Amid adversity, can Rams coach reinvent himself? By Bryan Burwell Of the Post-Dispatch 12/18/2004

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell



PHOENIX - The Rams have played this season as if it was an extended game of Russian roulette, forever keeping us anxious and aggravated as they flirt with so many potential season-ending disasters.

Yet now, with only three games to play, they want us to believe the self-destructive nonsense is over and a no-nonsense approach is firmly in place. They keep talking to a world full of doubters, telling us that out here in the Arizona desert they will begin a legitimate postseason run.

"Are you kidding?" Mike Martz said earlier this week, grinning like a Cheshire cat. The head coach appeared to be almost insulted, wondering why no one could see how this struggling 6-7 football team controls its own playoff destiny. He seemed shocked that no one could figure out that success was just around the corner, even with two NFL powerhouses like the Philadelphia Eagles (12-1) and the New York Jets (9-4) standing in the Rams' path after Sunday's little dance with the sorry Arizona Cardinals (4-9).

Martz was a glass-is-half-full man in a room full of glass-is-half-empty doubters. While we keep calculating how bad a mess the Rams are in, our favorite gray-haired football eccentric keeps finding hope peeking into the room like warm slashes of sunlight.

"We can," Martz told a room full of reporters. "That's why I'm so excited. I stand here every week and tell you that. Things come up that you have to deal with, unfortunately. If it were that easy, which it's not, obviously, trying to get guys to that certain point, sometimes it takes longer than you think it would. But we're going to get there.

"I'm encouraged by what I've seen, and I told the team after the game that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They played their butts off, and we just made some mistakes that we couldn't overcome. If we eliminate those mistakes, this is going to be a real good football team."

But time is running out on Martz's hopes and dreams. A loss Sunday to the Cardinals effectively crushes the Rams' postseason possibilities. Sure, there are slim, mathematical opportunities - particularly with the tentative way the faint-of-heart Seattle Seahawks hold on to the NFC West lead - but the Rams really can't count on the NFC being so sorry that an 8-8 record will be good enough to get that final wild-card berth.

So let's take Martz on his word and believe that this is the start of the playoff push. How will the Rams do it, particularly with 39-year-old Chris Chandler starting at quarterback again after last week's six-interception meltdown? It's never a good thing to see the Rams go into a game without Marc Bulger, particularly when his backup is a 17-year veteran who looks as completely disoriented and dispirited as Chandler.

However, there is an upside to Chandler being in the lineup Sunday. It will force Martz to rely heavily on his running game against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. With both Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson ready to play, we should see a steady diet of handoffs against a team that gives up an average of 142 yards on the ground.

Martz figured when he brought Chandler in to back up Bulger during the offseason that the former two-time Pro Bowler still had something left in his gas tank. He figured Chandler could step in during emergency duty, but after last week's debacle, you know he has his doubts, and will scale back this offense greatly. (Join me now in a collective crossing of hands, fingers, toes, eyes and any other spare body parts. Can we conjure up enough cosmic goodwill that it will seep into Martz's game plan?)

Will Martz be able to resist all his fast-twitch urges Sunday? Will he be able to contain himself and play smash-mouth football, or will the very idea of such a down-and-dirty brand of offense displease his creative senses to the point of revulsion?

The Rams are more than good enough with Faulk and Jackson (and all the talented receivers) to win ugly without Bulger. They are more than good enough to slog through a low-scoring, low-risk game plan to beat a flawed team like the Cardinals. With the patchwork offensive line working with so many changing parts once again, and with a skittish backup quarterback like Chandler still trying to shake off last week's disaster, Martz can show the football world his true offensive genius if he can play smash-mouth football Sunday.

And wouldn't it be a wonderful discovery if out of the desperation of trying to bide time until his Pro Bowl quarterback gets healthy again, Martz had an offensive epiphany? As he sees Faulk scoot through the defense like watermelon seed on a wet plate and Jackson slam through Arizona like a powerful runaway train, is it possible that Martz might actually become infatuated with just how magnificent running the football can be?

Go Rams!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!