When training camp opened, the biggest question facing the Rams was how they would get through training camp with an unsettled situation on the offensive line, given the unknown status of tackles Kyle Turley and Orlando Pace and center Dave Wohlabaugh.
Turley was recovering from offseason back surgery, while Wohlabaugh had surgery on his hip in the offseason. The Rams knew Pace would likely not be in camp as the team's unsigned franchise player, so how the line would be deployed because of the Turley and Wohlabaugh injuries was an issue.
It turned out to be even bigger than expected when Wohlabaugh never made it onto the field and was released and Turley aggravated his back during the first few days of camp. Turley was placed on injured reserve in the cutdown to 65 players.
Those factors resulted in frequent shuffling on the line in camp. Andy King began as the left guard, but lost that job after the first exhibition game and was replaced by Chris Dishman. Dishman had decided to retire before coach Mike Martz convinced him to sign, and he reported at 375 pounds.
Grant Williams, who would be the right tackle as Turley's replacement, was forced to play on the left side throughout most of camp because of Pace's absence. Scott Tercero got a lot of work at tackle, even though most in the organization believe his best position is guard. Greg Randall, who was with the Texans last season, was signed when it became apparent Turley wouldn't be available.
Guard Tom Nutten, who played for the Rams during their Super Bowl seasons, but left for the Jets last year and then retired, was brought back a few days before the third exhibition game against Washington and injured his toe on his second play.
That's the type of summer it's been for a team that has deep offensive talent, but knows it could go for naught if the line doesn't come together.
Complicating things even more was Pace's decision to stay away for the entire preseason. Last year, as the franchise player, he reported and signed 12 days before the season opener and was able to play in the exhibition finale.
Not this time. Pace remained unsigned when the Rams played the Raiders Sept. 2, and for the first time, Martz voiced frustration with the situation.
Asked about Pace not being with the team, Martz said, "To be honest with you I don't think about it. This is our football team right now, I would just assume he's not coming in. That's his decision, and we're moving on.
"You can't let one player, no matter how good he is, or how good of a person he is, hold a team hostage waiting for him to come in. We have to move on, and get ready for Sept. 12th."
For line coach John Matsko, he has to get this group ready.
"Each year's different," Matsko said. "The challenge this year was to bring a bunch of guys together we brought two guys out of retirement and develop the continuity, the unity, and the pride that you need to have on an offensive line. It's an ongoing process."
How it goes will determine in large part how well the Rams do this season
COACHING: Mike Martz, 5th year (45-24).
REMEMBERING: 2003 record: 12-4 (1st in NFC West); lost divisional playoff game to Panthers, 29-23.
PREDICTING: 2004 regular season record 11-5 (1st in NFC West); lose in NFC Championship Game.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
OT Grant Williams was bothered by a back injury last summer, but except for a slightly sprained ankle, he got through this year in fine shape. Williams credits losing about 30 pounds in the offseason.
"I definitely feel like I'm moving better laterally," Williams said. "There's a lot less pressure on my back. I just feel better overall. The joints, everything, feels better."
Rookie linebacker Brandon Chillar looks like the surprise starter at strong-side linebacker when the season begins, replacing Tommy Polley.
"The thing that's very noticeable about him is his ability to pick up what we do defensively and not have hesitation you normally would have of a rookie linebacker," coach Mike Martz said.
Linebackers coach Joe Vitt had his eye on Chillar during the draft and thought he had third-round talent. The Rams got him in the fourth round. After the draft, Vitt said of Chillar, "This is a guy that from the third round on I was just praying we would get. This guy is going to fit, I'm telling you. He can run, he can change directions, and he's violent."
Said Chillar, "I've been working hard in camp, trying to get better. I've been OK, but I need to get better, definitely. I need to improve."
RB Lamar Gordon was back on the practice field Aug. 30, less than three weeks after having surgery to remove a bone chip from his ankle.
Asked if he might play in the final exhibition game Sept. 2 against Oakland, coach Mike Martz said, "I don't know. There is a chance he can play. I want him to take as many reps as he can. I'd like him to play and I think he wants to play. He needs to be confident with that ankle, and changing direction. If he is confident in it, and feels strong, we'll get him in there as much as we can. Here is a guy that we questioned his toughness, but nobody knew, for the past four years, he had this bone in his joint floating around. Obviously, he's a pretty tough guy."
The irony wasn't lost on Andy McCollum. Last year, the Rams signed center Dave Wohlabaugh and it was unknown whether McCollum would be re-signed. The Rams wanted him to switch to left guard, and he ended up at that position after being wooed by the Patriots.
Now, with Wohlabaugh released because of a hip problem, McCollum is back at center.
"That's just how it worked out; it's pretty strange," McCollum said. "It was unfortunate with that injury that Dave had. It's sad to see him go. I consider him my friend."
Kicker Jeff Wilkins is one Rams player not hesitant about saying what he believes about the preseason.
"I hate preseason," Wilkins said. "I wish they'd cut it down to two games or three games. It just gets crazy. Four games ... by the time the first (regular-season) game rolls around, you feel like it's halfway through the season and you've still got the full season to go."
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 - Number of players from the Rams' 1999 Super Bowl team that are still on the roster.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Just the other day, we were stretching and I heard a couple guys talking about where guys used to be in the stretch line. It's amazing how many guys have left. You miss those guys. But at the same time, you can't picture yourself without the new guys. At the same time, you really don't notice (the departures), because the guys that they've brought in fit our chemistry so well. I've been on different teams in the NFL, and it's nowhere close to what it is here. Everyone genuinely likes each other. Even in college, you have three or four guys where you really don't care if they get kicked off, or if they get in trouble. But here, everyone's friends with each other. I can honestly say, there's not one guy that I dislike." - QB Marc Bulger on the makeup of the 2004 Rams.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The biggest question as the Rams approach the final cutdown is whether to keep DT Jimmy Kennedy on the roster or place him on injured reserve. Kennedy broke a bone in his foot in early August, and will be out until at least November. What's unknown is whether the bone heals correctly, and how Kennedy's size will affect his comeback. He also won't be able to run until the bone is almost totally healed.
PLAYER TO WATCH: CB Kevin Garrett - Played sparingly as a rookie in 2003 because of injuries, but emerged this summer to earn the starting job when Travis Fisher suffered a broken arm. He is also one of the team's best special teams players, and looks to have the potential to a big-play performer.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/24, RB Steven Jackson, Oregon State Ran hard and with passion during the summer and should help prolong Marshall Faulk's career.
Rd. 3/91, DE Anthony Hargrove, Georgia Tech Only a matter of time before this natural pass rusher begins making an impact.
Rd. 4/130, LB Brandon Chillar, UCLA After missing offseason workout time, made string move in camp to win starting job on string side.
Rd. 5/158, S Jason Shivers, Arizona State Slow to pick up the defense, but should at least contribute right away on special teams.
Rd. 6/201, Jeff Smoker, Michigan State Got off to rocky start thanks to learning the offense, but has gotten comfortable and is throwing the ball well.
Rd. 7/238, C Larry Turner, Eastern Kentucky - Established himself as solid backup and should be center of the future.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter Marc Bulger. Backups Chris Chandler, Jeff Smoker.
The depth chart is clear at quarterback, with Bulger entering the season as the starter, Chandler the backup and Smoker the rookie looking to learn. However, with practice squads expanded to eight players this season, Chandler has the reputation of being fragile, but his arm remains strong despite the fact he turns 39 years old in October. He has learned the offense quickly, and with the talent around him would be competitive if he was forced to play. Still, the obvious key for any success is the improvement of Bulger, whose record as a starter in the regular season is 18-4. And one loss was to Seattle in 2002 when he departed early because of an injury. He did have some difficult stretches during games last season, but usually came up big when games were on the line. There's no reason to believe he won't continue to get better under the tutelage of coach Mike Martz.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - HB Marshall Faulk, FB Joey Goodspeed. Backups HB Steven Jackson, HB Lamar Gordon, FB Arlen Harris, HB Dusty McGrorty, FB Erik Jensen.
Faulk's 31st birthday was in February, but he had offseason knee surgery that is said to have him feeling better than he has for several years. But what happens when the hits starting coming again? Is he really healthy? We'll find out very quickly during the season. Even if Faulk isn't what he once was, he can still be a presence as a runner and receiver. The addition of Jackson should in the least improve the Rams' productivity in the red zone, and provide a tough overall runner for short-yardage situations. Gordon had ankle surgery that has him feeling as good as has in years, but he missed three weeks of training camp. Harris can be a solid fill-in and also contributes on special teams. McGrorty's best chance is on the practice squad.
Goodspeed has established himself as a solid fullback, and he also has ability as a receiver. Jensen was drafted as a tight end, but missed two weeks of camp because of a knee injury. His roster spot is not secure, although he can also move back to tight end.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups Cam Cleeland, Mike Brake.
Yes, there were raised eyebrows when the Rams matched an offer made to Manumaleuna by Carolina, but one way of looking at it is that the Panthers obviously saw something in him. The hope is that by staying at tight end and not moving around as much, he can concentrate on that position and avoid the mental mistakes that led to breakdowns. Manumaleuna also has to use his size as an asset and be tougher as a blocker and runner after the catch. He goes down far too quickly after receptions. Cleeland caught only 10 passes for 145 yards last season, but might be utilized more in the passing game. He's simply not a strong blocker. Brake had a solid camp, and might make the roster as the third tight end.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups Dane Looker, Kevin Curtis, Mike Furrey, Shaun McDonald, Jamal Jones.
The wide receiver corps remains virtually identical to what it was last season. Holt will try and duplicate a season in which he led the NFL in receptions (117) and yards (1,696). Bruce continues to perform at a high level, and could see his production increase if officials actually follow through with the expected emphasis on defensive holding. There is still no one better in the league coming in and out of breaks, and unimpeded routes for Bruce should lead to even more defensive headaches. Looker made an impact as the third receiver last season when Curtis hardly played because of a broken leg suffered in the preseason. He had 47 receptions for 495 yards and was consistently effective on third down. Curtis' presence should help open up the offense even more. Furrey was the surprise on the roster last season, and should make the final six again. Coaches were hopeful McDonald could supply to the offense what Az-Zahir Hakim once did, but he has to show he can be durable. He contributed little last season (10 receptions, 62 yards) in limited action. Jones survived the cutdown to 65, but his best chance of being around is on the practice squad
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters LT Orlando Pace, LG Chris Dishman, C Andy McCollum, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Grant Williams. Backups - G/T Scott Tercero, T Greg Randall, G Tom Nutten, G/T Andy King, C/G Larry Turner, T Matt Morgan, G Ben Noll.
This group has been a chaotic mess during training camp, thanks to the release of C Dave Wohlabaugh (hip), RT Kyle Turley going on injured reserve because of a recurring back problem and the absence of Pace as the unsigned franchise player. During training camp, Dishman, Randall and Nutten were added, and Nutten promptly injured his toe in his first game action following last August's retirement. With Pace at home, Williams was forced to play left tackle for most of the summer. Tercero moved around, playing both tackle positions and guard. Once Pace arrives, things should stabilize, but it's difficult to predict when the unit will start being comfortable together. Dishman reported nearly 40 pounds overweight, but was showing excellence as a run blocker. McCollum switched back to center when Wohlabaugh was released.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters RE Bryce Fisher, T Damione Lewis, T Ryan Pickett, LE Leonard Little. Backups E Anthony Hargrove, E/T Tyoka Jackson, E Erik Flowers, T Bernard Holsey, T Brian Howard, E Sean Moran, T Kevin Aldridge, T Jimmy Kennedy (injured).
The departures of Grant Wistrom and Brian Young as free agents created some roster battles that were watched closely during camp. Fisher and Jackson combined for as many sacks (7.5) as Wistrom had last season, but it's questionable whether either can play the amount of downs Wistrom did and still be consistently productive. Fisher played well all summer, and established himself as the starter. Hargrove is the wild card, a rookie with impressive natural pass-rushing ability that needs seasoning. How quickly he can become a force is unknown. He got some snaps at tackle during training camp. There is also a question whether Little will be distracted by the drunk driving charges hanging over his head. After his arrest in late April, Little was not around Rams Park for the remainder of the offseason.
Moran is a savvy veteran that can contribute snaps, but his spot was in jeopardy because of the emergence of Flowers, who is trying to have an impact for the first time since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2000. Inside is where several players have to step up. Pickett was a major force in 2002, but slipped last season while playing most of the year with a high ankle sprain. Lewis also was hampered by the same injury in the second half of the season. Kennedy worked hard in the offseason, but is out until at least November because of a broken foot.
The addition of Holsey provides veteran depth, which is needed, but he has been hampered all summer by a bad leg. Howard, an undrafted free agent, impressed coaches in camp, and could end up in the rotation. Aldridge also had a solid training camp.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - SSL Brandon Chillar, MLB Robert Thomas, WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups - Tommy Polley, Trev Faulk, OLB Tony Newson, OLB Brandon Spoon.
The most shocking development of the summer was the ouster of Polley as the starter. Newson got first shot at the job, but was hampered by a leg injury. That paved the way for Chillar to stake his claim, and he has it now. The question is whether Polley makes the final roster. Thomas can be exceptional in the middle if he can stay on the field every game. Tinoisamoa should emerge as the leader of the group, and should be improved now that he understands the defense better.
Faulk appears to be the backup in the middle, while Spoon rebounded from missing a lot of time because of a hamstring injury to have a solid shot at being on the team.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters CB Jerametrius Butler, CB Kevin Garrett, SS Adam Archuleta, FS Aeneas Williams. Backups CB Travis Fisher, CB DeJuan Groce, CB/S Tom Knight, S Rich Coady, S Jason Shivers, S Justin Lucas, CB/S Nijrell Eason, CB Dwight Anderson.
The emergence of Butler last season resulted in the Rams matching a restricted free-agent offer he received from Washington. Fisher also continues to improve, but he is sidelined until at least October with a broken arm. Big things are expected from Groce and Garrett. Groce got some experience last season, while Garrett was bothered by injuries. Garrett is currently the starter while Groce recovers from a knee injury. Archuleta could be on the verge of a Pro Bowl, while Aeneas Williams keeps on ticking at the age of 36, moving to the slot in the nickel defense. Coady is expected to be the nickel safety (Williams moves into the slot), but Lucas has also played well. Knight is versatile, and provides experience. The rookie Shivers has a lot to learn. Anderson and Eason opened some eyes in camp, and could be on the practice squad if they fail to make the roster.
SPECIALISTS: PK Jeff Wilkins, P Sean Landeta, LS Chris Massey, H Dane Looker, KOR Arlen Harris, PR Shaun McDonald, PR Mike Furrey.
The top four are as good as it gets. Wilkins tied an NFL record with 39 field goals last season, while Landeta rolls on at the age of 42. Massey's name is rarely mentioned, which is good, because virtually every snap is dead-on. Looker was very good in his first year as the holder. But who will return kicks? Harris was steady, if not spectacular, last season. Groce is probably the best punt returner on the roster, but he was injured in camp and he is too valuable at cornerback. McDonald showed some promise, and could be a threat if he becomes more decisive with his first move.