NEW ORLEANS Mike Martz never wanted to be a head coach. Although the St. Louis Rams’ offensive guru decided as a teen-ager to become an assistant, he feared gaining the spotlight would mean burning out.
“I had no big desire to be a head coach. It just destroys you,” he said.
Martz is the reluctant hero as the Rams get ready for the New England Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXVI. The ringleader of the “Greatest Show on Turf” is 26-9 since taking over the Rams two days after their Super Bowl XXXIV victory following Dick Vermeil’s sudden retirement.
Detractors call him arrogant. The Rams’ top-ranked offense rankled opponents by scoring late in runaway victories. Others believe he’s a genius who can be aloof when constantly thinking of new X’s and O’s. Martz often sleeps in his office and dines alone to maximize his working hours.
Yet Martz seems the same gentle, quiet soul he was when he coached the Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks in 1997 and 1998. It’s just that success has forced fame onto someone who was at peace strolling nearby Bull Run on days off while working at Redskin Park. Martz’s great-great-grandfather was a Yankee soldier killed there during the Civil War, and Martz would reflect on that while touring the Manassas park. He admires the “courage and commitment” of the soldiers.
“The thing that intrigues me about the Civil War are the profiles of people involved,” Martz said. “It’s fascinating to read about some of the things these people who had such a huge impact on history went through and how extreme some of the situations were. There are a lot of things from the situations within the Civil War to draw from and talk to players about.”
Martz has been likened to Don Coryell, whose San Diego offenses featuring quarterback Dan Fouts were seemingly unstoppable in the 1980s. The Rams have two-time NFL Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner, former MVP running back Marshall Faulk and four talented receivers. Since Martz became offensive coordinator in 1999, the Rams have averaged 32.7 points 1.1 points off the three-season NFL mark. St. Louis scored 30 or more points 11 times this season.
Opponents labeled Martz an egotist for the high scoring. The criticism stings, but Martz won’t back off.
“I do worry about insulting people,” he said. “I don’t like that, and it’s certainly not our intent, but we take an aggressive approach to things, and I guess that’s interpreted as being somewhat arrogant.”
However, his players are ardent Martz supporters. His temper can sometimes erupt, but they know Martz is simply challenging them to produce.
“Mike loves the label of ‘mad scientist.’ He loves living up to that,” Warner said. “He loves designing things. I think he got away from that last year, but he delegated responsibility this season and got back in the laboratory.”
Said linebacker Don Davis: “I kind of felt [before joining St. Louis] like he was an arrogant person. He kind of walked around with that swagger. When you are on the other side, it kind of makes you mad. Coming here, he has a tremendous amount of confidence, and I love it. We just feed off of that as a team.”
Added safety Kim Herring: “He’s not the old-school coach who yells and screams at you. It’s as if he’s your father, and you don’t want to let your father down.”
Much has been made of Martz facing New England coach Bill Belichick, known for his defensive wizardry. The Rams’ 24-17 victory over the Patriots on Nov. 18 made Belichick realize how creative Martz could be.
“He sees your weakness, and after you get that fixed, you go another series and Mike has already moved on to another area you’ve weakened in order to compensate,” Belichick said.
Said Rams guard Adam Timmerman: “If it’s a chess game, my money’s on coach Martz.”
Perhaps equally impressive was Martz’s offseason defensive moves. Eight starters and four defensive assistant coaches were changed after the Rams allowed 471 points last year and endured a first-round playoff exit. Martz was never one to concern himself with the defense, but he understood the need to become more involved. Such major moves could have undermined the team, but Martz felt it was the only way to return to the Super Bowl.
“Why make all the changes if we didn’t think we could get this far?” he said. “We felt they had to be drastic.”
After all, Martz knows about drastic moves. He accepted a volunteer coaching job with the Rams in 1992 after being fired as part of the Arizona State staff, a dismissal that still haunts him. Martz couldn’t find work and supporting four young children didn’t make it an easy decision, but that unpaid season led to an NFL career.
“That was probably as close as I have come to getting out of the profession,” he said.” But I just enjoyed the game and could not imagine doing anything else.”