By Bryan Burwell

ATLANTA Save for a few last-minute stragglers, Jim Haslett was one of the last men to make that long walk down the corridor from the visitor's locker room to the Rams team bus inside the Georgia Dome late Sunday afternoon.

The season from hell was finally over, and now the man who desperately tried to navigate this team from the depths of dysfunction to a semblance of believability was leaving the premises quietly. He vanished behind a maze of equipment trucks and forklifts near the loading dock, escorted only by a local state trooper in one of those Smokey the Bear hats.

Less than an hour earlier, Haslett's 2-14 Rams ended this grueling season by battling the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons down to the wire in a thrilling 31-27 loss that almost felt like a playoff game inside this noisy and tense domed stadium.

There are a lot of shrill voices out there who think that Sunday should have been Haslett's last game as Rams coach. I hope Chip Rosenbloom is smart enough to ignore them. I hope he proves to be the kind of owner who can see through that nonsense. I hope he proves to be the kind of owner who understands that rebuilding a wrecked football organization can't be done by populous fan consent.

But most of all, I hope he's not the kind of owner who thinks he can fake his way through a major restructuring of the organization. I don't want to find out a month from now or a year from now that the same man who helped wreck the franchise in the first place continues to manipulate the whole process under the cover of "semi-retirement."

I just want to have the Rams guided by owners who know the difference between what's popular and what's right.

It may not be the most popular thing to do, but Jim Haslett should keep this job.

Don't believe me. Check your company e-mail or rip open that FedEx letter on your door stoop this morning. It's a petition from your players. They want you to keep Haslett on the job, even though many of them know that he'll be sending out evaluations this week that surely will recommend cleaning out half the lockers in Rams Park by sundown.

I've been covering the NFL off and on for more than 30 years, and I can't recall anything like this. This weekend, the players sent a signed petition to Rosenbloom urging him to bring Haslett back as the coach. According to several team sources, 57 of the 61 members of the active roster and practice squad signed the petition endorsing Haslett's return. "Basically we wanted to say that we were proud of Haz and how he led us and the approach he took since the coaching change," said six-year veteran offensive lineman Adam Goldberg. "It was nothing crazy, nothing outlandish. (It was) just a humble endorsement for our guy, saying we believe in Coach Haz, saying we believe he's a guy who can institute the change that will lead to success in the future, it's that simple. We're just trying to say that from our standpoint, he's a great coach and a great leader."

Across the locker room, Leonard Little couldn't wait to echo Goldberg's remarks. Little is the perfect example of a guy who has played hard for Haslett. The former Pro Bowl defensive end played this season with a torn hamstring muscle that limited his effectiveness, but never dulled his will. When the team wasn't playing hard for Scott Linehan, Little was one of the players who took on the vocal leadership role that the head coach was unable to fulfil. He cursed teammates, threw chairs across the room and suffered with every defeat. There was a lot less chair throwing when Haslett took over.

"I'm not just speaking for myself," said Little. "I'm speaking for a lot of players. We think he can lead us. The season didn't end the way we wanted it to, but he can do the necessary things to turn things around and a lot of us believe that in our heart, man."

Little made a point that when you're a part of a team that just lost 14 games, it's safe to say that half the guys in this locker room won't be here when training camp opens next summer. "But we didn't sign the petition for our own sake," said Little. "It has to do with something that we believe in our hearts. We know that Haz will make the right decisions to improve this team, and that's what we all want to happen even if some of us aren't going to be a part of it. He already knows who can play, he knows who can't play. He knows what we can do and what we can't do. That gives him a distinct advantage over anyone else who would come in here because it would take them months to learn that."

I want to see what Haslett can do unburdened by the handicaps he inherited when he took over this sinking 0-4 ship three months ago. I want to see what he can do with his own offensive coordinator who can be more productive in the red zone. I want to see how he uses a full offseason and training camp to deprogram the losing mentality. I want to see what he does with a new roster full of real football talent provided by the support of a new front office that doesn't treat the draft and free agency like it's fantasy football.

It doesn't take a lot of courage to go against the grain or to ignore the perceived grumbling voice of the public. But it does take a little gumption to do what's right, popularity be damned.

Rehiring Haslett is the right thing to do.