By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/24/2005


Coach Mike Martz stood at the podium at Rams Park on Monday, with team President John Shaw and a roomful of reporters watching, and tossed the keys to the 2005 Rams to Joe Vitt.

"This is now, really, Joe Vitt's team; it is," Martz said. "He'll have his way of doing some things that are different from mine. But I trust in him completely."

Vitt has been serving as interim head coach for two weeks, since Martz began an indefinite leave of absence for treatment of endocarditis, a bacterial infection of a heart valve. On Monday, when Martz announced that he wouldn't return this season because of his health, Vitt went from temporary caretaker to permanent decision-maker.

The change, Vitt promised, won't be discernible. "I'm really not going to change anything that I've been doing so far," he said. "For the last two weeks it's been my responsibility to prepare our football team to compete and win. ... To me, we're carrying on business as usual. We've got practice on Wednesday."

Vitt, 51, is a career NFL assistant coach; he's worked for six teams over 27 years, including a three-year stint with the Los Angeles Rams (1992-94). Martz hired him in 2003 as his assistant head coach and linebackers coach.

The two are close friends, and the emotion of the situation was evident when Vitt followed Martz and Shaw onto the stage for the head coach's regular day-after-game news conference.

"We've all known Mike's been sick, and this was a possibility," said Vitt, his eyes glistening. "I've said it all along: His health is the most important thing to me, and it's the most important thing to our staff, our team, our organization.

"Mike loves this football team, and this has been very, very hard on him. And it's been hard on all of us, watching what he's having to go through."

The Rams (3-4) are 1-1 under Vitt, with Jacksonville (4-2) scheduled to visit the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday. Vitt's Rams lost to the undefeated Colts 45-28 at Indianapolis on Oct. 17, then defeated the New Orleans Saints 28-17 on Sunday at the Dome. Afterward, Vitt received a game ball from his players and a special token from Martz.

"I'm coming back from the game, and he gets me on the cellphone and says, 'Hey, stop on over,'" Vitt said. "He presented me with a bottle of champagne. He couldn't have been more proud of our football team and what we accomplished. That one was for him."

The Rams trailed by two touchdowns in the opening period and 17-7 early in the fourth before rallying with three touchdowns in the last 9 1/2 minutes. "You could've heard a robin burp up in the balcony in the first quarter. Man, it was quiet ... dead silence," Vitt said. "And our guys came back and competed and hung in there for four quarters. It was gratifying for our whole team."

Plus, it helped ease the strong sense of obligation that Vitt said he feels while he stands in for Martz.

"You have a sense of duty to the game itself, which has been so good to me. To our players, to our coaches, to our ownership, to our fans," Vitt said. "That's a big obligation. But it's a lot of fun. ...

"I can't sing or dance, so this is what I do. We want to do things the right way, and, hey, every time we line up, we're lining up to go win."