Rams are getting set to gear up again
By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
Late afternoon had crept into early evening Jan. 10 when lightning struck the Edward Jones Dome. The bolt was a 69-yard pass play deftly executed by Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith that brought the Rams' season to an abrupt and crushing conclusion.
It was 23-23 when the Panthers faced third down and 14 on the first play of the second overtime. Inexplicably, Smith split the Rams' deep defense and Delhomme found him in full stride in the middle of the field, streaking toward the end zone. The capacity crowd was yanked into an eerie silence as the NFC West champions, 12-4 in the regular season, suffered sudden death in the opening round of the playoffs.
"I just went, 'Arrrrrrggggh,'" Rams wide receiver Torry Holt said. "Your heart just drops all the way down to your toes. That's the kind of hurt you feel."
Now the team is gearing up for training camp and a new season. The players are to report to Western Illinois University in Macomb by 5 p.m. July 27, with the first two workouts scheduled for the following day. Camp will continue through Aug. 20.
During the six months since the 29-23 loss to Carolina, some significant shifts have taken place in the team's landscape. Here's a review of the most noteworthy happenings during the offseason:
Two defensive linemen sign with other teams
Two starters on the defensive line, right end Grant Wistrom and tackle Brian Young, accepted free-agent offers from other teams. Wistrom signed a six-year, $33 million deal with Seattle, and Young went to New Orleans.
Damione Lewis heads to Macomb as the heir apparent to Young's spot. Should Lewis falter, Bernard Holsey, a free-agent pickup who started all 16 games last season for Washington, could move into the lineup.
Replacing Wistrom, whose 60 tackles last season included seven sacks, could be more problematic. For now, Sean Moran - a former Ram who returned as a free agent - is No. 1 on the depth chart, with Bryce Fisher and Erik Flowers listed as backups. Tyoka Jackson also could figure into the mix.
Defense is going from Lovie to Larry
Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith was hired as Chicago's head coach on Jan. 14. Five days later, Rams coach Mike Martz named Larry Marmie as Smith's successor.
Smith had turned an unsteady defense into one of the NFL's best units. Marmie, who spent the previous eight years with the Arizona Cardinals, the final 3 1/2 as defensive coordinator, said that like Smith, "I like speed. . . . We want to continue to play in the same way, with the same style."
At quarterback, a Kurt dismissal
Marc Bulger, who started 16 games last season at quarterback and was the most valuable player in the Pro Bowl, was rewarded with Martz's faith - the coach announced in May that Bulger, 27, would remain No. 1 - and a fat contract ($19.1 million over four years). Chris Chandler, 38, arrived as a free agent, and the Rams took Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker in the sixth round of the draft.
All of which made imminent the departure of injury-plagued Kurt Warner, a two-time league MVP. The Rams released Warner on June 2, and he signed with the New York Giants.
"You're always disappointed when a marriage, so to speak, ends like that," Warner, 33, said after arriving in New York. "You have so much success and things were so great that you would love to ride off into the sunset and have success and finish up that way. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way."
Little is again arrested for DWI
Left defensive end Leonard Little, an All-Pro who piled up a team-high 12 1/2 sacks last season, was stopped by Ladue police April 24. Little was charged with driving while intoxicated as a persistent offender, a felony. He could receive up to 4 1/2 months in prison.
In October 1998, Little's Lincoln Navigator ran a red light at a downtown intersection and collided with a car driven by Susan Gutweiler, 47, of Oakville. She was killed. A breath test showed that Little had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 percent, nearly twice the legal limit. After pleading guilty of involuntary manslaughter, Little was sentenced to 90 days in jail as part of a work-release program, 1,000 hours of community service and four years' probation. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended him for the first eight games in 1999.
Little, 29, was excused from the team's full-squad minicamp in May but is expected to be present for the start of training camp and to be available for most, if not all, of the season while awaiting a resolution of his case.
The draft provides an unexpected bonus
Oregon State running back Steven Jackson thought he might go to Detroit in the first round of the draft. If not the Lions, then perhaps Dallas or Denver. But when Jackson remained available as their pick approached, the Rams pounced: They traded up two spots and grabbed the 6-foot-2, 233-pounder with the No. 24 overall selection.
Martz said he was "dumbfounded" that Jackson was still on the board. "This is an opportunity to add great value to this football team that we did not anticipate," Martz added.
And if Marshall Faulk's balky knees buckle, Jackson could find himself in a spot that he did not anticipate - at least, not so soon: As the team's No. 1 ballcarrier.
The Rams' second draft pick, third-round defensive end Anthony Hargrove, impressed at both minicamps, displaying startling quickness and strength. Linebacker Brandon Chillar (fourth round) and safety Jason Shivers (fifth round) are being counted on to fill backup roles that previously were held by Jamie Duncan and Shane Walton, who were released.
So, while much remains the same - 20 of 22 starters are back - about the defending division champs, much also has changed. For the better, in Martz's view. "I like my football team," he said. "I really do."
Re: Rams are getting set to gear up again
I believe the hardest part about facing a new season, is letting go of the past. Thanks for the history lesson, Dez. But I'm sure all them guys mentioned would love to let it all go. Especially Little, no doubt he has demons that will dog him the rest of his life.
Major bummer about Wistrom of course, but at least he's with a team I can stomach. Brian is a lost cause to me, I can't cheer for an Aint, no matter who he is.