By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/12/2005


No passing touchdowns in the last two games. And only 22 points. Make no mistake, the St. Louis offense has hit a lull, the likes of which hasn't been seen much since the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf in 1999.

Before the Minnesota and Washington losses, the Rams had gone back-to-back games without throwing a TD pass only once since the start of the '99 Super Bowl season:

In 2000, the Rams lost 16-3 at Carolina on Dec. 3 in Kurt Warner's first game back after missing five contests with a broken pinky finger. Warner threw four interceptions on a cold, blustery day in Charlotte, N.C. Warner was back in sync the following weekend against Minnesota, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards - but no TDs - in a 40-29 Rams victory. The Rams scored five rushing touchdowns that day.

In terms of scoring droughts, the Rams have scored fewer than the 22 total points they mustered against the Vikings and the Redskins during only two sequences since '99:

-- Last December, the Rams lost 20-7 at Carolina and 31-7 at Arizona in successive weeks. Marc Bulger was sidelined with a shoulder injury at the time, and veteran Chris Chandler had epic meltdowns against the Panthers (six interceptions) and the Cardinals (benched after one quarter).

-- In 2002, the Rams endured a three-game stretch of road losses in which they scored 17 points at Washington, just three at Philadelphia, and 10 at Kansas City. Again, injuries at quarterback were the key to the offensive woes. With Bulger sidelined by a hand injury, Warner started against Washington - and finished that game with what was diagnosed as a broken hand more than a week later. He played the following week against Philadelphia with the hand injury - leading to the initial "Brenda-gate" controversy. In Kansas City a week later, the Rams were pounded 49-10 with Jamie Martin at quarterback.

The moral to the story? It's hard for any offense to function, especially the Rams' offense, without an efficient, effective triggerman. The "Air Martz" offense is all about accuracy, timing and throwing to spots. If any, or all, of those elements are missing, the results can be disastrous.

Such was the case Sunday in Minneapolis, when rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick threw five interceptions in a 27-13 Rams loss. But in the wake of that defeat, which officially eliminated St. Louis from playoff contention, interim head coach Joe Vitt is sticking with Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick will start Sunday against Philadelphia, and all indications are that he will start the rest of this season unless Bulger's latest shoulder ailment heals enough for him to play.

And what of Martin?

"He's not out of the picture, but we're going to go with Fitz until Marc's ready to go," Vitt said. "If Marc can get healthy, Marc's got the job."

But a return by Bulger, out since the third quarter of the Nov. 20 loss to Arizona, seems very unlikely.

"If it gets back to near 100 percent, I'll come back," Bulger said following the Minnesota game. "If it doesn't, then I'm going to do the right thing."

Namely, wait till next year. So the Rams will sink or swim with Fitzpatrick, despite the nightmare afternoon in the Twin Cities. Despite Fitzpatrick's struggles, Vitt said: "I don't worry about him. He's tough. I think he's mentally tough. He's going to work hard to prepare himself. His teammates still believe in him. He'd like a couple of those throws back, but I don't worry about him."

Minnesota has a talented secondary, on a defense that has more interceptions this season (23) than any team in the NFL other than Cincinnati (27). But the Vikings were doing nothing exotic with their coverages Sunday. They were playing mainly Cover 2 and Cover 4, a pair of basic defenses.

What Vitt would like Fitzpatrick to do is a better job with his pre-snap reads, identifying what kind of coverage look he's getting from the opposing defense. In turn, that will give Fitzpatrick a better idea of which areas of the field will be more open for his receivers, and which won't.

"He's got to get that cleaned up," Vitt said. "When it's not there, check it down to the back. These are learning experiences for him right now. But it's at the expense of the football team - and wins."

As much as Fitzpatrick looked in sync with his receivers against Houston, he looked out of sync against Minnesota, and that led to some errant passes and contributed to some of the drops Sunday.

"It's timing. It really is," Vitt said.