By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
However, the Rams head coach Mike Martz and his organization, this game will be exactly the kind of critical situation they desire in deciding which players need to be sent packing, not as scapegoats for this dismal and disappointing season, but because they are members of that dreaded NFL squad killing group, high paid players who take too big a chunk of the salary cap, don't make plays, and lack heart.
When everything is clicking and all the superstars are healthy and confidant, the holes on a team that will eventually rise up and end their Super Bowl hopes can be well hidden. Only when everything has gone awry can a coach really find out who he wants to go to surround himself with on Sundays. Dick Vermeil said two weeks ago that he had never seen a team go so awry as the Rams, something Vermeil attributes 100% to injuries, more than any team he says he has ever seen in 35 years coaching and as a football analyst.
If anything was clear about the Rams based on their pre-season play this summer, it was that their depth was very suspect at some positions, though not at quarterback as it turned out. Having two quarterbacks now who have shown they can excel and run the Rams offense at 100% efficiency is a huge step for a team in these days where the cap prevents having two starting caliber signal caller most of the time.
It's truly remarkable that that point gets missed somewhat amid the drone of those talking trading Bulger or Warner. Some fans actually opined about needing a quarterback to be drafted as early as the first round next April. The Rams are in good enough cap shape with the cuts they can easily and will make, to not have to rely on a 2000 type remake with lots of first round picks accumulated. That isn't what this team needs at all, though the Rams must do well on day one of the draft, and Charlie Armey must also find at least one late diamond in the rough.
So now the Rams finish out the string, with some guys showing they play for the competition and love of the game, some just showing why they deserve to be ex-Rams as quickly as possible to make it the most salary cap friendly. In the locker room and at practice Friday, Martz guys were very loose and relaxed. Adam Archuleta spoke to reporters about his proficiency at Madden 2003, the NFL video game that is the only unofficially recognized one in the Rams locker room.
Archuleta unabashedly proclaimed, "I am the man" when it comes to Madden, with Jamie Duncan his closest competitor in the 2002 team championship. Too many jokes come to mind about that situation with that player to go into. It would simply be too easy, like Warren Sapp being able to bury Kurt Warner on a block.
Anyone wanting to feel they could beat a pro at Madden, be sure to ONLY play on All-Madden level, the settings like they are right out of the box, injuries on etc. Anything else, and as Adam said Friday, " Don't even talk to me."
Marshall Faulk was bouncing around the room Friday, talking up his favorite baseball team, The Atlanta Braves, for all the trades and signings they have made recently. (They still have no middle relief Marshall!)
Faulk did take time away from his Braves obsession to go after linebacker Tommy Polley for some remark he made about rapper Dr. Dre, obviously a Faulk favorite.
Most of the other players were busy talking up their college team in the upcoming bowl games, often with their large voices rising like competing preachers in a tent revival in support of their old school. There was none of the angst or tension that has sometimes infiltrated the locker room at Earth City in 2002. Maybe the key players know that the guys who quit will be gone too, giving them hope for a 2003 rebirth.
Though there certainly appears to be every reason to believe that this game between two also-rans coached by two men, Martz and Mike Holmgren, who have held the "genius" mantle in the NFL, could turn ugly. Martz however, steadfastly says it will not happen, though such a comment is hardly unexpected. Martz said Friday it isn't even a difficult thing for a team to play like the high paid professionals they are, even with little on the line other than pride and keeping hope alive to at least be a .500 team with an 8-3 finish.
" It's not hard, there is a great deal of pride in this room, and it's very very important to them, I think where we are in the season you really have a tendency to separate those guys that aren't quite as competitive as the others, and it becomes noticeable. At this point right now, I expect them to play just as they would if we were still in the hunt. It goes back to what we started in the very beginning, this thing is a pursuit of excellence, and it's not based on anything else. We are just trying to get better every week, and that's the goal."
Martz said that getting to .500 with that 8-3 finish would be a "tremendous finish", and with the injuries the Rams will have had over that span, who could seriously argue with Martz assessment.
Martz put the final nail in free agent bust WR Terrence Wilkins coffin after practice, when he officially anointed Troy Edwards, who caught four balls, one for a score last week, as the fourth receiver, "period". Edwards has become a Martz favorite, because of what Martz calls his "upbeat attitude", just as quickly as the enigmatic Wilkins has faded into oblivion. Getting caught from behind by linebacker Scott Fujita when in the clear against the Chiefs, was just about it for the Ex-Colt, who also messed up a pass formation causing a timeout to be used.
Edwards admits to being "very very happy" to be a Ram, and now
feels he really fits in the locker room after a slow start caused by a knee
injury that came with Troy from the Steelers, were he and Bill Cowher had a
Martz- Wilkins type relationship.
"Coach Cowher isn't a bad guy, but I was just not his type of person, and he was just not mine," said Edwards, who professed to being "very eager" to do some big things the last two games to keep impressing his head coach and increasing his chances of being the #3 receiver in 2003.
"I still have a year on my contract, but that doesn't mean anything because if you don't perform, they will just cut you." If Edwards doesn't continue to show he is the guy the Rams really needed all season to replace Az- Zahir Hakim, it won't be a personal thing this time at least. " I really like Mike Martz and he helps me out a lot. It really makes you feel good and it helps you relax I love playing for him. I'm happy here and that makes you play better. These two games are really big for me, and with an off-season and mini-camps I should even be better.
For guys like Heath Irwin and Frank Garcia, getting to play and be prepared with a week of practice as the starter, a huge difference for a fill in player, these two games are chances to extend a career or make a move to get a shot to start in 2003 in Irwin's case. Martz is very high on the happy go lucky Irwin, who has done pretty well when called upon in 2003, especially recently, as he gets more reps in practice.
John St. Clair is also getting more work, albeit at left tackle, but if the Rams go out and get a top free agent OT, or move Adam Timmerman there as Martz has been subtly hinting, (though Mike did say "don't tell Adam, he loves playing guard"), St. Clair would be a valuable young backup with experience on both sides of the line. Jim Hanifan has long been an offensive line coach who will move players around, both to allow them to know one another's blocking assignments, but also to get his best five-man unit on the field.
Timmerman may love playing guard, but he will almost certainly be redoing his back end loaded contract in 2003, the last year of the deal Adam signed in 1999. Timmerman is a respected team leader, and he and his lovely wife Jana, one of leaders of the Rams wives who devotes tons of her time to charities between raising their very young brood, are ingrained in the St. Louis community, though Adam does return home to work on the family farm some during the off season. No doubt Mr. And Mrs. Timmerman will both want to end Adams distinguished NFL career as a Ram, and no doubt the Rams organization will as well.
Timmerman was the first really desirable free agent to choose the Rams, and he chose them for the city, the organization and the fans, even though the team was one of the worst ever in 9/10 of the 1990s. The day Adam came to Rams Park and stayed was the day things finally started to go right there, so if Timmerman continues to shine at right tackle as Martz raves that he has thus far, that move could become permanent, or at least could be in 2003, should the Rams reach high in the draft for an offensive tackle, a position that requires a year or two to become very good at playing, especially in the Rams "Martz Madness" offense.
Guys like Travis Fisher and James Whitley have to stay on top of their game too this last two weeks, to solidify their roster spots and Fisher's future as a Rams starter at CB. Any move of Aeneas Williams to safety hinges on Fisher doing well and improving. Dre Bly has to keep doing what he is doing lately, making plays, but Martz loves Bly's athleticism and attitude, so it's likely the Rams will try very hard to re-sign Dre to a long term deal. If he lights up the league the next two weeks, and the offers improve, the Rams could still use their transition tag on Dre, though the cap hit, the average of the top ten at his position, would be high.
It would appear that the Rams would resort to tagging Bly only to stave off his being overwhelmed early on in free agency by some overspending club.
Torry Holt will be in the last year of his deal as well in 2003, along with Grant Wistrom, and both their agents will be pushing to get a new deal done in camp, if not sooner, but probably after June 1, when a couple probable cuts will clear cap room. With Orlando Pace and Bly to re-ink, Holt and Wistrom will have to sit tight, having little choice anyhow. Still, the duo must finish 2002 very strong, to reassure management that a huge investment in salary is the right move in July.
There is talk that the Rams will move top 2002 draft pick Robert Thomas to the middle, where he played at UCLA, that could change the Rams top draft need to an outside linebacker, preferably one who plays like Derrick Brooks. It isn't a good year at all at that position, however, as the available inside linebackers are the better prospects in April.
Who knows if Thomas could be a good player in the "Mike" position though? In the eyes of this observer, talking of that move now, and not even trying it in these last two games would be a real red flag as far as bypassing an incoming college star who could provide dominance and aggression and attitude in the middle of the Rams defense. Thomas has skills, but his attitude is very passive most of the time.
What the Rams need in the "Mike" linebacker, in their defense even, is a part-man part-machine football maniac to make opponents forget about the Rams being a "soft" team once and for all. Unless a too- good- to- pass- up explosive outside linebacker leaves school early to fatten the pool at the position, the Rams will either have to get lucky in a later round at linebacker or look for help in free agency.
On "minor" type free agent to keep an eye on is veteran special teamer Fred McAfee of the Saints. McAfee is a free agent again, and he is going to the Pro Bowl again, and he is one guy the Rams should be willing to overpay a bit, as he hardly plays any regular position, being listed as a running back. McAfee, 35 year old 12 year veteran, has a good past history playing in New Orleans for to-be-retained Rams special teams coach Bobby April, and April and it very clear to this reporter that he has been "trying to get them to sign McAfee for a couple years."
Now that Mike Martz has given April a reprieve following some real special teams improvement last week, and has publicly admitted to ignoring the need for some veteran special teamers last off season and how that doomed the Rams unit, maybe April will get his guy at last, and it would be a very good addition to the Rams roster for a relatively low cost.
Another 2003 unrestricted free agent special teams star is cornerback Omar Stoutmire of the Giants, who has lots of highlight film big hits on his resume. At 5/11 198, he is a big corner, which would be a nice fit for the 2003 Rams as well, and he will only be 29 when the 2003 season starts.
There are guys at the bottom of the Rams depth chart, like DE Bryce Fisher who will get more of a look in the final pair of games as well. The Rams are not unhappy with the ex-Air Force grad's progress as a possible third pass rushing defensive end backup.
I won't even go into Marc Bulger, and what these two weeks could mean for him in this magical first season getting to show his stuff on Sundays. That story will surely get enough ink the next six months, all of which should be pretty much ignored if it doesn't come from those actually at Rams Park on a daily basis.