By Kathleen Nelson
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
01/02/2006

Players arrived at Rams Park on Monday without receiving official word that coach Mike Martz had been fired. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, for example, came to the practice facility shortly after waking and hadn't turned on radio or TV.

"Is he gone?" he asked. When informed that it was so, he continued, "Great man. I'm at a loss for words on how I feel about him. He brought a great group of guys in. He and his coaching staff are great people. They gave me a chance, so I'm kind of torn right now."

Most of the players, though, received the news by listening to the radio or watching TV.

"I saw it scrolling on the bottom of ESPN," linebacker Trev Faulk said. "There's been so much speculation going on around here the entire season that you had an idea that something was going to happen. You didn't know exactly what."

Others, such as quarterback Marc Bulger, said that the suspense of Martz's future was over awhile ago and that the quick announcement was good for everyone - sort of like ripping off a bandage real fast.

"It was pretty apparent the last month or two that this day was going to come," Bulger said. "I think it's better for Coach Martz and for the organization that it happened quicker, for him to find another job and for the team to find a replacement."

Martz served as head coach for six seasons, promoted from offensive coordinator after the Super Bowl season. Players who spent their entire careers with the Rams seemed grateful to Martz for his role as architect of the glory days of the Greatest Show on Turf, from 1999 to 2001.

"I know he used the term 'fast and furious' a lot, but that's really the way we approached the game on offense," said tackle Orlando Pace, who was named to the Pro Bowl in each of Martz's seven seasons with the Rams in St. Louis. "He wanted to take advantage of every defense, and the style of offense we played was great."

Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett was part of Martz's second draft class in 2001.

"I've been playing all my years with Coach Martz, and you hate to see it end like that, but at least it's closure," Pickett said. "Coach Joe Vitt did a great job, but Martz was our leader and our head man."

Considered an offensive guru, Martz took a particular interest in young quarterbacks.

"He was real meticulous in everything he did with the offense," said Bulger, whom the Rams signed as a free agent in 2001. "He wanted it done his way. It's a credit to him, those years they had here setting all the NFL records."

Martz was famous - some would say notorious - for making projects out of quarterbacks. Kurt Warner was undrafted. Bulger and Jeff Smoker were sixth-round picks, rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick a seventh-rounder.

"I learned a tremendous amount of information being around him, as far as offensive progressions and reads," said Smoker, the Rams' third-string quarterback. "For a quarterback, I don't think there's anybody better. The guy is so intelligent and knows so much about the quarterback position that I learned a lot of information. I haven't met a smarter man, offensively."

Younger players seemed more likely to admit that Martz's illness and rumors of his rift with the front office caused a distraction.

"It got pretty soap opera-ish during the year," rookie safety O.J. Atogwe said. "But I had a lot of older guys who kept me focused when I started to get caught up in it or was paying too much attention to it, so I had a lot of help in that area."

Veterans such as Bulger seemed to realize the futility of getting caught up in the drama and the necessity of keeping the distractions at a distance.

"If you can't deal with it, you're in the wrong business," Bulger said. "At the end of the day, five years from now, they're not going to look back and say you were 6-10 because you had all those things going on. They're just going to say you were 6-10. When you're on the field and not making plays, it has nothing to do with what's going on upstairs."