By Bill Coats
POST-DISPATCH
10/21/2005


Only a couple of months ago, rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick was a long shot to make the Rams' roster. Now he's "one play away instead of two" from being a first-team NFL quarterback, he noted.

Starter Marc Bulger won't play in Sunday's home game against New Orleans after suffering an injury to his right shoulder Monday night at Indianapolis. He could return the following week vs. Jacksonville, but a more likely date is Nov. 13 in Seattle, after the Rams' bye week.

While Bulger mends, veteran Jamie Martin moves up to the No. 1 spot and Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round draft pick from Harvard, slides into the backup role. "As far as mental preparation, nothing changes," said Fitzpatrick, 6 feet 2 and 221 pounds.

Jeff Smoker, a sixth-round draftee last year who lost his job to Fitzpatrick in training camp, was re-signed this week. On Friday, Smoker was activated from the practice squad so that he could suit up as the No. 3 quarterback.

To make room on the 53-man roster for Smoker, veteran offensive lineman Matt Willig was released. Willig had been backing up Orlando Pace at left tackle.

Fitzpatrick, 22, said he didn't panic when Bulger went down in the second quarter of the Rams' 45-28 loss to the Colts.

"The first thing that entered my mind was, 'I've got to run the headset,'" he said. The second-team quarterback normally relays the play calls to the starter, who has a receiver in his helmet. It can be a complicated assignment, and Fitzpatrick conceded that he was relieved when Bulger returned from the locker room and assumed that function. Running the team on the field, Fitzpatrick said, would produce fewer butterflies.

"I have a lot of confidence in myself. If I went in there, I think I'd be able to do the job," he said. "They'd probably simplify (the game plan) a little bit for me. I haven't had a ton of reps doing all the stuff, but I've got a lot of mental reps watching Marc and Jamie do them."

Little is in limbo

Defensive end Leonard Little remained with his family Friday, and his availability for Sunday's game was undetermined. "I don't know anything," interim head coach Joe Vitt said.

On Monday evening, Little's 24-year-old brother, Jermaine, was fatally shot in Harriman, Tenn. Leonard Little, who left St. Louis early Tuesday morning, was included on the Rams' injury report Friday. He was listed as "questionable," which under NFL guidelines means his chances of playing Sunday were 50-50. First-team cornerback Travis Fisher (groin) also was added, listed as probable. Defensive end Anthony Hargrove, who was sick Thursday, was back at practice Friday.

Mental wear and tear

Little's personal difficulties, coupled with the illness that is expected to keep coach Mike Martz away for at least six weeks, are affecting the team, cornerback DeJuan Groce acknowledged.

"It's kind of hard dealing with stuff like that off the field," Groce said. "We're trying to pull together as a team. Tragedies happen in this life, and as a team, we've just got to stick together and help Leonard and Coach Martz out."