By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Just as the Rams were beginning their improbable playoff run to the Lombardi Trophy six seasons ago, a veteran NFL observer, who at the time was well-connected at Rams Park, offered these words of caution:
"Watch what happens. If this team wins it all, everyone will try to take credit. And if there are changes, there could be a power struggle. I've seen these things happen before."
The Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV in dramatic fashion, 23-16, over Tennessee. And there was big change at Rams Park.
Dick Vermeil retired less than 48 hours later. That same week, just a few days before the Pro Bowl in February 2000, the Rams announced a major reshuffling of their football operations:
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz replaced Vermeil as head coach.
John Shaw retained the title of team president, but would no longer handle day-to-day football operations.
Jay Zygmunt was promoted to president of football operations, putting him in charge of the team's daily football operations.
Charley Armey was given a new contract, a pay raise and the title of general manager.
Six years later, how has this restructuring worked out? The perception from outside the organization would be not very well. Not with persistent rumors of feuding between Martz and Zygmunt. Or Shaw warning against back-biting comments by employees against Martz. Or the seeming instability created by the fact that only Martz is under contract beyond this season among the key decision-makers.
Shaw begs to differ.
"It works out really well when you're winning," Shaw said. "And we've had a great amount of success here over the past six years. To the extent that the team isn't as dominant as it was in '99 and '01 (both Super Bowl seasons), it's a natural question to ask why it isn't as dominant.
"And when that happens, the first thing people tend to do is blame the coach, or blame the people that are picking players. And once you get into a finger-pointing mode of who took that first-round draft pick, or why did you let this player go, it tends to create divisiveness between those three people."
Presumably, "those three people," would be Zygmunt, Martz and Armey.
"But I contend that it has worked very well for us over the past six years," Shaw said.
In Martz's first five years as head coach, the Rams have earned four playoff berths, won two division titles and appeared in one Super Bowl (losing to New England). That's a record of success that would be the envy of most NFL teams.
But since the start of the 2002 season, the Rams are a more modest 30-24, missing the playoffs entirely in '02 and squeaking in last season with a .500 record. Free-agent defections and subpar drafts after the '99 and '01 Super Bowl seasons sapped the roster of talent and depth.
The Rams may no longer be kings of the NFL, but they seemingly lead the league in palace intrigue. In the age of gossipy Internet reporting, rumors are as numerous as, well, Web sites. Many have no basis in reality. But there can be no doubting the recurring tension among the key decision makers at Rams Park over the past several years.
The general impression is that Martz doesn't get along with members of the front office, particularly Zygmunt, once considered a good friend and one of Martz's biggest boosters.
"I have heard these things," Shaw said. "I think that's so overblown and overstated. But it's become, I guess, a recent topic of discussion."
This is largely so because of the recent "throat-slasher" comments by Samir Suleiman, a mid-level executive with the team who assists Zygmunt in contract negotiations and salary cap matters.
Suleiman left a threatening phone message on the voice mail of Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz earlier this month, creating a nationwide stir in NFL circles.
In a column Aug. 28, Miklasz wrote that Rams executives owed the head coach - no matter who he was - their support instead of back-stabbing him. Apparently in response to that column, Suleiman left a message on Miklasz's voice mail saying, in part, "tell your source that I'm not a back-stabber, I'm a (expletive) throat slasher, and he'll know the difference before it's all said and done."
In an interview Sept. 11 with the Post-Dispatch, Shaw said that Suleiman's remarks were shocking and would not be condoned. He also said Suleiman would be reprimanded, but he declined to say what the reprimand would entail. Since then, Suleiman has kept an extremely low profile. He has not been seen watching practice and did not accompany the team to its game Sept. 18 at Arizona.
Martz declined to comment for this story. Zygmunt and Suleiman did not return voice messages from the Post-Dispatch.
When asked Monday for an update on Suleiman's situation, Shaw said, "I think I told you (two weeks ago) it would be handled internally. I would prefer not to discuss what actions have been taken. But like I said to you, he was reprimanded, and it is being handled internally."
So is Suleiman still employed by the team?
"As of now, yes," Shaw said.
As of now?
"Yes, he's still employed," Shaw said.
In a roundabout way, Suleiman's remarks led to strong statements from Shaw about the importance of backing the head coach by Rams employees, both in public statements and private conversation.
"It's very hard to win games," Shaw said. "And a component of a team's success is to have a unified vision, and the support of the football program and the head coach and our players.
"When decisions are made in this organization, they're made as a Ram decision. They're not being made as a Mike Martz decision. Or a John Shaw or Jay Zygmunt decision. And if there's differences of opinion on it, I would fully expect those differences to be held internally, and not to be used in a way that would be disruptive to the coach or to winning.
"Our mission statement as an organization is to do everything we can to help the football program succeed and to help the coach win. And if that's not being carried out, I think it would be grounds for discipline or it would be an issue that really had to be dealt with."
The Suleiman situation may be on the bizarre end of the spectrum, but it's not the only recent example of front office discord at Rams Park:
In December 2001, both Martz and Zygmunt showed copies of Martz's contract to reporters after reports of a rift or power struggle between Martz and Armey. The purpose of this display? To show that Martz had the power, contractually, on personnel matters, and not Armey.
Late last season, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that Martz might not return as Rams coach in 2005. Mortensen claimed that Martz himself was the source of that story, which Martz denied.
More recently, Zygmunt has been almost invisible at Rams Park over the past month, an unusual circumstance given his job title and the fact that he rarely misses attending a practice.
Problem, what problem?
Shaw, who has been in the NFL for 26 years, says what happens in St. Louis isn't all that different from the rest of the league.
"I think by definition, there's a certain amount of tension between coaching, scouting, and the selection and signing of players," Shaw said.
So in Shaw's opinion, everyone at Rams Park gets along fine?
"I think all our people get along," Shaw said. "And I think at times, like I said, when you're not doing as well as you'd like to be doing, it tends to create tension and finger-pointing. I don't think it's anything out of the usual."
Similarly, Shaw doesn't think the post-Super Bowl XXXIV restructuring has resulted in a power struggle.
"I think a lot of people like to take credit for winning," he said. "I think that's also a natural phenomenon in this business. But it hasn't been a power struggle. At least internally, there's a clear line of responsibility and authority."
While still involved in major organizational decisions, Shaw wanted fewer daily responsibilities running the club, which was one of the major reasons behind the post-Super Bowl title restructuring. But he has contemplated stepping aside as team president on more than one occasion in recent years. Most notably, he made such comments in November 1997 after St. Louis lost its anti-trust suit against the NFL over the franchise's move from Southern California.
"As you guys remind me all the time, I spend a fair amount of time in Los Angeles," Shaw said. "I thought it was important at that time that we use a title that indicated there is somebody who is overseeing the football side, that is living in St. Louis full-time and here on a daily basis."
Which would be Zygmunt as president of football operations.
As for Armey, despite the new title of general manager, his job duties didn't change.
"We use that title (general manager) to indicate that there's a person running our personnel side, or talent evaluation side, subject to whatever influence or control the coach might have on that," Shaw said. "But it's clear that Jay is the everyday football executive with the most authority, subject only to a veto by myself or owners."
So Armey evaluates talent. Zygmunt runs the day-to-day football operations. Shaw makes the big decisions, and reports directly to team owners Georgia Frontiere and Stan Kroenke. Where does that leave Martz? With a lot of power, actually.
"We're one of those organizations where the coach has a significant amount of influence over personnel," Shaw said. Shaw has veto power over any decisions by Martz, and Shaw can - and at times does - delegate that veto power to Zygmunt. Otherwise, it's Martz's show.
What happens next?
From the outside, the Rams almost have the look of a rudderless ship. Zygmunt has been without a contract since last January. Armey's contract expires at the end of January. Even Martz is on the short end of his contract, which expires following the '06 season.
Shaw said Armey's contract "will get extended for a least a year. It's something that's been agreed to, and now it's just a matter of drafting (the contract)."
According to Shaw, Martz approached the Rams during the summer about extending his contract.
"But then, after having one or two conversations with Mike about it, he changed agents," Shaw said.
Martz is now represented by Bob LaMonte instead of Frank Bauer.
"Bob told me he felt it would be better to address it after the season," Shaw said. "By the time Mike talked about it, we were almost beginning training camp."
For the record, Shaw said the Rams organization is interested in extending Martz's contract after the season. Zygmunt's contract status is more nebulous.
Shaw said he has worked "month-to-month" for most of his tenure with the Rams, and that Zygmunt has done so for a good part of his tenure.
"You're talking about two employees that have been here for 24 (Zygmunt) and 26 (Shaw) years," Shaw said. "So I don't think there's any sense of insecurity on Jay's part or my part. If Jay wanted a long-term contract, we'd have no problems sitting down and discussing it with him. And I think that if he didn't want to be here, he would've expressed it."