By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Friday, Aug. 27 2004

The numbers shrink a little every year. And this season - even after the return
of Tom Nutten - they are 10 and 20.

Ten remaining members from the Rams' 1999 Super Bowl championship squad.

Twenty remaining members from the team's 2001 Super Bowl runner-up team.

"Just the other day, we were stretching and I heard a couple guys talking about
where guys used to be in the stretch line," said quarterback Marc Bulger, a
reserve on the '01 squad. "It's amazing how many guys have left."

Kevin Carter ... D'Marco Farr ... Az-Zahir Hakim ... Ricky Proehl ... London
Fletcher ... Grant Wistrom ... Ernie Conwell ... James Hodgins ... Mike Jones
... Ryan Tucker ... Kurt Warner.

And that's just a partial list. Such is life in today's NFL, the age of the
salary cap and free agency.

"You miss those guys," Bulger said. "But at the same time, you can't picture
yourself without the new guys. At the same time, you really don't notice (the
departures), because the guys that they've brought in fit our chemistry so
well."

In the NFL, it's not always the best players who win Super Bowls; it's the best
teams. If nothing else, it looks like the Rams will enter the 2004
season with excellent team chemistry.

"I've been on different teams in the NFL, and it's nowhere close to what it is
here," said Bulger, who has had brief stints with New Orleans and Atlanta.
"Everyone genuinely likes each other.

"Even in college, you have three or four guys where you really don't care if
they get kicked off, or if they get in trouble. But here, everyone's friends
with each other. I can honestly say, there's not one guy that I dislike."

Those sentiments are shared in the locker room.

"I feel like I've been here for 10 years," linebacker Robert Thomas said. "This
is my third year here, and this feels like at home. I can't wait to get to
practice every day and see the fellas. Just have fun in the locker room and
joke around. And then when we get out on the field, it's time to work."

But can friendship lead to first downs? Can a tight team bond lead to
touchdowns? Does team chemistry help on game day?

"Sure," Bulger said. "If you have a team that doesn't care about each other, as
bad as you want to win, some guys aren't going to lay it on the line for the
other guy."

When you're close, Bulger says, you can tell a teammate to pick up the pace
when he might be lagging. On a team that's not close, such words - although
often necessary - go unspoken.

But on the '04 Rams, Bulger says, "I think we're all going toward the same
goal."

This team may not have the swagger of its recent predecessors. The days of The
Greatest Show on Turf may be gone. But the goal remains the same: The Lombardi
Trophy, which goes to the Super Bowl champion.

"Just being part of the Rams, we have big expectations," said safety Adam
Archuleta, a first-round draft pick in 2001. "We always come into a season with
kind of an air about us that we're going to be the best, we're going to be the
team to beat."

And why shouldn't they?

Even with the 7-9 pratfall in 2002, the Rams are tied for the best
regular-season record in the NFL over the past five seasons with Tennessee at
56-24. Adding playoff results to the total, the Rams remain tied for the most
victories with the Titans at 61. (The Titans have one more playoff loss over
that span - four to the Rams' three.)

"It takes a special type of person to stay up at a high level all the time,"
defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "Some people like to get up, taste the
top, and then fade back down."

But in an age where teams come and go at the top of the standings from season
to season, the Rams have been able to sustain success.

"I can tell you exactly why," coach Mike Martz said. "Personnel. You combine
what Jay (Zygmunt) has done with these contracts. Keeping guys here. Guys
wanting to be here. And Charley (Armey) finding guys. And it goes with coaches,
too. Just getting the right people here. That's what this game's about. ... If
you have the right people, you've got a chance."

And now comes 2004. Martz has termed this a transition year, because for the
first time since the run of excellence started in '99, the Rams begin a regular
season with someone other than Warner as their starting quarterback.

There are questions on the offensive line; depth issues at defensive tackle;
youngsters who must provide help across the depth chart. No one knows for sure
how much Marshall Faulk can contribute over a 16-game season - at this point,
not even Faulk.

So how good can this team be?

"I definitely wish the offensive line was in better shape health-wise,"
offensive guard Adam Timmerman said. "That'd be ideal. But I think team-wise,
we're way ahead of where we were last year."

That's because a host of younger players, such as Robert Thomas, Dane Looker,
Pisa Tinoisamoa, Arlen Harris, Jerametrius Butler, Brandon Manumaleuna - even
Bulger - are now battle-tested. That wasn't really the case a year ago.

Despite the wrenching double-overtime playoff loss to Carolina last January,
the Rams are coming off a 12-victory season, which provides some momentum of
its own.

"That winning attitude is something that's hard to create," Timmerman said.
"When we had that down year (2002), it's harder to get that out of your mind."

At the start of training camp, Jackson said this was as talented of a team as
he'd been on during his 10-year NFL career. Before joining the Rams in 2001,
Jackson played on some very talented teams in Tampa Bay, including a 1999
Buccaneers squad that lost to St. Louis in the NFC title game.

So far, Jackson has seen nothing in training camp or the preseason to change
his opinion. He still feels the same way about the '04 Rams.

"No question about that," Jackson said. "But again, there's responsibility that
comes with that. If we don't work hard and waste that (talent), it's worse than
not having it at all."

In terms of the Rams alone, defensive back Aeneas Williams says the talent
level is comparable to his three prior seasons here.

"We're still moving around extremely well on defense," he said. "Offensively, I
think we're just as explosive. On special teams, there's the infusion of a new
coach (Mike Stock), and a lot more guys getting involved. I see no reason why
we can't excel ... and finish this up in Jacksonville."

In case you missed it, Jacksonville is the site of Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6.