Vitt instills grit as Rams change their personality
By Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Oct. 30 2005

Because the Rams have gone from head coach Mike Martz to interim head coach Joe
Vitt, we're seeing a transformation. The Rams used to be about finesse; now
they're about power. They used to dance around the ring flicking jabs, trying
to win on points; now they deliver body shots to the ribs and uppercuts to the
chin, aiming to win on a knockout.

Martz is an extended member of the Don Coryell coaching family; tough guy Vitt
could have been a member of the Don Corleone family. Martz is Southern
California; Vitt is southern New Jersey.

The coaches have something in common. Martz loves Vitt and hired him to come to
St. Louis to serve on his staff. Vitt is loyal to Martz and worries about his
friend's health. In fact, Vitt stopped by Martz's house after Sunday's game.

And then there's this: After Sunday's 24-21 win over Jacksonville, Vitt
revealed to his players that he planned to undergo a procedure to clear a minor
buildup in an artery. The Rams, entering the bye week, don't play again until
Nov. 13 at Seattle, so Vitt should be fine.

Still, what is it with Rams head coaches and coronary problems?

Well, Vitt certainly has put all of his heart into his team, and it shows.

The Rams, wallowing at 2-4, were pulled up by Vitt's emotional rescue. They've
won their last two and at 4-4 are trying to maneuver themselves into postseason
contention.

"We have all of these starters out, and we're winning," Rams general manager
Charley Armey said. "You can't say enough about the job Joe has done. He's kept
everyone focused. He's given this team continuity, and he's given it
leadership. This team could have fallen apart real easy, but Joe's leadership
has held it together."

Armey isn't saying this to insult Martz, who has taken a season-ending medical
leave to tend to a bacterial infection of a heart valve. Martz has a
regular-season winning percentage of .606 as head coach of the Rams and has
taken more teams to the playoffs than any other coach in St. Louis NFL history.

And, of course, with quarterback Marc Bulger and wideouts Torry Holt and Isaac
Bruce out with injuries, the Rams have turned to Steven Jackson, their big
bruiser of a running back. They'd be crazy not to.

That said, we'd be less than honest if we didn't note the change of personality
in the Rams under Vitt. Not only is the defense more cranked up and aggressive,
but Vitt likes to play rough on offense.

Sunday, Steven Jackson rushed for 179 yards and scored the winning touchdown on
a 19-yard pass. The Dome became Steven Jacksonville.

Vitt is setting the tempo by making sure the Rams are primed to play physical
football. Before last week's victory over New Orleans, Vitt showed his players
a video of Jim Valvano's "Never Give Up" speech. And to pump his men up before
the intense confrontation with Jacksonville, Vitt showed the Rams battle scenes
from the movie "Gladiator."

Vitt as master motivator - who knew? Vitt spent the last 27 years in relative
anonymity, a passionate but low-key assistant content to study tapes and teach
behind the scenes.

Vitt's no-nonsense strength and single-minded purpose is exactly what the Rams
needed after being rattled by Martz's illness, the injuries and the controversy
generated by public debates between Martz and team president John Shaw.

"We have said this to the players ... when you cross the white lines on Sunday,
that is what you are going to be judged on," Vitt said. "So you better prepare
to win, and you better be prepared to bring your 'A' game and be judged by
that."

And then there's offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who sticks with the run
instead of abandoning the strategy as soon as Jackson or Marshall Faulk gets
stuffed for minus yards. Fairchild was trained by Martz and recruited here by
Martz but clearly has his own ideas. As director of football operations Jay
Zygmunt told ESPN the Magazine, the Rams still use Martz's philosophy but could
implement it in a different way.

"Obviously we have to play a certain way right now," Vitt said. "We are banged
up. This is probably a game that Mike Martz would have loved to coach. He
probably would have gone empty backfields, sets and motion, to (mess) with
people. But we can't do that, because Mike's not here. There's a certain way we
have to play the game in order to win."

Player after player in the Rams locker room praised Vitt and Fairchild for the
stability they've brought to the locker room. And the coaches were saluted for
their commitment to a ground-based offense.

"The whole offensive line, nobody likes to drop-back pass all the time," guard
Adam Timmerman said. Added center Andy McCollum: "It's nice to have the chance
to come at the other team and hit them instead of letting them hit us."

Martz is inclined to pass first and answer questions about why he didn't run
later. We'll never know for sure, but Martz is so in love with the passing
game, it's legitimate to wonder whether Jackson would have gotten 25 carries
against Jacksonville's burly front seven. Martz may have gotten itchy to pass.

"This is still Mike's team," McCollum said.

Yes, but "The Greatest Show" acrobats have cleared the stadium. And a gladiator
has walked in.