- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

It has been a goofy year for the St. Louis Rams, who nevertheless find themselves one game away from playing for a spot in Super Bowl XXXIX. To wit:

Defensive end Bryce Fisher played well enough to be named NFC defensive player of the month for December, yet lost his starting job to rookie Anthony Hargrove.

In mid-November, Rams coach Mike Martz had to dispel rumors he was interested in the then-vacant Miami Dolphins job. In subsequent weeks, Martz fended off questions about his own job security.

Martz also had his well-chronicled shouting match with injured offensive tackle Kyle Turley during which Turley did or didn’t threaten to kill Martz and Martz did or didn’t report the incident to NFL security.

Martz, architect of what might be the NFL’s most complicated, if not interesting, offense, has been known to say rather provocative things. Filling in for injured quarterback Marc Bulger, Chris Chandler threw six interceptions in a loss to Carolina on Dec.12. Against Arizona in the next game, Chandler, a 17-year veteran hand-picked by Martz to be the backup, was 1-for-6 with an interception before being lifted. The Rams lost 31-7, and afterward Martz publicly ripped his quarterback, saying, among other things, “It goes back to the inability to function at one position. You hold the whole team hostage.”

Martz, meanwhile, was being criticized for his play-calling and overall demeanor. “Martz Madness,” it was said, no longer applied just to his wide-open, creative offense. A St. Louis columnist called Martz a “tormented coach,” adding, “He wastes too much energy and emotion fretting over front-office politics, media control and inconsequential matters.” After the Cardinals defeat, the Rams were 6-8, losers of six of eight games, and being written off.

No wonder tight end Cam Cleeland last week described the Rams’ season as one of “turmoil” and likened it to a soap opera. Yet here they are, ready to play the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome tonight with a chance to advance to the NFC Championship game.

Cleeland, who had seven receptions during the regular season, had just scored the winning touchdown in the Rams’ 27-20 victory at Seattle to make St. Louis the first 8-8 team to win an NFL playoff game.

“Yeah, we were 8-8. There’s no denying that,” guard Tom Nutten, who has been playing with a knee injury, told reporters after the game. “There’s no pretending that this season didn’t happen. But you know what? Right now it just doesn’t matter.”

Added defensive tackle Damione Lewis: “Everybody talked about us all season like we were sorry. Well, I guess we’re not sorry now, huh?”

Needing to win their final two games of the regular season to have a chance of making the playoffs, the Rams beat the Philadelphia Eagles, who had locked up homefield advantage for the postseason and rested many of their starters. Then St. Louis beat the New York Jets in overtime, getting needed help when the favored Minnesota Vikings lost to the Washington Redskins.

St. Louis has caught a few breaks, to be sure, and playing Seattle, a wobbly 9-7 team, didn’t hurt. But the Rams clearly are better than a month ago.

It starts with Bulger, who suffered a bruised shoulder in an October loss to Miami, then re-injured it against San Francisco in early December. He missed the next two games and still is not fully healthy. Yet since he returned, his passer rating has increased from 90.5 to 108.7.

“There’s no question about the arm strength,” Martz told reporters this week. “He’s got some zip on the ball.”

Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce — holdovers from the “Greatest Show on Turf” days — remain Bulger’s favorite targets, and Kevin Curtis, perhaps the fastest player on the team, has emerged as a dangerous No.3 receiver in the mold of the Indianapolis Colts’ Brandon Stokley.

When the Rams choose to run, never a given, they now have rookie Steven Jackson as a physical, change-of-pace back to complement veteran Marshall Faulk. But the offensive line, shuffled and reshuffled all year because of injuries, remains a potential source of trouble.

The biggest turnabout might be on defense, especially across a line inhabited by three former first-round draft picks. Leonard Little, the premier pass rusher, has been slowed by a groin injury and was surpassed in sacks this year by Fisher. Hargrove, like Little, is a speed-rusher, faster and more athletic than Fisher. Second-year tackle Jimmy Kennedy, a 320-pounder who rarely played last season, has recovered from a broken foot suffered in training camp and surprised everyone, including Martz.

Fisher’s up-down-up season mirrors that of the Rams, who started 4-2. He was wiped out on a blindside block during a punt return in the Dolphins game (“A bone-crusher,” Martz said. “The biggest hit I’ve ever seen in football.”) but remained in the lineup, even though he was coughing up blood and had trouble breathing. No wonder his play declined.

Hargrove eventually replaced Fisher as a starter, but the Rams like to shuttle their defensive linemen and Fisher still played a lot. Finally recovered from the block, he had a great final month. Meanwhile, Hargrove continues to develop, and the line keeps getting better.

“Every one of those guys up front has been significant one way or another,” Martz said. “They feel good, they’re healthy, they’re having some success. It’s kind of a feeding frenzy now. It’s fun to see.”

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