Friday, November 25, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

The Rams’ biggest player nearly became the next big thing in Texas during the offseason.

After a few years of contract stalemates with the Rams that forced him to be franchised three times, left tackle Orlando Pace appeared to be on the verge of finally taking the next step out of town.

Even after being franchised in the previous years, Pace had never taken a free agent visit to another team, something he was allowed to do under the franchise designation. But the Texans’ desperate need for a star on the offensive line changed all of that.

Things progressed to the point that Pace nearly became a Texan.

“They were ready to get the deal done,” Pace said.

But the franchise rule makes it extremely difficult for the tagged player to move on. First, Houston would have had to sign Pace to an agreeable long-term offer sheet. Then, to convince the Rams not to match the offer sheet, Houston could have offered a suitable trade or agreed to forfeit two first-round picks.

Ultimately, it was going to be difficult to get any of that done since the Rams had no real desire to let Pace leave.

“Looking back on it, for a franchise player to actually move and go somewhere else and go to another team, it’s a lot that has to take place,” Pace said. “The visit was just a preliminary thing. There were a lot of negotiations left to be done, and it would have been tough to go to another team.”

Of course, it’s never easy to let a player of Pace’s caliber go, even if you get decent compensation. Pace has been to six Pro Bowls and is widely regarded as one of the best left tackles in the game.

“He’s got size, he’s got tenacity,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “But when you combine the size and the tenacity with his athleticism, it makes him a rare breed. With his size, playing the left tackle position, the blind side of the quarterback, our quarterbacks feel very, very secure when they’re taking a five to seven step drop, or even a play-action, that they’re not going to get hit in the back of the head. Most times now in the National Football League on offense, if you get a dominant left tackle, they may be the second highest paid guy on your football team. [It’s a] Critical position.”

At the least, the flirtation with the Texans expedited the long, drawn out process that Pace’s contract negotiations had become. Pace signed with new agents and was eventually signed to a contract that could help him end his career a Ram.

“I’ve been in this organization, and I’m glad we’ve finally worked things out,” Pace said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to finish my career here in St. Louis. This is a situation where as a player you are looking for security. St. Louis provided that for me, and I’m happy to be here.”

This trip to Houston will be much different for Pace as the Texans will do anything but wine and dine him this time around. Pace missed practice Thursday and Friday because of a left hamstring injury, leaving his status for this weekend in doubt.

Pace hedged some when asked about whether he would play, at one point saying he would, then offer the wait and see approach.

“I think I’ll be able to go,” Pace said. “I’m heading to get some treatment right now. We’ll test it out, see how it feels and go from there.”

Pace injured his hamstring in practice Wednesday when his foot was stepped on and he pulled back, straining the hamstring.

“I probably could have practiced,” Pace said. “It’s more precautionary. We’ll see what happens and tomorrow see how it feels pushing off it.”

If Pace can’t play, right tackle Alex Barron will slide to the left side with Rex Tucker handling right tackle duties. In addition, the Rams released receiver Dominique Thompson and brought tackle Matt Morgan up from the practice squad. Morgan would give the Rams some depth in case Pace can’t go.

LITTLE PRODUCTION: With Leonard Little’s return to the Rams a few weeks ago came the return of the man widely considered the Rams’ best defensive player and play maker.

But the guy everyone remembered for his ability to hunt down quarterbacks and come up with important sacks has been nowhere to be found since his return.

Sunday’s game against the Texans would seem to be a prime opportunity for Little to get back on track after he failed to pick up a sack in either of the past two games.

Houston is last in the league in sacks allowed, giving up 47, an opportunity that should have Little excited. Interim coach Joe Vitt said there are some ways to get Little free and the Rams might take some steps this week to get Little going again.

“He is a difference maker,” Vitt said. “We have thought about moving him around a little bit and this week maybe tightening up his stance a little bit more and go more bull rushes, instead of just trying to get up the field. There’s a couple of different things we can do with him.”

For his part, Little isn’t concerned about any of that stuff; he blames his lack of production on himself.

“I just haven’t been playing well like I should,” Little said. “They can free me up, they can do whatever they have got to do, but I haven’t played with the intensity like I have in the past. That’s all up to me. It’s not up to the coaches to try to move me around to try to beat people. I should beat people on my own. They can say whatever they want to say, but I need to go out there and play my game.”

One thing that hasn’t helped Little is a lingering ankle injury that has him listed as probable for Sunday’s game against the Texans. Little said he should be fine and will play at Houston.

INJURY REPORT: Aside from Pace and Little, running back Marshall Faulk (knee) and left guard Claude Terrell were listed as probable on Friday’s injury report. Faulk and Terrell participated in all of practice.

Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (toe) is still listed as questionable. There were a few adjustments to the injury report Friday with cornerbacks Travis Fisher (groin) and DeJuan Groce (concussion) officially listed as out for Sunday’s game. They join Adam Archuleta (concussion), Marc Bulger (shoulder) and guard Blaine Saipaia (concussion) as out.