They stared in disbelief as the last-second, 48-yard field goal
attempt by Dallas rookie Billy Cundiff sailed between the
uprights, giving the Cowboys a 13-10 victory and striking at the
heart of everything we've known the St. Louis Rams to be. In
front of 66,165 stunned fans in the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday,
coach Mike Martz's team suffered a wound from which it may not
The Greatest Show on Turf is strictly an off-Broadway production
now, and everyone seems to know it but the Rams and their coach.
"We're so close to being a great team," Martz said in the empty
locker room, long after his 0-4 Rams had cleared out. Earlier,
tight end Ernie Conwell had rationalized the defeat, saying it
set the stage for "the greatest comeback story ever, by the best
0-4 team in history." And quarterback Kurt Warner--whose broken
right pinky will sideline him for eight to 10 weeks--declared,
"We're a long way from giving up on what we plan to accomplish."
Perhaps St. Louis will rally to join the 1992 San Diego Chargers,
the only team to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start, though
right now that seems as likely as Randy Moss's getting a
good-driver discount on his auto insurance. It's true that even
without Warner, the Rams still have football's brightest star in
halfback Marshall Faulk and a half-dozen other players most teams
would kill for. But if the defending NFC champions are to salvage
their season, they'll have to scrap their way back to
respectability. Their aura of intimidation is gone.
"Instead of having us on our heels, they were the tentative
ones," said Cowboys defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who faced the
Rams twice a year while with the New Orleans Saints for five
seasons. "Instead of trying to put points on the board, they were
playing not to make a mistake. They max-protected like [crazy].
I've never seen that."
No longer does Martz's aerial scheme seem a grade smarter and his
players a step faster than opponents. "Uh-uh, no way," said
Darren Woodson, Dallas's veteran strong safety, shaking his head
vigorously for emphasis. "I look at them and I see us a few years
ago. You lose a couple of key people, the offensive line breaks
down, and all of a sudden ... blam. It can happen so fast, before
you even realize it."
As suddenly as they burst onto the scene in 1999, shaking off a
decade of failure by launching an unprecedented run of offensive
productivity and winning the franchise's first Super Bowl, the
Rams have imploded in 2002. When they lost Super Bowl XXXVI last
February to the New England Patriots on Adam Vinatieri's
last-second field goal, it was viewed as an aberration that would
be rectified with the start of another season. Revisionist
history: The outcome was an aberration, all right--New England
should have smoked St. Louis.
The Rams, after all, haven't won since last January's NFC
Championship Game, and a road game against the NFC West-leading
San Francisco 49ers (2-1) looms on Sunday. "It's unbelievable,"
Conwell says. "I mean, 0-1 was bad enough, and 0-2 and 0-3 made
us sick to our stomachs. Now it feels like this is not even
reality. Somebody please pinch me, or turn on the alarm so I can
If this strikes you as the most preposterous waking dream since
Vanilla Sky, a closer examination is in order. For reasons
obvious (Warner's inability to produce touchdowns) and obscure
(fullback James Hodgins's broken right foot), the offense has
been awful. Every lineman, including All-Pro left tackle Orlando
Pace, who missed Sunday's game with a torn left calf muscle, has
been a liability at times. Moreover, since the Super Bowl, when
star wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were manhandled, the
Rams' receivers have faced increased contact from opponents. The
dangerous third receiver, Az Hakim, was allowed to leave for the
Detroit Lions by way of free agency, and the player signed to
replace him, former Indianapolis Colts wideout Terrence Wilkins,
has failed to grasp Martz's offense. That forced Martz to move
No. 4 wideout Ricky Proehl, a savvy veteran who had thrived
mostly against overmatched competition, into Hakim's old spot,
causing a drop-off in explosiveness.
After Sunday's game Martz cited a lack of attention to detail and
of overall focus among his players. Cornerback Dre' Bly added,
"It's like Coach says, I guess we're not good enough to make
mistakes and overcome them like we used to. We have some new guys
who need to understand how we do things. The fire that we've had
ever since I've been here is missing."
After a spirited practice last week Bruce--whose 21-yard touchdown
catch with 1:30 left in the first half tied the Dallas game at
7--pondered his team's predicament. "I can sense a defense's
disrespect for us from their positioning," he said. "The safeties
are getting closer and closer to the line, and the message to us
is, Y'all ain't gonna run by us. Well, once we start attacking
upfield, they'll be backing up, and Marshall will be slashing
What Bruce failed to mention was that two-time league MVP Warner
wasn't throwing well before he was injured. "The ball's not
getting there as fast as it did before, and that reduces our
receivers' margin for error," one St. Louis player said. "Without
Az we're not as scary to opposing defenses, and that makes it
tougher for us to be the Rams as you know them." Through three
games Warner, despite his 70.4 completion percentage, had thrown
one touchdown pass and seven interceptions, and despite his
insistence that he was physically sound, rumors of his demise
were swirling everywhere, even among teammates. One story
circulating in the locker room was that Warner's wife, Brenda,
had admitted to an acquaintance that her husband's arm was
"shot." Most speculation, however, surrounded Kurt's right thumb,
in which he strained ligaments at the start of the 2001 season.
"I'm telling you, the thumb is fine," Warner insisted last Friday
as he sat in his SUV.
When he dropped back to throw his second pass on Sunday, Warner
did a 360 to avoid blitzing free safety Roy Williams and then
tossed the intended screen pass to Faulk. But the running back
tripped over center Andy McCollum, and Warner's throw was picked
off by defensive end Greg Ellis at the Dallas 41, setting up the
Cowboys' touchdown drive. Adding injury to insult, Warner, thrown
to the ground by Williams, tried to break his fall with his right
hand and instead broke his pinkie for the second time in three
years. He missed five games in the middle of the 2000 season;
this time he suffered a compound fracture, which will take longer
Warner's backup, 32-year-old journeyman Jamie Martin (one start
in nine years), is a solid, well-liked player known mostly for
what he doesn't say. "He's just a quiet guy," Warner says, "but
they'll rally around him." Martin had a choppy performance on
Sunday, but considering that he missed the preseason with a
separated shoulder and got almost no reps in practice, his
24-for-37, 262-yard effort was encouraging. After a 35-yard field
goal by Cundiff tied the score at 10 with 4:28 left in the game,
Martin drove the Rams from their 28 to the Dallas 25. On
third-and-three, with 1:40 remaining, the safe call was a run,
but Martz's aggressiveness prevailed. "I could've called a
different play there," the coach conceded, "but our approach is
always going to be bold."
Anticipating a blitz, Martz called for a maximum-protection
package. Martin dropped back and was looking for Bruce on a
slant or Conwell on a seam route when Ellis and the blitzing
Williams came charging around right tackle. Tight end Brandon
Manumaleuna froze in his tracks and blocked neither Dallas
defender, and Ellis sacked Martin for a six-yard loss. After
slumping kicker Jeff Wilkins clanged his 49-yard field goal off
the spot where the right upright meets the crossbar, the Cowboys
capitalized on the opportunity and left Martz to ponder an
For all his prowess as an offensive strategist, Martz, the Rams'
offensive coordinator in '99, has admitted to being less than
comfortable in the head coaching role he assumed when Dick
Vermeil unexpectedly retired after that championship season. His
players still support him, but it's going to take more than
creative game-planning to get things turned around.
Martz's players still believe they can snap out of their funk.
"We could've won all four games, and we're just a smidge away,"
guard Tom Nutten insists. "We still envision ourselves as a good
team--a great team."
That sounds like the greatest snow job on earth, but Martz swears
it's the truth. "The line between excellence and what we're
dealing with now is this short," he said late Sunday afternoon,
holding his right thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart. It was
long after Cundiff's high kick sailed well inside the left
upright, and Martz looked as low as a dotcom CEO watching the
Bloomberg wire. Martz was asked if he, too, had lost his swagger.
"Excuse me, but you don't know me very well," he snapped, eyes
ablaze. "This is when I'm at my best. We'll just put on more
steam and fight our way out of this."
As Martz left the locker room, his wife, Julie, was waiting in
the deserted hallway. They walked for a while, opened a door and
exited onto Broadway, the air muggy and stifling, the future sure
to be bumpier than any of us ever imagined.
being LESS THAN COMFORTABLE in the head coaching role.