By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
01/03/2006
Bryan Burwell

In the occasionally pitiless environment of the National Football League, the not-so-fine distinction between goodbye and good riddance can often be measured by the surprising dichotomy of little indignities.

On Monday afternoon at Rams Park, players sporadically roamed through the corridors and out into the uncertainty of the long offseason with all their personal effects stuffed into large plastic trash bags. This is how they say goodbye to players at season's end in the NFL, with no pomp, no circumstance and little dignity to boot; just a king-sized baggy at your locker stall and the coldhearted insinuation that you are easily disposable parts of a giant football machine. Meanwhile, on the far end of the building, a far more high-brow departure was taking place, delivered expertly by team president John Shaw, who was bidding good riddance to his embattled coach-in-exile, Mike Martz, with far more ceremony, and without a single trash bag in sight.

Shaw stood in front of a long bank of whirling minicams and fluttering motor drives and delivered the news we have been expecting for months, with local television stations breaking into programming to beam Martz's firing live and in living color. And whatever Martz's departure lacked in callous indignity, it more than made up for in dispassionate deliberateness.

"Earlier today I spoke with Coach Martz and informed him that he was being terminated as the head coach of the Rams," Shaw said, his clinical voice barely above a whisper. "We have decided that a change in our head coaching position is in the best interest of the football team. We deferred taking any action until we were sure that Coach Martz had regained his health. His doctor advised us that Mike was fully recovered on Jan. 1, 2006, which as you know was yesterday." Ahhh, don't you love a heart-tugging story like this? Yeah, we checked with his doctors, and the moment they told us he was finally healthy enough for us to fire, we waited 24 hours and . . . bam!

And so the crazy, mixed-up madness that was Mike Martz's highly successful yet always controversial tenure with the Rams has come to an end, and not a minute too soon, either. In the final days of Martz Madness, things had gotten so nutty that sadly, even many of his allies reluctantly were glad to see him go.

The evidence is mounting that it really is time for Martz to begin the next chapter of his football life somewhere far from the dysfunction at Rams Park. It's so hard to pinpoint whether he created most of the nuttiness of this weird soap opera or was simply the perfect catalyst-victim of scheming antagonists within the organization who knew how to bring out the worst in him.

But for his own good, Martz needs to get as much distance between himself and Earth City as humanly possible, because this place really did expose his dark side.

The man who I once considered to be simply a tortured football eccentric, in his final days in Rams exile turned into the epitome of all that he hated about his real and perceived enemies here. The paranoia heightened and the political scheming became a daily - heck, hourly - fabric of everyday life at the Park. We may never know the full extent of the behind-the-scenes nonsense that helped contribute to this 6-10 nightmare of a season. But the stories being told now are all full of Martz-inspired intrigue with assistant coaches and players being pitted against one another, and constant, unfair and uncomfortable tests of allegiance to the coach-in-exile.

The final sad shame of it is how this will probably forever overshadow all the success that Martz helped create here.

Yet if there is one bit of good that can be extracted from the lunacy of the final days of the Martz era, it ought to be a case study on how things must change around here.

Whoever Shaw hires to be the next head coach, he has to be on so many levels the anti-Martz. No more obsessive, single-minded, easily distracted men who only care about one side of the football. They need a no-nonsense, defense-minded football CEO who is willing to oversee the operation and designate responsibility. They need someone who cares about both sides of the ball and special teams, who can create order from chaos, inject discipline to a group of young players who haven't yet begun to understand the dedication it takes to be a highly successful professional athlete. He needs to be a no-nonsense taskmaster who believes in bigger, stronger, fitter, nastier and younger offensive linemen who can bench press small villages. He needs to be surrounded by an efficient front office that can work with him, not against him to bring in cornerbacks who can cover, safeties who can tackle and a defensive scheme that is creative and aggressive. But most of all ... and this is a HUGE one ... please, oh please, NO ... MORE ... DRAMA.