By Jim Thomas

Their head coach, Mike Martz, is out for the season with an illness. And because of a feud with team management - president of football operations Jay Zygmunt, in particular - Martz may have coached his last Rams game.

Martz and team president John Shaw have been punching and counterpunching in a public battle of words since Martz was prevented from contacting offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild in the coach's box during the New Orleans game.

With all that swirling around the team, there's at least one other factor at play this week: There is a football game Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I'm not sitting around worrying about what's going to happen next year or two years from now or next week," defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "I've got too many problems right now to take care of. I've got to figure out how to help my defense get Byron Leftwich on the ground. I've got to figure out how to help my defense stop Fred Taylor."

Leftwich plays quarterback for the Jaguars; Taylor is their feature back.

"I'm too worried about that," Jackson said. "I don't have time to be worried about anything else."

Well, the players are concerned about one other thing: Martz's health and his recovery from a bacterial infection of a heart valve, known as endocarditis.

"I know Coach Martz is a very strong guy," cornerback Travis Fisher said. "He loves what he does. He loves the game. And personally, I love Coach Martz as a coach. And I'm hoping, and I think, he'll be back."

Fisher has a relative who had endocarditis, and he has talked with his mother about the illness.

"She said it's very serious," Fisher said. "So really, I just pray that Coach Martz's health is better."

Other Rams players echoed those sentiments.

"It's sad, because he wants to be here with us," rookie guard Claude Terrell said. "That's what he loves to do. But his health comes first - first and foremost - for him, and his family. Hopefully, he can get better and come back next year. And be here for us."

Safety Mike Furrey said, "I don't care who you are; you need to take this time to go get healthy. We know on Monday night (against Indianapolis) he was probably sitting there chained down, throwing stuff at the TV.

"That's just coach, and we'll miss him. But we have a job to do here for him. Just because he's not here doesn't mean we're going to stop playing and doing the things that he taught us. So we'll be all right."

Of course, the other part of the story is whether Martz, who expects a full recovery from endocarditis by January, will return for another season. Martz wants a contract extension; team management appears unwilling to grant him one. Because of that and other reasons, a messy divorce seems to be in the offing.

"I expect Coach Martz to be back next year, I really do," said wide receiver Dane Looker. "And I'm not going to really get into (the Martz-front office feud) too much because I don't know.

"I think it's our job as players just to play. We hear things. We read things. But we don't really know the facts. We don't know exactly what's going on."

Terrell said, "Hopefully, they can just come to a good resolution and put all that behind them, because we've got bigger things to focus on here instead of the front office and coaches bickering."

Looker said it hasn't been difficult to avoid getting distracted by the front office turmoil.

"We show up here and we do the same things we do every week," Looker said. "We go to meetings. We game plan. We go to practice. I try to tune that out as much as possible. Coach Martz is our head coach. And I look forward to him being here next year."

In the meantime, the Rams are settling in with Joe Vitt as their acting head coach."

"Coach Vitt's a change of pace," Terrell said. "He'll crack a joke every now and then or say something that'll just have the room going crazy. He's stepping into a tough spot and is just trying to do his best to lead us down the right path."

Furrey said, "There's nothing extra (with Vitt). You're going to get straightforward shots. What you see is what you're getting from him. There's nothing behind the scenes."

No, the behind-the-scenes stuff all involves Martz, Shaw and Zygmunt, and not much of that has been behind the scenes lately. With his head down, like a fullback charging up the middle, Vitt claims he's oblivious to all that.

"I don't read the papers. And I am not a tabloid guy," Vitt said Wednesday. "It's my job to prepare a football team to go win a big game, and it hasn't changed one bit. We had a good practice today. We'll have a better practice tomorrow. And we're going to prepare to win the game."