Opportunity knocks, but which Rams team will answer?
Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch

GREEN BAY, Wis. - The up-and-down nature of the St. Louis Rams' 5-5 season has led us to a rather uncertain place and time. Are these the dying days of a football dynasty or just the uncomfortable steps of a football power reloading with unproven youth? Is this a mediocre football team that no longer has the talent and savvy to hang with the NFL aristocrats, or is it a green-and-growing team that is still trying to discover just how good it actually can be?

For most of this inconsistent season, the Rams have been the absolute epitome of a .500 team, losing games they should win, winning games they should lose and causing all sorts of folks to scratch their heads as they search for the definitive clues as to this team's true character.

Yet in this parity-driven world of the National Football League, they are also a team with legitimate playoff hopes in the muddled and mediocre National Football Conference. It hardly matters whether or not they deserve to be in this fortunate position. The unusual reality of the sorry NFC says that they are still a playoff contender, even as they come staggering onto the nationally televised stage of "Monday Night Football" with the very real possibility of being thoroughly embarrassed by the Green Bay Packers.

Thanks to the fraudulent Seattle Seahawks, who just keep blowing every chance to pull away in the NFC West race, the Rams are entering tonight's game ... gasp and swoon ... with the chance to retake first place in the division. The Seahawks, now 6-5 after getting trounced at home against Buffalo, are the perfect foil for the Rams. What the Rams seem to lack in their ability to stop long kickoff and punt returns or any opposing running back who is breathing, walking or just standing upright, the Seahawks make up for in their lack of competitive heart.

So it seems as though the NFC West will not necessarily go to the better team, just the one that doesn't have the last opportunity to shoot itself in the foot.

Now that the Rams have a surprising chance to reclaim first place in the division, will they have the fortitude and maturity to take advantage of this opportunity?

"This is something new to me," said veteran Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt. "I've been winning ever since I've been here. It's been an adjustment for me trying to figure out who we are and what we're about. We still have some young guys who are still trying to figure it out, too. You hate to say that at this time of the year, but that's the honest truth. But we're at a time where we need some of these young guys to step up and make plays."

Holt's veteran receiving partner, Isaac Bruce, is just as confused about the personality of this young team, and just as impatient about when the kiddie corps will start acting like seasoned pros.

"We have some young guys who have to realize that if you don't relish the opportunities that are set in front of you, you may never get those opportunities again," Bruce said. "They don't understand how hard it is to get to the playoffs. They don't understand how tough and rare it is to go to the Super Bowl. There are guys like our (receivers coach) Henry Ellard, who played in this league 16 years and never played in a Super Bowl. He achieved so much individually in this league, but all he wanted was that chance to be in the Super Bowl. These young guys have to realize the opportunity they have and seize the moment when it's in front of you."

For the life of me, after watching this team all season, I honestly don't know what to expect from them tonight, and I suspect neither does head coach Mike Martz.

He's been on the warpath lately, channeling equal parts Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells. He has chided his young team openly. He has tried every emotional trick in the book to get them to wake up and start assuming leadership roles on the field. So far, the younger players have responded with very mixed results.

So maybe now with the sudden late-week firing of 20-year veteran punter Sean Landeta, the message might begin to get across. Jobs are at stake. Martz isn't going anywhere. His job is not the one that's in jeopardy.

But if all these young underachievers don't start playing well, they might discover that there's a figurative revolving door going up at Rams Park, and they could be the next ones spinning out of it.