BY JEFF GORDON
STLtoday.com Sports Columnist
Wednesday, Oct. 26 2005

So Joe Vitt will coach the Rams for the rest of this season -– and perhaps
beyond, if he can work miracles and guide this team into postseason play.

He has been a very good interim coach. Can he be a very good permanent coach?
We can’t say after two weeks, but we can appreciate his old-school approach to
the challenge at hand.

Vitt is saying all the right things in all the right ways. He is preaching
bedrock fundamentals to a team that occasionally got ahead of itself on Mike
Martz’s watch.

Last week, Vitt urged the Rams to protect the ball on offense and take the ball
away on defense. He and the other coaches pounded home the need for a positive
takeaway/turnover ratio.

Sure enough, the Rams took care of the ball with Jamie Martin filling in for
Marc Bulger at quarterback. Bulldozing back Steve Jackson was central to the
game plan with receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce both sidelined by injuries
and two rookies starting on the offensive line.

On the other side, the beleaguered Rams defense and special teams made big
plays -- highlighted by Mike Furrey’s controversial theft.

“We wanted to protect the ball,” Vitt said during his Monday afternoon news
conference. “That's the No. 1 thing we wanted to do yesterday. We also wanted
to get Steven 20-plus touches. We wanted to get the ball in his hands and see
what he could do. And he got that. We have to be more balanced now because of
what we are dealing with.

“We wanted to let Jamie break a sweat and get into the rhythm of the game. Hey,
it went the way we wanted it to go. He was able to make a big throw at the end
of the game.”

This week, Vitt is preaching the necessity to play smart and play within the
rules.

“We have too many penalties,” he said. “We can't win with the penalties we have
right now. We have to clean those things up. We have to have more poise in the
game. Dumb penalties at stupid times. Guys played hard, now we have to play a
little smarter.”

Don’t jump offside, he is telling his defensive linemen. Don’t hold, he is
telling the defensive backs.

And Damione Lewis, don’t haul off and punch an opponent in the man fruit -– a
personal foul that cost the Rams 15 yards against the Saints and Lewis an
ejection and the potential for team and league discipline. Vitt didn’t mince
words when asked about that transgression.

“Inexcusable,” he said. “Will not tolerate it. It will be dealt with. We can’t
win . . . we’re going to play the game the right way, and that's not the right
way.”

It’s hard not to like Vitt. He presents himself in a passionate,
straightforward and often blunt fashion. He sees his challenge with great
clarity. He expresses himself clearly.

Everybody knows where he is coming from. There is plenty of in-fighting and
subterfuge out at Rams Park these days, but there is nothing murky about Vitt’s
coaching style.

“I feel like I have a sense of duty now to the game itself, which has been so
good to me, to our players, to our coaches, to our ownership, to our fans,”
Vitt said. “That’s a big obligation and it’s a lot of fun. This is what I do.
We will do things the right way. Every time we line up, we line up to win and
win the right way.

“I'm really not going to change anything that I've been doing so far. For the
last two weeks it's been my responsibility to prepare our football team to
compete and win. I am what I am. To me, we're carrying on business as usual. We
have practice on Wednesday and we have to get better.”

Under the circumstances of his ascension -– Martz’s prolonged illness -– Vitt
doesn’t relish talking about his own professional opportunity.

“We have all known Mike’s been sick, you know, and this was a possibility, it
really was,” he said. “Mike’s been fighting this for a long time. Was it a
surprise? Yes, it’s a surprise when you hear it.

“Was the whole staff shocked? Probably not. Everybody in our staff room today
wanted to know how he felt. How’s he doing? I have said it all along. His
health is the most important thing to me, most important thing to our staff,
our team, our organization.

“This is killing Mike. He loved this football team, he loved these football
players, he loved this coaching staff, he loved this organization. It’s killing
him. This has been very, very hard on him. It’s been hard on all of us watching
what he has had to go through.

“When you’re a football coach, you just can’t put it to bed. It’s our life. It’
s our livelihood. You think about it 24/7. Are we messed up? Yeah, we’re
probably screwed up. When I had a catastrophic illness, I’m in the hospital, I’
m thinking about football. Mike is the same way.”

Vitt shrugged off questions about his own unique challenge. He assumed the helm
of an injury-riddled team off to a slow start. He has been asked to re-focus
players who can’t help but wonder about the front-office chaos in their
organization.

“This is what I do and if I didn’t love it, I would do something else,” Vitt
said. “I can’t sing or dance so this is what I do.

“It's an emotional time for you. I’ve said all along, we have great, great
veteran leadership on this football team. When you have the kind of people we
have on this team, the kind of coaches we have on this team, you always have a
legitimate chance to win.”