Insider | Notes
As players milled around midfield at Raymond James Stadium early Tuesday morning, moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed the St. Louis Rams their third loss to drop them to a surprising 0-3, several Rams players talked openly about what's wrong with the team.
Players love to gossip with each other, sometimes with brutal honesty. On this night, Rams receivers made it known to a few Tampa Bay players why they thought the St. Louis offense barely resembled the high-flying unit of the past three years:
Kurt Warner, they said, isn't being Kurt Warner.
"He needs to let it loose again," one of the Rams receivers said. "He's not playing as free as he did."
|Mike Martz has lost much of his luster this season. (AP)|
Warner, according to scouts and personnel people who have watched him play this year, appears to be too worried about the rush and not concentrating on what's happening down the field. That's one of the main reasons the once explosive offense is struggling to score.
The offensive line is terrible.
That's the Cliff notes answer to the most-asked question in the league: What's wrong with the Rams?
The quarterback has no confidence in his offensive line.
"It's almost like he's back to his Arena Football days," said one team's personnel man. "He wants to get the ball out as quickly as possible. He's wearing a mouthpiece for the first time, which should say something about how he feels about his line."
Warner is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, quarterbacks in the pocket. It's what made him great. He made his mark waiting until the last second to fire a pass, ignoring defenders bearing down on him. He suffered concussions and injured a thumb, but it also helped him put up the huge numbers.
The way he's playing is not an indictment of him. Nobody can stay healthy behind that line, let alone succeed. If something doesn't change, Warner might not make it until November.
They once called this offense "the greatest show on turf." It now has a new name.
"Chuck and duck," said the personnel guy.
Warner is the all-time leader in passer rating, qualifying to take that throne Monday night in Tampa when he threw his 1,500th pass. That same night he threw four interceptions, giving him seven on the year and making him anything but efficient. He was sacked five times, and were it not for his nifty footwork in the pocket, he would have been dumped another four or five times.
True, but amusing, stat: Warner has as many touchdown passes as Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. Warner's passer rating is 69.5, some 30 points less than his career mark of 100.7. The passer rating Mendoza line is 75. Can this be real?
Some have speculated Warner is hurt, that his thumb injury from a year ago is not healed. That, they say, is why his ball is floating like a balloon at the Thanksgiving Day parade. He denies it.
Warner has never thrown a tight spiral. But the reason his passes are floating now is because of his offensive line. He can't step into throws, often winging it off his back foot.
Warner showed in the second half Monday night, when he fired a long bullet that receiver Isaac Bruce should have caught for a game-changing touchdown pass, that his arm and his hand are fine.
What's not is his head.
Who can blame him? The hits always take a toll. Just ask Jim Everett, another Rams quarterback who was once on the threshold of greatness. He appeared on magazine covers, including GQ, but after taking a vicious beating in an NFC Championship Game loss to the 49ers in 1989, he was never the same.
Everett should have had metal plates installed on the bottom of his feet as much tap-dancing as he did after that. Warner's feet aren't setting now, either. He's jumpier than a kid meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time.
But let's not dare say that Warner is finished. If he could regain the confidence in his line, he'd be back to new. The question is, can he?
|Kurt Warner doesn't look like the same QB so far in 2002. (AP)|
The line troubles are a result of bad drafting. The Rams have taken five offensive linemen since 1999, and the only one who is starting is right tackle John St. Clair, a converted center who actually left Monday's game with a hip flexor.
Of the other four, none are on the active roster, although rookie Travis Scott is on IR. Not that he would have helped. The talk out of the Rams camp was he was terrible and was kept only because he was a pet project of Rams coach Mike Martz.
Martz used a fourth-round pick on Scott, even though most teams had a free-agent grade on him. Martz, who now has final say of personnel decisions, also used a third-round pick this year on Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who he tried to convert to a receiver. Crouch quit football last week, but the indication was that he wasn't making a smooth transition anyway and that Martz would have been better off taking another offensive lineman.
In 2000, the Rams drafted three: St. Clair in the third round, guard Kaulana Noa in the fourth and Andrew Kline in the seventh. In 1999, guard Cameron Spikes was taken in the fifth.
Noa and Spikes were busts and are no longer with the team.
So when Ryan Tucker left via free agency this year to sign with the Browns, the Rams had no legitimate tackle to replace him. Instead of signing a veteran, Martz insisted St. Clair could make the transition even though he had never played tackle in an NFL game. He also thought Spikes could compete. He was wrong about Spikes, and some think he's wrong about St. Clair.
St. Clair did a decent job in the first two games, although he did get help, which took away from the wide-open nature of the offense. He struggled against the Bucs on Monday before leaving with the injury. Grant Williams, who was acquired in a trade from New England right before the season started, came on and looked like a human turnstile.
The line troubles are a personnel problem. Aside from the issues at right tackle, right guard Tom Nutten is average at best, and left guard Adam Timmerman, a former Pro Bowl player, is struggling. Center Andy McCollum will never be confused with Jim Otto, although he is serviceable if the people around him are decent. Even Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace has seen his level of play drop off this year.
Add it all up, and it's no wonder Warner is having problems. What's interesting about the line struggles is that the Rams actually have two line coaches. Jim Hanifan, considered one of the best ever, teams with assistant head coach John Matsko in handling the line.
Hanifan, a longtime assistant and former head coach, has meshed together some of the best lines in league history. He was the line coach when the Hogs were dominant for the Redskins.
So if Hanifan can't make these players into a functioning unit, something is wrong. Like they say, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken dunk.
Which brings us to the real trouble with this line and at some other key spots: talent. And where does that blame lie? Try Martz. He ultimately has the final say on all personnel decisions, and there have been several that have been questionable in the past couple of years.
They let third receiver Az-Zahir Hakim walk as a free agent, although his loss has been overblown. The Rams wanted Hakim back, but they weren't going to pay him near what the Lions did. They brought in Terrence Wilkins to replace him, but he has struggled learning the offense. If the Rams had done their homework, they would have realized that was a problem he had with the Colts.
Veteran Ricky Proehl was re-signed, but he was never fast to begin with and has slowed some, too. Crouch never showed signs he could help. That's why the Rams traded for Troy Edwards three weeks ago. He is close to being healthy and has learned the offense, so he will help in the slot when he is ready and might be able to replace Hakim.
Another problem for the St. Louis offense is that Bruce might be slowing down. Teams have been rolling coverage to Torry Holt, who is now the No. 1 receiver, which means Bruce has to separate. The word around the league is that he isn't doing that as well in his ninth season. That isn't to say he still isn't a good receiver, but there have been signs of a dropoff.
The St. Louis receivers also have struggled with the physical play of secondaries, which has become a part of the manual on how to beat them. The Patriots roughed them up in the Super Bowl loss last February, and the rest of the league is following suit.
"You don't want them getting off without hitting them," said Tampa Bay safety John Lynch. "They're like a lot of receivers. Hit them and they think twice about the middle of the field."
The line woes have forced the Rams to call a different offensive game. Instead of spreading people out, including using the league's best back in Marshall Faulk a variety of ways, the Rams have bunched up the offense. They have become the anti-Rams.
On one second-half play against the Bucs, the Rams had two receivers in a route. It was that simple, which is akin to a building engineer playing with blocks. They did so to try to protect Warner. With Tampa Bay able to get pressure on Warner while bringing only three or four linemen, that created the mismatch in the secondary.
Two against seven or eight create good odds for Warner and the passing game.
Faulk still remains one of the premier weapons in the league, but without the real threat of a passing game, his effectiveness will also be cut down. The St. Louis line isn't exactly built to road-grade teams. Faulk injured his neck against the Bucs, forcing him out in the second quarter, but he might play this week against Dallas.
So is this the end of the Rams as we know them? Is a three-year run all we can expect from any team, especially this one? And are there other factors at work that have caused them to lose their past eight games, counting the Super Bowl and preseason?
Some say there is a Martz factor. The coach brought an edge to this team when he took over in 2000 for Dick Vermeil. The offensive coordinator of the 1999 Super Bowl-winning team, Martz and his arrogant and cocky approach was taken to by the players.
Make a mistake, so be it. Martz took the innovative approach that his team could score 35 on anybody, so even if the defense couldn't stop the opposition, it wouldn't matter. St. Louis players bought into it and the results have been two playoff appearances and the Super Bowl last year. They have scored 500 or more points in three consecutive seasons.
The loss in the Super Bowl, though, has changed things. Players no longer believe Martz has the karma. The players, according to some, no longer hang on his arrogant approach, and they no longer appear to have the swagger.
Call it the Mike Tyson syndrome. Tyson won fights before he ever set foot in the ring. The Rams won games before ever setting foot on a field. They danced and pranced their way into the record books, getting a Super Bowl ring along the way.
Their dance card is up. They don't play with pizzazz anymore. They don't scare anybody.
Did Lennox Lewis get them, too?
The perception Martz was clearly outcoached by Bill Belichick of the Patriots in the Super Bowl has hurt his status with his players. St. Louis had no business losing that game, but now the players see Martz isn't the magical offensive guru they perceived him to be. The talk is they don't hang on his every word anymore, even if Martz is oblivious to it.
It doesn't help the relationship when he hangs players out to ridicule after games, such as he did with Trung Canidate after Monday's loss. It was true Canidate ran a wrong route leading to a fourth-quarter interception that set up a Tampa Bay touchdown. But two things are at work there.
One, Canidate was a Martz draft pick. He pushed hard for him in 2000, even though the Rams already had Faulk. The second thing is that his players are said to be tiring of Martz blaming everyone else.
For once, he needs to take accountability -- which he never does. He is too smart a coach to not understand that his players have moved away from him. Perhaps sticking his neck out once or twice would help.
The word around the Rams facility is that Martz also has become tighter than ever. He closed practices the first three weeks of the season, a first for him, but they are expected to be open again soon. St. Louis columnists have eaten him alive for his tight ways.
Martz received a five-year contract extension before the season, but you have to wonder if the Rams wished they had waited. Since he has control over the personnel decisions, something he demanded, the product on the field is ultimately his responsibility.
That means that the offensive line problems rest in his hands. The Rams should have somehow found a capable replacement for Tucker or even kept him. He wasn't great, but there were some inside the organization who pushed for him to stay.
As it is, Warner can't look downfield with a comfort level because of what's in front of him. It is sad to see what has happened to this offense, especially Warner. They Rams have averaged 17 points in the last four games that count, including the Super Bowl.
"It's too early to say they won't be the same offense," said Lynch. "I think the talk they are done is way overblown. There's still a lot of talent there. And there's a long season to go."
If they don't watch out, Warner may not be around to see it finished. He is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league, but after a while, those shots can change a man.
The question now is whether it's a permanent change. That is still up for debate, and the guess here is that it isn't. But until something can be done about the five guys in front of him, eight if the Rams continue to maximum protect, the St. Louis offense as we know it might be a thing of the past.
And Kurt Warner might end up paying a much bigger insurance premium.