BY JIM THOMAS
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS - The "end game" has begun for Mike Martz and his six-year tenure as head coach of the Rams.

Martz has received medical clearance to resume full-time coaching, effective Jan. 1.

"I was called by Mike's agent Thursday, who informed me that Mike's condition has improved, and he'll be cleared to come to work full time as of Jan. 1," Rams President John Shaw told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Shaw confirmed Friday that he also received notification of this in writing from Martz's doctor, Victoria Fraser of Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"I think we've maintained throughout that once we know Mike is totally healthy, we will be in touch with him to discuss his coaching status with the team," Shaw said.

Those discussions now can begin starting Jan. 1, according to Shaw.

Martz's agent, Bob LaMonte, indicated Friday that he would like to begin discussions sooner. But LaMonte added: "That is entirely up to John. I think the last thing he said to me when he got the medical reports is he would call me back."

And if Shaw decides to stick strictly to the clearance date of Jan. 1 before starting discussions, that's fine with LaMonte.

"It isn't as if we're talking about a great deal of time," LaMonte said. "We're talking about basically two weeks."

Once those discussions begin, it is widely anticipated that they will lead to a negotiated settlement that will end Martz's time in St. Louis.

When asked Friday if he has made a decision on Martz's future with the team, Shaw replied: "I really don't want to comment on that at this time."

However, sources close to Shaw have indicated that he has made up his mind - namely, that it is time for a new head coach in St. Louis. The preferred course of action is a contract settlement, taking care of the final year of Martz's five-year, $15 million contract.

Martz is scheduled to make $3.25 million in 2006. As soon as a settlement is reached, for something less than the $3.25 million, the Rams can begin their search for a new head coach. And Martz can begin his search for a new head coaching job elsewhere in the National Football League.

Martz did not return a phone message Friday from the Post- Dispatch.

According to LaMonte, "Mike has said he wants to come back and coach the team (in 2006), and that's what I told John."

And that's where it stands, until LaMonte hears from Shaw again, presumably once the new year begins.

Martz has not coached a Rams game since Oct. 9 against Seattle at the Edward Jones Dome. He has been treated for a bacterial infection, believed to be endocarditis. Since the Seattle game, Rams assistant Joe Vitt has served as interim head coach. Vitt will continue as interim head coach over the remaining three games of this season.

With the release date of Jan. 1, Martz in theory could return to coach the Rams in the season finale that evening in Dallas. But that's not going to happen.

LaMonte, who also represents Vitt, recently negotiated an adjustment in Vitt's contract, giving him a pay raise to reflect his duties as acting head coach over the final 11 games of the season.

"Mike never wanted to infringe upon Joe's ability to coach," LaMonte said. "Why would we have redone Joe for 11 weeks if Mike was coming back?"

Martz returned from a hiatus in San Diego early last week, and has been a regular since then at Rams Park.

"He's felt great for about two weeks," LaMonte said. "He's gone in and done some work."

Martz has been at Rams Park at least five times in the past 10 days, including watching part of Friday's workout. But as LaMonte points out, Martz's presence at Rams Park is consistent with the original diagnosis by Fraser_that Martz could begin working on a part-time basis around the end of November.

Before his leave of absence in October, Martz's record as head coach of the Rams was 56-36. Beginning with the 2000 season, his Rams teams have made the playoffs four times, won two NFC West titles, and finished as Super Bowl runner-up after the 2001 season.

Starting with the 1999 Super Bowl championship season, when he served as Dick Vermeil's offensive coordinator, Martz called plays for one of the most potent offenses in NFL history. From 1999 through the 2001 seasons, the Rams scored 500-plus points an unprecedented three consecutive seasons.

But since the start of the 2002 season, and up until Martz's illness and leave of absence, the team's record was a modest 30-26. There was a talent drain, both in terms of free-agent departures and draft picks that didn't work out. That fueled tension between Martz and Jay Zygmunt, president of football operations.

Their feud boiled over on Oct. 23, when Martz was prevented from contacting offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild via cell phone during a game with New Orleans. Zygmunt prevented a Martz emissary from entering the coach's box with a cell phone, but Shaw later said that Zygmunt merely brought the emissary to the Rams' owner's booth, where Shaw denied permission.

Later, Shaw was angered over reports claiming he had told Martz in the past that the team didn't need to go to the Super Bowl because it lost money when it went to the Super Bowl.

The "cell phone" and "losing money" incidents hardened Shaw's resolve to make a coaching change at the end of the season, according to team sources.

But the seeds were planted in the offseason with management's unwillingness to give Martz a contract extension before the 2005 season. Shaw was willing to offer a conditional extension, based on the team finishing 8-8 this season. Martz felt he didn't have to prove himself_even by going 8-8 - to earn an extension, which led to the current contract stalemate.