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Thread: Fall from grace
Fall from grace
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
"It's amazing to see what has happened in a matter of years," Rams left tackle Orlando Pace said.
From 1999 through 2001, the Rams went 42-13, including three playoff berths, two Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi
Trophy. Only a handful of teams in NFL history have scored 500 points in a season. The Rams did it three years in a row from
'99 through '01, averaging 32.7 points per game.
But the team that once made it look so easy now needs Mapquest to the find the end zone. The defense and special teams are
marginally better, but not enough to compensate for the sagging offense.
Throw in an unbelievable run of injuries, and the result has been a full-fledged, unmitigated disaster.
At 0-8, the Rams are off to their worst start in franchise history, and share the worst record in the league this season with Miami. Disgruntled fans are staying away by the thousands — television blackouts are increasing — and want everyone from the team owner to the janitor fired at Rams Park.
So how did it get to this point? And who's to blame?
The seeds were sown in the aftermath of the team's 1999 Super Bowl championship victory over the Tennessee Titans. Dick Vermeil's surprising retirement announcement elevated offensive coordinator Mike Martz to head coach.
Overlooked at the time, but equally important, was a re-shuffling of the front office. Jay Zygmunt was promoted to president of football operations. Although he retained the title of team president and still made or signed off on all major decisions, John Shaw no longer was involved in the day-to-day running of the team. That was now Zygmunt's job. Charley Armey was given a pay raise and a new job title — general manager — but essentially had the same responsibilities, which included running the personnel department and evaluating pro and college talent.
On the field, the Rams went from has-beens to the hunted. Like all Super Bowl champions in the era of free agency and salary cap, their roster was targeted by other teams in free agency. In the draft, the Rams would now be picking at the end of each round.
Suffice to say, the Rams haven't dealt well with success.
FEELING THE DRAFT
With the exception of the failed Lawrence Phillips selection in 1996, St. Louis had success at the top of the draft in the mid to late '90s, landing defensive end Kevin Carter, Pace, defensive end Grant Wistrom, and wide receiver Torry Holt.
The club traded up to No. 1 overall for Pace in '97; Carter, Wistrom, and Holt all were taken No. 6 overall.
But the Rams didn't adjust well to picking at the bottom of the round. Only one player remains from the '00, '01, and '02 drafts — the three drafts that followed the Greatest Show seasons.
Even factoring in the rapid turnover rate of players in today's NFL, there should be four or five current starters from those drafts now in the prime of their careers, helping to form the backbone of the 2007 Rams. Instead there is just long snapper Chris Massey, a seventh-round pick in '02.
Fast forward through the '03 and '04 drafts, and only running back Steven Jackson, and linebackers Pisa Tinoisamoa and Brandon Chillar remain. So out of the five drafts following the Super Bowl XXXIV championship season, only four players remain: three starters and a long snapper.
Jackson is the only Rams Pro Bowler produced from any draft since Super Bowl XXXIV — that's a 1-for-63 batting average over the past eight drafts. That was one reason why Armey was eased into retirement after a decade of coordinating Rams drafts.
But contrary to popular opinion, Armey never had final say over whom the Rams picked. Dick Vermeil listened more to Armey's recommendations than Mike Martz did, but historically, the Rams always have deferred to the head coach on draft day.
"We tend to be an organization where we want to accommodate what the coach's choices are," Shaw said. "Do we have protections in place if there was 'quote' crazy behavior? Yes?"
According to the Rams' organizational chart, the head coach has the final say on personnel decisions, not just the draft, but the entire 53-man roster. But ownership, through Shaw and Zygmunt, has veto power over any decision made by the head coach.
"I can't think of an instance where that's happened in the draft," Shaw said. "I can't think of an instance."
Then, Shaw added with a laugh, "I think you guys (in the media) have suggested that we should be vetoing."
A couple of "vetoes" quickly come to mind: Taking wide receiver Eric Crouch, who played quarterback in college at Nebraska, in the third round of the '02 draft. And selecting offensive guard Travis Scott, who barely played in college at Arizona State, in the fourth round.
The Rams' post-Super Bowl XXXIV drafts are littered with gambles and projections, almost all of which haven't paid off. Besides Crouch and Scott, cornerback Jacoby Shepherd (second round, 2000); defensive end Anthony Hargrove (third round, '04); and defensive tackle Claude Wroten (third round, '06) come to mind.
Not all of the picks can be blamed on Martz. Armey liked Shepherd. Former defensive coordinator Lovie Smith insisted on defensive tackle Damione Lewis in '01 and middle linebacker Robert Thomas in '02, both of whom proved to be first-round busts.
TRACKING FREE AGENTS
The blame gets spread around in free agency as well. Following the 2001 Super Bowl season, for example, Smith insisted that Jamie Duncan would be a better overall player — particularly in coverage — than pending free agent London Fletcher.
Turns out Duncan could do nothing better than the fiesty Fletcher, who is still going strong for the Washington Redskins. Letting Fletcher walk was the biggest free-agent gaffe since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. But it wasn't the only blunder.
During the 2004 season, a disgruntled Martz dropped a "flip card" from the Super Bowl XXXVI loss to New England on a reporter's desk. A flip card lists rosters and depth charts of participating teams. Martz had used yellow marker to strike out starters and key reserves from the '01 Rams who were no longer around. Only a few names remained from the '01 defense.
Martz's point? Management had let too many players get away in free agency. From Fletcher, to Wistrom, to Dre' Bly, to Brian Young, to Jeff Zgonina, to Dexter McCleon. All except Bly were starters on the Super Bowl XXXVI defense. Since Zygmunt controlled the purse strings, Martz's say in free agency was limited.
Management counters that the constraints of the salary cap, coupled with the inevitable roster raiding of successful teams, made it impossible to keep everyone. Besides, Martz's frequent waffling on players made it impossible to zero in on which core players to re-sign. One week, Martz wanted Adam Archuleta signed to an extension; the next week he wanted him cut. Or so the story goes.
In any event, the Rams' recent record in free agency and trades has been spotty since their last Super Bowl appearance, in terms of retaining players and signing new ones.
Too often, the Rams have zeroed in on signing "names" who were past their prime, such as linebacker Dexter Coakley, rather than getting up-and-coming players such as linebacker Will Witherspoon.
The team invested a $10 million signing bonus and traded a second-round draft pick for offensive tackle Kyle Turley in 2003. But Turley played only one season in St. Louis because of a serious back injury. A blowout argument with Martz hastened Turley's departure.
In terms of pro personnel, Armey and Martz chafed at what they saw as an over-reliance by team management on ProScout Inc., an independent scouting service run by Mike Giddings. In the past, Shaw and Zygmunt have claimed that the Giddings service is merely used as a tool, not an end-all, be-all.
But Martz and Armey had serious doubts on the credibility of the Giddings service when it had journeyman David Loverne rated higher than Pro Bowler Pace. Or so the story goes.
NO WAY OUT?
Office politics and front-office feuding didn't help matters over the years. Armey gradually was frozen out of the decision-making process. The Martz-Zygmunt feud escalated to the point where someone had to go — and it was Martz at the end of the 2005 season.
Armey's successor, Tony Softli, has a low-key role and is all but shielded from the media. Zygmunt has consolidated his power, taking on Armey's title of general manager as well. Martz's successor, Scott Linehan, is 8-16 in 1½ seasons.
Fans screaming for massive changes must consider the landscape:
— Majority owner Georgia Frontiere has shown no willingness to sell the team.
— Shaw and Zygmunt have been with the organization for more than a quarter of a century. They will not get fired. The only way they will leave is if they resign.
— Linehan will finish the '07 season; after that, all bets are off.
— Meanwhile, the Rams have an aging group of core players, and few promising replacements on the horizon.
In short, there appears to be no easy way out of this valley, one that deepens with each defeat.