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Curtis, McDonald Make Rams More Dangerous
Curtis, McDonald Make Rams More Dangerous
By Nick Wagoner
Ever since the 1999 Rams emerged on the scene as the “Greatest Show on Turf,” they have been known for their two outstanding receivers.
The combination of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt might be one of the best the league has ever seen over a five-year span, but the dynamic duo might be on its way to becoming the NFL’s most explosive barbershop quartet.
Ask anyone around Rams Park these days the biggest reason for optimism heading into this season and the answer will invariably involve the myriad possibilities of the offense. Those possibilities might not be so endless were it not for the emergence and development of the perfect compliments to the St. Louis version of Batman and Robin.
Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald didn’t just arrive on the scene last season; they ran through it like world-class sprinters hopped up on Red Bull. Ask the Seattle Seahawks what they remember about their first meeting with the Rams last season and Nos. 83 and 84 will probably be mentioned followed by a slew of words that aren’t suitable for print.
“I am real excited about the receivers, Kevin (Curtis), (Shaun) McDonald, everybody,” coach Mike Martz said. “It brings back a lot of memories from some of the guys we had in the past. They are just playing now. That’s when it’s fun is when you can come out here and do something and they know exactly what to do. You just start moving guys around in stuff we haven’t done in a while. You give them some creativity in their shifts and their moves and they are just like robots. They line up in man to man coverage and have different ways on a particular route to beat a guy.”
In fact, the memories came rushing back to Martz so quickly that he goofed up on one of the opening days of training camp, asking “Trent” to take the team out of the huddle. Of course, by Trent he was referring to Trent Green, but he was actually talking to quarterback Marc Bulger.
Excuse Martz if he is having flashbacks to the days when Az-zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl flanked Bruce and Holt in catching passes from an accurate quarterback with a quick release. Substitute Curtis and McDonald for Hakim and Proehl and Bulger for Green and the ingredients are in place for an offensive tour de force in St. Louis.
The Rams spent the better part of a year waiting for Curtis and McDonald to get with the system. Unfortunately, both suffered through miserable, injury-plagued rookie seasons.
Curtis played in four games in 2003, missing the first five games of the season with a broken fibula. McDonald played in eight games, but suffered a thumb injury that kept him out for four weeks. Those injuries didn’t necessarily keep Curtis and McDonald out for the whole season, but they might as well have.
The injuries even slowed down Curtis and McDonald heading into last preseason. Now, for the first time the duo that entered the league together comes to camp not only with a clean bill of health, but an expansive knowledge of the playbook.
“This is the first camp since my rookie year that I feel 100 percent, completely healthy,” Curtis said. “I was kind of eager to get out there and get going.”
Curtis had plenty of reasons to be eager to get back on the field, especially considering the way he ended 2004. After the Rams selected him out of Utah State in the third round of the 2003 draft, Curtis entered camp with few expectations surrounding him.
He was recognized mainly for the ridiculous 48 of 50 he posted on the Wonderlic test. Some knew of the video-game like numbers he posted at Utah State, but nobody could know about the unbelievable speed Curtis possessed. It is that speed that still deceives opponents and gives Curtis the chance to burn them at every corner.
"Last year was my first year to really be out there playing,” Curtis said. “Nobody really knows who I am. I don’t think anyone is expecting much from me from that first year. I hope I surprise people. That’s probably better for me if they are not expecting me to be very fast, it can only help me.”
Without a chance to show what he could really do in his rookie season because of the broken leg, Curtis took full advantage of his opportunities in 2004.
After making some big catches during the regular season, including a 41-yard touchdown that helped spur the comeback at Seattle, Curtis finished his season with a flourish. He grabbed four passes for 107 yards in the NFC Wild Card game against the Seahawks. That was just the beginning of what turned into Curtis’ coming out party, also known as the playoffs.
The next week against Atlanta was not pretty in the game result, but if anyone stood out in a good way for the Rams, it was Curtis. He caught seven passes for 128 yards and one scintillating touchdowns while filling in for the injured Bruce.
Curtis’ touchdown was anything but your run-of-the-mill touchdown grab. Bulger hit Curtis coming over the middle, as Curtis turned up the field, the only player between he and the endzone was Falcons’ cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall headed for Curtis, seemingly with the angle to make the play. Hall was one of the fastest players in the draft class of 2004 and was supposedly clocked at 4.15 seconds in the 40-yard dash when he was at Virginia Tech.
Curtis blew past Hall on his way to a 57-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7. Though the Rams lost the game convincingly, Curtis knew he had arrived.
“It was a lot fun in those playoff games,” Curtis said. “It’s a whole different atmosphere. In that first playoff game in Seattle in the first quarter, I was kind of going blank on a few plays. The setting there was so much different, I kind of had to calm down, settle down. As the game went on I was able to get back more on my game. That kind of experience helped me so much as a player. I definitely grew a lot the last five, six games, especially in the postseason.
“I didn’t really surprise myself. I know I can play at this level and make plays for our team.”
Curtis will get a chance to continue his ascent this season as his role continues to grow and expand. Curtis suffered from shin splints last season, but he has taken steps to do what he can to prevent anymore in the future.
Martz said the most important issue in Curtis’ development is his understanding of the offense.
“Learning what he is doing is the biggest issue,” Martz said. “Once you know what is expected of you and you understand your job, your role, all those things then you can just allow all of that natural ability to…get at the highest level and that’s where he is right now. He knows what’s going on. I think he was at that level probably at midseason last year and now it’s just refining all the details.”
McDonald went through a similar situation, making an important catch against Seattle both in the regular season and the postseason. He had 37 catches for 494 yards and three touchdowns last year, but it was his 31-yard catch at Seattle in the playoffs to set up Cameron Cleeland’s 17-yard touchdown catch to win the game.
Like Curtis, McDonald had a nagging injury all last season, dealing with a knee injury that occurred in the first game of the season against Arizona. On a punt return, McDonald was spun around and caught the knee in the turf.
McDonald had the knee scoped in the offseason and had to have surgery on his medial collateral ligament. McDonald rehabbed his knee until mid-April, dropping about six pounds in the process. McDonald said the weight loss makes him feel faster, but it was an intangible gained because of his understanding that has him entering the season with plenty of poise.
Although McDonald dropped some weight in the offseason, Martz says he is still impressed enough with McDonald to give him the chance to line up outside or in the slot.
“Shaun is better than I thought he’d be,” Martz said. “Shaun can line up and play outside every snap. He has some conditioning to him that when he gets knocked around he is going to still line up and play every snap. That’s not easy for a little guy to do.”
While McDonald is lighter and feels faster, he still has to deal with the stereotype that small receivers can’t play in the NFL. McDonald said he enjoys the opportunity to prove people wrong.
“I think there’s room for every kind of receiver,” McDonald said. “You need that quick, fast guy that can get in and out of breaks like I can. I think cornerbacks probably have a harder time with little, quick guys than bigger guys that they can keep up with. I think you have got to throw different things at defensive backs.”
Thanks to Curtis and McDonald’s development, if there is one thing that this team will be able to do, it’s throw a variety of things at opposing secondaries. The only problem for those opponents is that whatever the Rams throw might be too fast to keep up with.
"Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning." --- Hesiod