Friday, December 2, 2005

The Greatest Show on Turf has become a circus.

The St. Louis Rams may or may not have a head coach. One of the Rams’ executives threatened a beat writer. One of the most productive running backs in NFL history is sitting on the bench.

And last week, the only thing that saved them from another humiliating defeat was the heroics of a rookie quarterback from Harvard.

The Rams were the most feared team in the NFL from 1999 to 2001, fielding perhaps the league’s most explosive offense and reaching two Super Bowls.

These Rams (5-6) haven’t struck fear in the lowliest teams. St. Louis lost to both the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals this season, and they scored 10 points in the final 34 seconds last week to avoid a loss to the 1-10 Houston Texans.

The trouble started early.

With the Rams at 2-3, coach Mike Martz took a leave of absence to deal with a heart ailment. Martz vowed to return this season, but Rams president John Shaw made it clear that won’t happen.

What’s more, many NFL observers believe Martz won’t ever return because his prickly personality with Rams executives outweighs his impressive 56-36 record.

“Initially, it was strange,” said Torry Holt, a seventh-year Pro Bowl receiver. “Nobody knew what was going on or where things were headed. [Interim coach Joe] Vitt has done a terrific job of stepping in and giving us a sense of direction, keeping things loose, staying positive. That’s what we’ve been trying to do here all year long even though we’ve been having controversy and turmoil.”

Vitt worked with Martz under coach Chuck Knox in Los Angeles from 1992 to 1994, and he still talks to his friend daily. The Rams are 3-3 under Vitt, a feisty two-time cancer survivor.

“Things haven’t gone exactly the way we wanted … but I don’t want to do anything else,” said Vitt, who has coached defensive backs and linebackers the last 23 years. “You’ll have to drag me off the field.”

The turmoil of which Holt spoke began before the season when director of football administration Samir Suleiman left a threatening, profane message on the answering machine of a St. Louis columnist who had written about Rams executives backstabbing Martz.

That Suleiman wasn’t fired shows where Shaw’s loyalties ultimately lie.

“We all speculate — [the media] speculates, players speculate, and coaches speculate,” Holt said. “I’ll say that it would be terrific to have Coach Martz back. His standards are tremendous, which rubs off on us. To hear him say he wants to come back is absolutely fantastic.”

Fantastic was a word frequently used to describe running back Marshall Faulk, an 11-year starter who has compiled more yards from scrimmage than anyone in NFL history except Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. Faulk is little more than a spare part for the Rams this season. He was demoted in favor of youngster Steven Jackson, but he hasn’t complained.

“Marshall’s most important role is how he interacts with players in the locker room and on the field and how he helps the coaches see coverages, fronts and what we can and can’t do,” Holt said. “He has embraced it. He’s doing what he can to help when he’s not on the field.”

Marc Bulger, the No. 1 quarterback of the previous 21/2 seasons, missed four starts because of a shoulder injury. Journeyman backup Jamie Martin took over but was knocked out with an injury last week.

In stepped Ryan Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round draft choice from Harvard. Fitzpatrick passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns, leading a comeback from a 24-7 deficit to a 33-27 win over the Texans in overtime.

“I had never been in the huddle with Ryan, even in preseason,” Holt said. “To actually be in the game with him was strange. As he made more throws, we saw his confidence growing. He did a terrific job.”

Through all the changes — two rookies start on the line and the Rams’ career receiving leader, Isaac Bruce, has missed five games with injuries — the offense has been its usual terrific self, leading the NFL in passing yards.

The rarely strong defense, however, is even worse than usual, allowing the most points and the fourth-most yards.

“It puts pressure on the offense to go out and score every chance that we get the football,” Holt said. “It’s tough to do that.”

The Rams, who whipped NFC West rival Seattle three times in 2004, were swept this season by the Seahawks, who can clinch the division this week. Tied for 10th in the NFC with five games left, the Rams could miss the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons.

“We’re going to have to get better in a hurry if we expect to have any kind of success this season,” Vitt said.

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