Wednesday, December 7, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

As injuries have continued to ravage the Rams and with the playoffs likely out of reach, interim coach Joe Vitt is excited about what the next month will reveal about the character of his team.

With a sly grin creeping across his face during his weekly Monday news conference, Vitt shared his thoughts on finding out all about the team’s personnel.

“The great thing about this business now – we are two games under .500, four games to go – we are all being evaluated, coaches, players, administrators, all being evaluated,” Vitt said. “I think you’re true character is going to be exposed at tough times. They are tough right now. It’s time to put up or shut up.”

As the injury total has increased every week, the Rams have continued to dig deep into the depth chart and, at times, into the street free agent pool. Two mores familiar faces returned Wednesday in the form of cornerback Dwight Anderson and linebacker Jeremy Loyd.

In addition to those two youngsters, St. Louis has been forced to employ plenty of rookies into a baptism by fire. With little left to play for aside from pride, the youth movement on the Rams will be whittled and scrutinized in the next few weeks.

“Oh, we’ve run out of options,” Vitt said. “We’re playing everybody we have right now. We have no options. We’re putting the best players we have available to us on the field right now.”

Many of those players are rookies or short-tenured players with little to no experience. In the secondary alone, the Rams are using three rookies on a regular basis in safeties Jerome Carter, Oshiomogho Atogwe and cornerback Ronald Bartell. Not to mention free safety Mike Furrey, who is in his first season at the position.

On the offensive line, the Rams have relied on rookie guard Claude Terrell and rookie right tackle Alex Barron for most of the season. Brandon Chillar and Trev Faulk have taken prominent roles at linebacker. Rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie fullback Madison Hedgecock have grasped starting roles in the back field.

“I think we have some guys out there that are very young,” receiver Torry Holt said. “We have some guys we are asking to fill some big shoes and handle some big responsibilities and they are going to take their bumps and bruises and at the same time we have to continue to encourage those guys.”

The results of those experiments have been mixed. Take the game two weeks ago against Houston and you will see plenty of signs of hope for the future. Barron played extremely well in place of Orlando Pace on the left side. Fitzpatrick was outstanding in his debut appearance.

Even Atogwe came up with a big sack to help set up the game winning touchdown.

“It’s a developmental process,” Atogwe said. “At some point in the season you are going to have a young guy need to make a play. We were able to come through for the team when they needed us and it’s a great feeling.”

Of course, the news hasn’t always been good for the young Rams. Many of them were brought back to Earth against the Redskins last week with plenty of missed tackles by Bartell and Carter or Fitzpatrick dropping to a rating of 58.0.

The 24-9 loss dropped the Rams to 5-7 and made any possible postseason hopes pretty much nonexistent. That means it falls on the players to find a way to motivate themselves to finish out the season strong and provide hope for the future.

Vitt says that motivation comes in the search for jobs and pride. He is doing his best to instill that in the Rams, even going as far as to have the team practice in full pads this week.

“(We have to) just keep playing hard and just try to play good every week from here on out and let the team know you are committed to being the best and playing hard because you are being watched by everybody not just coaches, teammates and the Rams, but it’s all teams looking at you,” Terrell said. “You never know so you have to come out and give your best every week.”

Does that add pressure to the rookies trying to prove their worth?

“The pressure is automatically there,” Atogwe said. “I just want to help my team out anyway possible so I know whenever I get the opportunity to go in there and play, I have to go in there and perform well and not let any of the guys down.”

With four games to go in the season, it’s a good possibility that a number of young players will handle prominent roles for the remainder of the schedule. They will get plenty of chances in practice and games to prove their worth.

“Teams are always planning for the future so they want to see what they got and what’s going on,” Terrell said. “You don’t want to come out and not perform well because when it’s time for your future to be placed and come up, then you have to be ready. So, I have to come out and play hard and everything will take care of itself.”

Just how well Terrell and the rest of his young teammates do that will go a long way in shaping the future of this team.