, the Rams turned to defenders like Todd Lyght, who held Mike Alstott and the other Tampa Bay runners to 77 yards.
"That play is our offense," says Williams. "That's Kurt Warner
and Mike Martz. Don't get chicken. Stay aggressive. That's about
as aggressive a throw as you'll ever see."