Rams balance need, logic in deploying top weapon Faulk
Sept. 1, 2004
By Clark Judge
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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Rams: Five things to know
It's not how much time former All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk might miss this season that will determine where St. Louis finishes. It's how much he plays, with the Rams careful how they use a 31-year-old back sidelined with injuries parts of the past four seasons.

The Rams drafted Steven Jackson in Round 1 for a very good reason. (AP)
Here's the problem: Faulk is the Rams' best player, and the more he's on the field, the more problems the Rams pose for opponents. But the more he plays, the greater the risk of injury, and he missed a month-and-a-half last year with a broken hand and sore knee.

It's a sticky situation. St. Louis needs the guy for the stretch drive, especially with Seattle hot on its trail in the NFC West, but rookie Steven Jackson and Lamar Gordon give it two outstanding young backs who can give Faulk what he needs most -- a break.

Neither is the equal of Faulk -- few backs are -- but both are good enough they could start for some NFL teams. So how do you use them? More specific, how don't you use Marshall Faulk? I'm not sure, but I know who is.

Mike Martz, come on down.

"You have to be careful with him," the Rams' head coach said of his prized back. "There's just so much wear and tear. It's a fine line. He's always felt the pressure of having to stay in, even when he was pretty well banged up. But now he has the luxury (of decent backups), so he doesn't have to go more than a couple plays in a row.

"He's always had to carry the load, so I think this is a relief to him, to be honest with you."

Now you and I both know Marshall Faulk will go more than a couple of plays in a row. Faulk not only is a terrific player; he's a consummate professional, determined to stay in the huddle until or unless the contest is out of reach. But blowouts are less frequent each year, with 10 of the Rams' 17 games last season decided by 10 or fewer points.

Five things you should know
Martz will leave Faulk's availability up to the man who knows best -- Marshall Faulk. If he wants to stay on the field, Martz will let him.

But it's a balancing act that bears watching. Players are loath to leave the field, with quarterback Steve Young atypically cursing his head coach when he was pulled in the third quarter of a 40-8 loss in 1994. Young wanted a chance to save the day, but George Seifert wanted to win the season, and there was little chance if Young was hurt.

So, he spared Young, the team won its next 10 and later captured Super Bowl XXIX.

"Marshall is smart," Martz said. "He knows if there's something where he needs to come out for awhile, he will come out. He's not concerned with stats. He just wants to win. He understands his value to us, and we really will let him dictate that (his availability) to us. That's his decision, not ours."

Like most backs over 30, Faulk's numbers have begun to decline. From 1999 through 2001, he averaged 1,360 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns a year and became the first player in league history to have four consecutive seasons of 2,000 yards from scrimmage. But the past two seasons have been a different story, with Faulk failing to rush for 1,000 yards in either year, averaging 885 yards and 10.5 TDs overall and dropping to 3.9 yards a carry in 2003, the second-worst figure of his 10-year career.

Naturally, injuries had something to do with all that. But recurring injuries are signs a back is wearing down and, possibly, wearing out. Faulk had offseason knee surgery, and while Martz said he looks "fine," the head coach has been careful how he uses him in practices.

Which is how it should be. The club traded up for Jackson because it believes he can be a future star, and he showed signs last weekend with a 125-yard effort against Washington. Gordon is a valuable resource, too, especially now that he feels no discomfort from a left ankle that bothered him the past two years. Doctors recently located and removed a bone chip the size of a thumbnail, and Gordon has resumed running.

"We've got a real good situation with those other two backs that we can spell him," Martz said of Faulk. "He's going to have more fun with this. He can play a stress-free game and have fun and know that if he gets gassed and has to come out, he can. He doesn't have the entire workload, and I think that's important for him."

It's important to the Rams, too. With Faulk, the Rams are a complete offense. After returning to the lineup last year, he had five 100-yard games and nine TDs in eight starts. That was a glimpse of what Faulk can do for you. But so were the five games without him.

Yes, the Rams were 4-1, but they were also one-dimensional. That's one reason they rushed to draft Jackson and why they will be judicious how and when they use Faulk this season.

"You don't want to get caught short," Martz said. "As we know it's hard to get through the season, and Marshall's such a vital part of our plans and what we can do. So, what you try to do is build guys behind him who are kind of like him -- someone, say, who can catch the ball -- because you never know.

"It's not so much about life after Marshall. I'm more concerned about this year," added Martz, who feels pressure to win again soon in St. Louis. "I might be preparing for life after Marshall for somebody else, and I'm not real excited about that."

St. Louis Rams
Out of Nowhere Man
WR Kevin Curtis, Utah State

A third-round draft pick a year ago, Curtis had no impact his rookie season, largely because he was sidelined much of the year with a broken leg. Now he's back, and while he's the club's No. 5 wide receiver, he's pushing Shaun McDonald hard for the fourth spot. Curtis, who set a Utah State career record for catches despite playing only two seasons, has the speed and quickness to be a deep threat.