BY VAHE GREGORIAN
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Speaking in a hush as he prepared to leave practice last Thursday, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz grimaced slightly and subtly shook his head at the mention of returning to St. Louis this week.
"It's just too hard for me right now; this is going to be a hard week next week," he said.
Even as he declined to address it, Martz couldn't fully resist the sentiment and nostalgia at play in facing the team he was instrumental in taking to two Super Bowls, the team that fired him after last season.
"It's going to be emotional, you know, walking into the (Edward Jones Dome)," he said. "Just the smell it has. There's just a kind of ambience to that whole thing. ... You see the helmets, and, you know. ... "
His voice trailed off, and a moment later Martz politely excused himself to get back to work for those wearing the helmets of the team he's trying to revive now. While the Lions logo bears little resemblance to that of the Rams, there is a common denominator to his current situation and the one Martz encountered in 1999 when he began his second tour of duty with the Rams.
Coming off a 4-12 season, the Rams were the losingest team of the 1990s in the NFL until that astonishing breakthrough season that ended with a Super Bowl victory. With a 5-11 record last season, the Lions entered 2006 with the NFL's worst record over this decade, 21-59.
But with the Lions trudging to an 0-3 start this season, and their offense only beginning to blossom, those similarities for now appear purely coincidental. First with Martz coordinating and then as head coach, the Rams from 1999-2001 did things never seen before in the NFL -- and perhaps never to be seen again -- as they became the first team in league history to score more than 500 points in three straight seasons.
"They were everywhere," Lions receiver Mike Williams said, turning into broadcast voice and adding, " '(Kurt) Warner threw for so-and-so yards and 10 touchdowns.' "
For that reason, Lions players, including several former Rams, expect Martz to be welcomed warmly this Sunday.
"How do you boo a guy when your organization was a doormat, and the guy took your organization and made them champions?" Williams said.
Former Rams receiver Az-Zahir Hakim said Martz was his guru and the best thing to ever happen to him professionally, and figures he was about the best thing to ever happen to St. Louis Rams football, too.
"I think they'll greet him with open arms," Hakim said. "They'll welcome him back home, because that's where we did it, you know what I mean? I'm sure it's always going to be love in St. Louis; that's just how St. Louis is. Once you have done so much for that town, you can't do nothing wrong."
Former Ram Mike Furrey said he believed Martz was unfairly fired, and cornerback Dre' Bly, felt Martz was under-appreciated.
"I mean, he basically made football fun in St. Louis," said Bly, who called Martz "the inventor" of the so-called Greatest Show on Turf. "You know, everybody was looking forward to seeing The Show, and now The Show is gone. ... People in St. Louis got spoiled because of the way it was."
But by the end, the way it was was no longer. Inconsistent play, dissension within the organization and Martz's eccentricities became focal points. He was fired after the Rams went 6-10 in the 2005 season, in which he missed the last 11 games with a heart ailment that he says is no trouble for him now.
"I feel good. I really do," said Martz, guiltily adding that he hasn't been diligent about his newly prescribed diet and exercise routines. "I'd like to tell you that I am (doing them), but I'm not. But don't tell the doctor. ...
"Once we get on our feet here and everyone's on the same page, and I think that will happen, I'll do it. ... I just can't fall back into those bad habits."
If concentrating on his health is contingent on the Lions gelling on offense, Martz may be some weeks away. The Lions sputtered offensively in their first two games, plagued by penalties that Martz edgily addressed last week by saying, "Enough is enough. This won't be tolerated."
Still, on Sunday the Lions scored 24 points against Green Bay and amassed 424 yards as quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 342 yards and completed 25 of 40 pass attempts.
It was enough to validate hopes that the offense -- 27th in the league last season -- is on its way to new life with Martz.
If fans aren't sold yet, it's clear that players are, even as they come to terms with Martz's impatience and often prickly teaching technique.
"Obviously, he's very stern and can get after you at times," reserve quarterback Josh McCown said. "But when you get past the abrasive part of it and just get to the message of what he's trying to tell you and that he's trying to harden you and toughen you up, you're really thankful for it."
Top receiver Roy Williams said Martz's mentality is what he lacked his first few years in the league. But perhaps no one is more appreciative of Martz than Kitna, 34, who spent the past two seasons as a backup but had thrown for more than 18,000 yards in his career.
"I feel like I've got a new lease on life in terms of football," said Kitna, who considers Martz similar to his former coach Mike Holmgren in one respect. "Geniuses. ... 'A Beautiful Mind' is what I call those two."
Not long ago, Kitna was concerned about his own mind getting on a wavelength with Martz, his voluminous and confounding playbook and the uptempo style that Kitna equates to the "gas pedal is always down. He never coaches with the brakes on." Now, he says, he's ready to accelerate.
If the season isn't quite putting the brakes on for Martz, it is what he called "a breath of fresh air." Or, as Furrey put it, "I think he can finally sit down and not have anybody nagging him. He's back to being stress-free."
If Martz wouldn't quite put it that way, he acknowledges that as a head coach he had gotten far away from what he loves most about the business.
"I love coaching quarterbacks. ... It's a very personal and intimate level there, and I missed that I really did," said Martz, who has spent the past two games on the sideline instead of the traditional coaches' box perch. "I just get too frustrated upstairs. ... I just feel like I see things better on the field, get a better feel for the game. ... I feel comfortable down there."
To what degree that reflects a desire to be a head coach again is unclear, though Martz would like to run a team again one day. For now, he's consumed with this one, even if he knows it can't be what the Rams had.
"That was a special place in time, and that will never be repeated," he said, adding, "We'll have our own moments here, whatever they are. ... Whatever happens here has its own life or meaning. That's why you coach."