- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

NEW ORLEANS (AP) In the aftermath of their Super Bowl disappointment, St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz had a message for his team.
"I told them never to forget this feeling, how painful this is," he said. "And that we'll be back."
That is the goal of the Rams, stunned 20-17 by New England in the NFL championship game, humbled by their mistakes after going into the game as 14-point favorites.
The Rams had earned that role as the first team in NFL history to score 500 points in three straight seasons. They were loaded with megastars who constructed a franchise-best 14-2 record. Quarterback Kurt Warner won his second MVP award in three years. Running back Marshall Faulk was the MVP in 2000 and Offensive Player of the Year the last three seasons.
They also had the league's third-ranked defense, led by All-Pro Aeneas Williams. That unit featured eight new starters and allowed 198 fewer points than St. Louis did last year.
And the Rams still lost.
"Sometimes," middle linebacker London Fletcher said, "the better team doesn't win."
So, instead of a parade through downtown St. Louis yesterday, it was a quiet homecoming.
"With all this great talent, what's the point of letting that go to waste?" defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "Man, what a great opportunity we passed up."
Fletcher blamed the defense, even though it held the Patriots to 267 yards.
"Something we've been able to do on defense all season, make big plays and cause turnovers," he said, "that's what we didn't do tonight. We didn't make that big stop."
The Rams came in believing Martz's mantra that the only team that could beat them was themselves. "That's something we try to instill in our players," he said. "We try to give them great confidence."
Entering the Super Bowl, they had plenty of it.
"You have to have some swagger if you want to be champions," wide receiver Torry Holt said.
In the end, the swagger belonged to the Patriots, who converted three St. Louis turnovers into 17 points.
New England dared the Rams to throw, and they did. Warner often threw into coverage and he was intercepted twice, with Ty Law returning a second-quarter pick 47 yards for the game's first touchdown. On that play, Mike Vrabel was in his face when he released the ball.
"I tried to make a bad play work," Warner said. "That's what you never want to do. I should have just left it over on the sideline and if he doesn't catch it, we line up again."
It was the first sign that this could be a long night for the Rams.
Now the planning begins for next season. The core of the team will remain intact, including Warner, Faulk, Williams, offensive tackle Orlando Pace, offensive guard Adam Timmerman and wide receiver Isaac Bruce, all headed to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
Free agency shouldn't put much of a dent in the franchise. The three major players not under contract are Fletcher, defensive end Leonard Little and wide receiver-punt returner Az-Zahir Hakim.
Fletcher, who led the team in tackles, and Little, a pass rush specialist who was among the league leaders with 141/2 sacks, both expect to be back.
"They've given me an indication they want me back, so we'll see what happens," Fletcher said. "I don't see why we can't get it worked out."
Hakim could be another story. He lost his punt return job to Dre Bly in December after losing three fumbles in a five-game span and could be moving elsewhere.
"The sun will come up tomorrow," said a somber Jay Zygmunt, the Rams' president of football operations. "But the hurt is quite severe at this time. Tomorrow, we start work at getting back here."


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