- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

NEW ORLEANS. — The St. Louis Rams are the Microsoft of pro football very cutting edge. Their celebrated offense, the "Greatest Show on Turf," is straight out of "The Jetsons." And this past offseason, just for the fun of it, the Rams decided to test the maxim that you can't fire the players, so you fire the coach.

Yup, after giving up nearly 30 points a game last year which killed their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champs they pretty much fired their entire defense. Six new guys were brought in and a seventh, who had never started a game, was promoted from within. Gone were recent Pro Bowl selections Kevin Carter and Todd Lyght. Gone was longtime defensive tackle D'Marco Farr (who, interestingly, went from playing on "The Worst Damn Defense in the NFL Period" to being on "The Best Damn Sports Talk Show Period"). That's not rebuilding, that's almost a complete makeover, a Michael Jackson job.

When a coach makes changes of that magnitude, he doesn't expect the second coming of the Steel Curtain at least, not right away. Indeed, after hiring Lovie Smith off Tampa Bay's staff to be his new defensive coordinator, Mike Martz told him, "Just get us to the middle of the pack." With all the points Kurt Warner and Co. put up, Martz figured he needed only an average defense to contend for another title.

But Smith has given him much more than that. The defense improved from last to seventh in the league in points allowed and intercepted Brett Favre six times in the playoff win over Green Bay. That, as much as anything, is why the Rams are back in the Super Bowl again, looking to add to their legacy.

"We knew we were going to be a good defense," says end Grant Wistrom, one of the few holdovers, "but we didn't think it would happen as quickly as it did. Everything just kind of fell into place for us."

The first thing that fell into place was former coach Dick Vermeil coming out of retirement and signing on with the Chiefs. Because Vermeil was still under contract as a "consultant," St. Louis was entitled to compensation. So Kansas City forked over a second-round pick (plus a No. 3 next year), and the Rams used it to select linebacker Tommy Polley, maybe the biggest steal in the draft.

"Polley has started at two different linebacker positions and played at a high level at both," Martz marvels. "That's unbelievable for a rookie."

St. Louis also hit on another draftee, first-rounder Adam Archuleta. Archuleta was something of a gamble because the Rams wanted him to switch from linebacker, his college position, to strong safety. But he made the transition with nary a hiccup. "People like Carnell Lake and Darren Woodson have done it," Archuleta says, clearly unimpressed with himself. "You just have to be athletic enough."

Probably the biggest break for the St. Louis defense, though, was that Arizona made Aeneas Williams available in a trade. The Cardinals thought Williams was nearing the end, but he has played better at 33 than he has in years. The Rams' secondary was hopeless last season, yielding 32 touchdown passes almost as many as Warner and Trent Green threw. But with Williams holding down one side of the field, that figure dropped to 19.

Smith further solidified the defense by adding end Chidi Ahanotu and linebacker Don Davis, both of whom had been with him in Tampa Bay. And St. Louis' one major free agent signing free safety Kim Herring, who won the Super Bowl with the Ravens last year has also worked out nicely. The Rams essentially ran the table with their offseason acquisitions; everybody turned out to be an upgrade.

The rest was up to Lovie an unusual name for football coach, to be sure. On the other hand, he says, "It's a name you're gonna remember. There aren't too many Lovies around."

This Lovie had knocked around in the coaching ranks for a while once getting fired with the rest of the staff (including Martz) at Arizona State and had never been a coordinator until this season. (He looks, from a certain angle, a little like Morgan Freeman. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if folks come up to him and say, "You were great in the 'The Shawshank Redemption.'")

Smith is a graduate of the Tony Dungy School of Simplicity which might explain why the defense has come together so quickly. "Our scheme fits what the players want to do these days," he says. "They want to be aggressive, they want to read on the run, they want to play the way they used to play in college and that's what we're letting them do."

Most of the talk this week has been about the St. Louis offense and the New England defense, but the Rams' 'D' might have something to say about the outcome of the Super Bowl, too. It did, after all, score three touchdowns against the Packers a few weeks back.

Wistrom and his defensive mates, though, seem quite comfortable taking a back seat to Kurt Warner's Flying Circus. "We're the stepkids on this team," he says. "And that's the way we always play defense like we've got something to prove."

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