Faulk puts his artwork on display
By Bryan Burwell

Of the Post-Dispatch

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell

This was exactly how we remembered it in all those sweet football dreams. There was Marshall Faulk with a football tucked snuggly in his arms, and there were all those angry defenders swirling around him. Two to his left, three to his right, four more dead ahead, and every last one of them filled with evil intentions in their violent hearts and souls.

It was the first quarter of the Rams' season-opening 17-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome, and just like always, we all knew the fun was just beginning. There he was on the Rams' first offensive play of the game giving us vintage Marshall Faulk, full of fast-twitch moves that leave so many jaws dropped and defenders flailing at air.

He took a handoff from Marc Bulger on first down and glided to the left. As he danced behind the sizeable rear ends of Chris Dishman and Orlando Pace, Faulk did a little zig to the right, a little zag to his left. Then he downshifted for a heartbeat, did about three of those herky-jerky, knee-buckling jump stops - every move going in different directions - and swooshed sideways for a 15-yard gain.

Oh, and did I mention that all that fancy footwork happened in a confined space no bigger than a phone booth? And did I also mention that he left a vapor trail behind him and that was all most of the Cardinals defenders actually ended up grabbing?

"He looked really good and looked really sharp," right guard Adam Timmerman said. "To see him looking that fresh and to see him looking that good makes us smile. ... He made some great cuts today and looked like the Marshall Faulk of old, not the old Marshall Faulk."

Maybe you were one of those folks who allowed yourself to believe for even the briefest moment that age, injuries or other sinister athletic forces had conspired to transform the Rams' wondrous tailback from one of the NFL's most breathless offensive stylists into a graceless, over-the-hill plodder. And maybe you had reason to believe it. The last two seasons have been filled with far too many moments of a less-than-100-percent Faulk playing with various bumps and bruises that reduced him to a shadow of his brilliant self.

He played with all sorts of twisted body parts, including a bum knee that was operated on twice over the last 11 months, a high ankle sprain that never healed (2002), and a broken hand. And the NFL history books are filled with evidence of tailbacks who declined rapidly after passing their 30th birthdays. Faulk passed that milestone two Februaries ago.

But Faulk wasn't one of those nonbelievers. All he wanted to do was get healthy again. All he wanted to do was use last offseason to clean out the knee, train like a fiend and make these final few years of his NFL career as memorable as the first 10.

When asked if he ever had any doubts about whether he still had all his athletic gifts, a cool, sly smile creased Faulk's face. "If you don't believe, you can't do it," he said as he stood in front of his locker stall after the game. "If you don't believe, you've already failed."

On Sunday afternoon, it took him less than four plays to restore your dwindling faith in the longevity of his wondrous football gifts. Faulk followed that 15-yard ballet with a 9-yarder, then a 1-yarder and a 7-yarder. He followed that with a 16-yarder, then 17 more runs for a game-high 128 rushing yards that showed us all of the signature artistry that has made him one of the NFL's all-time great offensive weapons.

And even on a day when his heir apparent, rookie No. 1 pick Steven Jackson, gave us dazzling glimpses of the Rams' running future (seven carries, 50 yards and an average of 7.1 yards per carry), Faulk was still The Man for this offense.

He had a game full of sweet, jaw-dropping bursts of athletic brilliance. He danced and pranced, zigged and zagged, stuttered and strutted all over the place. He made us forget all about the last two injury-plagued seasons that had a lot of folks whispering that at 31 years old he may have lost his running magic.

He looked exactly like the sort of guy whose name belongs among the list of the NFL's greatest runners ever. His 128 rushing yards moved him past O.J. Simpson into 13th place on the NFL's career rushing list with 11,341 yards, and only 11 yards behind John Riggins at No. 12. His 145 total yards (two catches for 17 yards, plus the 128 rushing yards) allowed him to pass Marcus Allen for eighth place on the all-time total yardage list. Not too shabby for some long-in-the-tooth has-been, huh?

Across the near-empty locker room another ageless Rams star, safety Aeneas Williams, was asked if he had time to watch Faulk during the game or if he was too busy trying to catch his breath.

Williams smiled a delicious smile. "That's like asking someone who was standing next to Picasso when he was painting a mural and a fight broke out if he was watching the fight and not watching the masterpiece being created on the wall," Williams said. "Of course I was looking at him. I would never miss it. Watching him run is like seeing a portrait in motion.

"Wouldn't it be great if they could somehow figure out a way to put a paint brush on his feet as he's doing his thing out there? Wouldn't you just love to see what sort of masterpiece would end up on that canvas?"

I think we already have.