By Bill Coats

When he finally was able to get Mike Martz off the phone, Joe Vitt presided over his first practice in his role as the Rams' interim head coach Thursday.

"There should be rules" on how often Martz is permitted to call, Vitt said afterward. "He has no discipline at all." Looking ahead to Monday night's game at Indianapolis, Vitt added: "I expect we'll probably get a call at halftime."

Of course, Vitt was kidding. Nobody is more aware than Vitt that Martz's hospitalization for treatment of a bacterial infection of a heart valve is no laughing matter. On Monday, Martz began an indefinite leave of absence that is expected to stretch at least six weeks.

He left Vitt, his assistant head coach, in charge. Vitt ran two practices last week in Martz's absence, but that was before Martz's doctors removed him from the picture and ordered him to bed.

So the circumstances Thursday at Rams Park were a bit different. But not the resolve, Vitt emphasized. "Hey, listen, we're all paid to get a job done, to show up for work, roll your sleeves up, put your hard hat on, be disciplined, pay attention and do what we're asking you to do," he said. "We had good meetings, we had good walk-throughs, and we had a good, sharp practice. We're preparing to win."

Knocking off the Colts (5-0) - the NFL's last undefeated team - at the RCA Dome is a tall order. The Rams (2-3) are two-touchdown underdogs on the heels of losses to the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks.

That might help explain the frequency of the calls from Martz. "He's concerned about the football team, and he's just checking in every once in a while," said Vitt, who also coaches the linebackers. "We told him, 'Hey, get your treatment, relax, let the doctors get you better.'"

Rams cut Hawthorne

The "dirty work" that comes with running a team started Wednesday night for Vitt, when he told free safety Michael Hawthorne that he'd been released.

"It was a decision that our organization made," Vitt said. "I brought him into the office, told him that we appreciated the hard work he did here, and we're going in a different direction."

Hawthorne, a six-year veteran signed as a free agent in the offseason, had started all five games. But he'd committed a number of coverage errors and, after bruising a thigh muscle, was replaced by Mike Furrey at the start of the second quarter Sunday vs. Seattle. Furrey will get his first NFL start Monday night.

"I'm really excited," Furrey said. "This is what I've been working for. I'm looking forward to it. ... And what better stage to do that than a Monday night game?"

At Martz's behest, Furrey moved to defense this year after spending his first two seasons with the Rams at wide receiver. "When I made the change, obviously this was a goal of mine," he said. "I didn't know how fast it would come, but it's here now and I'm going to take advantage of it."

Receiver signs

With Isaac Bruce (toe) and Torry Holt (knee) nursing injuries, the Rams shored up their corps of wideouts by signing Brandon Middleton to the practice squad. Center Toby Cecil was cut to make room on the eight-man unit.

Middleton, a University of Houston product, was on the practice squad for the final six weeks of the 2004 season and with the team in training camp last summer. He was released Aug. 30.

Bruce, who has missed two games, did some individual work Thursday. He was listed as doubtful on Thursday's injury report. Holt, who bruised his right knee against Seattle but returned and caught a touchdown pass, sat out practice. He's questionable.

Guard Claude Terrell (calf) was added to the report, listed as probable.