Monday, October 10, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

During Joe Vitt’s 27-year tenure as a coach in the National Football League, he has never held the title of head coach. Now, with Mike Martz in the hospital because of an acute bacterial infection, Vitt is the man in charge of the St. Louis Rams.

Obviously, these are not the conditions Vitt would prefer to have gained the status as top man under, but he is the man facing that task.

“After consulting with Mike, we have all agreed that assistant head coach Joe Vitt will be interim head coach of the Rams during Mike’s absence,” Rams President John Shaw said.

And with that, Vitt takes over as the No. 1 man in charge until Martz is able to return. The length of that stay as the head coach is unknown, but Shaw said Martz is expected to be in the hospital from four to 12 days. After that, Martz’s return will be determined by medical professionals.

Vitt met with Martz on Monday morning and then spoke with the team soon after. His first order of business was to attempt to keep the team focused despite Martz’s medical condition.

“I think it’s been tough for the last couple weeks,” Vitt said. “Our players have seen the condition Mike has been in. They see the look in his eye. I think our players knowing now that he is in the hospital and he’s getting the proper treatment may be some bit of relief. We’ll move on from there.”

Vitt has been the unofficial interim coach for the better part of the past week or so. When Martz missed practice on Sept. 30, Vitt stepped in as the coach and handled Martz’s post-practice media duties.

Vitt did likewise last Wednesday and Thursday when Martz missed those practices. For the most part, though, the only thing out of the norm that Vitt had to do was answer the media’s questions.

Now, though, he must handle the day to day operation and management of the team. But that is something he won’t be doing by himself.

For all of his time in the NFL, Vitt has never been an offensive coach. Vitt worked in the strength and conditioning departments for the Seahawks and Baltimore Colts before becoming coaching Seattle’s defensive backs from 1983-1991. He moved on to the Los Angeles Rams as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach in 1992 and stayed there until 1994.

Vitt then took over linebacker duties for the Eagles from 1995-1998 before going to Green Bay as defensive backs coach in 1999. He coached linebackers for the Chiefs from 2000 to 2003 before arriving in his current capacity with the Rams last year.

Obviously, Vitt has seen and done almost everything in the NFL and after this he will have seen and done it all. Everything that is, except for coaching offense, a task he will leave in the hands of offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.

“We have got great offensive coaches,” Vitt said. “Mike involves our offensive coaches every week in the game planning. Steve Fairchild has done a lot of Scripting in our minicamps, in our OTAs and in training camp. All of these guys on the offensive staff have been in this system for a long time. And this system has been highly successful for a long time with a lot of moving parts. Steve is excited about the challenge. Our offensive coaches blend well together.”

That means Vitt will have as much involvement in the offense as Martz did with the defense, which is to say somewhere between little and none.

“I have nothing to do with this offense,” Vitt said. “This offense has been very, very good way long before I got here.”

Vitt earned a reputation last season for being a fiery guy who is always the second loudest voice on the practice field after defensive line coach Bill Kollar. With the tall order of keeping Martz’s absence from being a distraction, Vitt says he thinks it will actually help the team’s focus.

“I think it’s less of a distraction now,” Vitt said. “Now that our players know he is in the hospital, he is getting treatment, he is not trying to come into work and then leave, I think it’s a relief to all of us. He is getting the medical treatment he needs and we’ll move on.”

As for taking advice from Martz, Vitt said he expects to hear from Martz, but hopefully not too often.

“I hope very little,” Vitt said. “I hope he stays in the hospital and gets the treatment he needs and stays away from the game for awhile. He will probably have me on the phone three or four times a day.”