The job of an NFL head coach often is akin to crisis management. One problem gets solved and another just takes its place.
That's certainly been the case with the Rams this season, as they have dealt with the illness of coach Mike Martz, two shoulder injuries to quarterback Marc Bulger and a stretch where starting receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce both missed time.
The team was no sooner healthy after their Nov. 6 bye that Bulger went down again and multiple injuries blasted the secondary and offensive line. The Rams will face an excellent Redskins defense this week with rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick probably making his first start, and with questions in front of him on the line.
Right guard Adam Timmerman has been playing with a back injury and struggling at times. The tackle spots were at least solid until left tackle Orlando Pace injured a hamstring last week in practice and right tackle Alex Barron tore ligaments in his thumb.
Barron suffered the injury against Houston this past Sunday after sliding over to left tackle when Pace couldn't continue after halftime. Rex Tucker took Barron's place at guard. Barron is definitely out this week, and Pace is expected to be ready.
But if he aggravates his injury, untested Matt Morgan will take his place. Guard Blaine Saipaia remains sidelined because of a concussion suffered Nov. 20 against Arizona. The numbers were so bad on the line that practice-squad defensive linemen Clifford Duke and Jeremy Calahan each played offensive tackle in practice Wednesday for the scout team.
Asked about the possibility of being without Pace and Barron on Sunday, interim coach Joe Vitt said, "I'm kind of weatherbeaten right now, nothing surprises me. This team has responded well to adversity, they take the game very seriously. We are going to play the hand we're dealt. It's all we can do."
Morgan was signed to the active roster from the practice squad before the game against the Texans, and was active although he did not play.
Said Vitt of Morgan, "I think he's gotten better. I think he has taken his game a lot more seriously. He's got good balance; he's got a nice anchor to him. He's got pretty good hand placement. He studies hard. I think he's got a chance to have a good future in the National Football League. In the immediate future, if he needs to go in there, he'll be prepared."
Said Barron, who was expected to undergo surgery Thursday and wear a cast for the rest of the season, "It's a little disappointing. Nobody ever wants to have surgery or anything like that. It's just one of those things you have to take care of."
Saipaia is still having headaches, although not as frequent as before. He's frustrated not being able to help in this difficult time.
"It's tough, particularly on a personal level," Saipaia said. "It's tough to sit there and watch practice when you know the guys are hurt and trying to battle through it. It's not like I banged an elbow or shoulder or knee or anything. It's my noggin and I have got to take serious consideration to that. I have got a family that I have got to think about. That's the hard part, but I know my family is the most important thing. If I have to sit out then I have to sit out. But I'll support my teammates in whatever fashion I can."
Vitt is at least thankful for the consistency of unheralded center Andy McCollum.
Said Vitt, "I think the center on your football team is the heart and soul of your football team. He's going to handle the ball every time, just like the quarterback. He's going to set all the protections. He's going to set all the line slants. He's going to make sure that you have the right combination of blocks. He has to be durable for the fact that he can block a four-man front, or like (against Houston), block a nose who set up on him all day long.
"Andy just doesn't miss any games, very rarely misses a mental assignment. He's here every day working to get better. Good football player."
SERIES HISTORY: 27th regular-season meeting. Redskins lead, 19-6-1. The Redskins have won the last two games in the series, including a 33-20 win in St. Louis in 2000. The only Rams win in the last six games came in 1997 in Washington.
Quotes and Notes
--Idle coach Mike Martz is sending messages about returning to the team to coach this season.
Martz announced on Oct. 24 he would be out for the rest of the season on doctor's orders so he could fully recover from endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the heart.
Agent Bob LaMonte told reporters earlier in the week that Martz was feeling better and could coach this season, and Martz told a local television station the same thing on Tuesday.
"This is the best I've felt," Martz told KMOV-TV. "And when you feel this good, you feel like you should be working."
LaMonte told ESPN.com, "Mike's original plan was to retreat to San Diego and reflect on the future, but he has started to feel so well, walking two or three miles a day ... the bottom line: he feels great."
However, he still hasn't been cleared by his doctor to coach again, and club president John Shaw said he doubts that will happen. Martz is scheduled to return to St. Louis this week from a holiday vacation in San Diego.
Martz has one year remaining on his contract, but stories circulating for several weeks have speculated that he would not return as the Rams' coach.
With reports once again becoming a distraction, Martz then somewhat backtracked when speaking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"Of course I'd like to coach this season," Martz told the paper. "I feel good. I'm off all the medication now. The biggest concern now is getting my stamina back. The fatigue is just about all gone. ... I'm dying to come back.
"(But), I wouldn't feel very comfortable calling (my doctor) after all this. We'll just stay by the plan."
LaMonte also retreated a bit, telling the Post-Dispatch, "Basically, Mike's just said he feels good. That's all it is. ... But I think it's quite a leap of faith to say that he's coming back."
--Interim coach Joe Vitt had this to say after PK Jeff Wilkins hit a 47-yard field goal to tie Sunday's game against Houston.
"We talked about that this morning. Somebody asked me in the press conference last night, have I ever seen a quarterback in 27 years perform like Fitz (Ryan Fitzpatrick) did yesterday. And I thought Kelly Stouffer may have back in Seattle in (1988). But Wilky is the best kicker I have ever been around. You talk about a gamer now. Hits the 47-yarder, it's like he's hitting an eight-iron, boom, gone. Comes back, we get the onside kick, perfection. They had no chance, they really don't. Then comes back against the best kickoff return guy in the league and knocks it out the back of the end zone. Huge. Just a consummate professional. The tougher the situation, the more he enjoys it. His teammates have great respect for him. He's the best. He really is. He's the best."
"I say it over and over," Wilkins said. "It's such a blessing when you have a snapper and a holder that you don't have to worry about. All I have to worry about is getting my dang foot on the ball in the right spot and it makes my life a lot easier to have those two helping me out. When you have a great kick, you don't remember it. I really don't remember it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 - Quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 300 yards in their first NFL game. Ryan Fitzpatrick became the fifth with his 310-yard day against Houston on Sunday. The others were Otto Graham, 346 in 1950; Ed Rubbert, 334 in 1987; Mark Rypien, 303 in 1988 and Peyton Manning, 302 in 1998. Graham's came after joining the NFL from the All-America Football Conference, while Rubbert's was in a strike replacement game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't change the structure of our play-calling. The guys are given a playbook every week, and they know the plays that are up, they know the routes that are up and everybody is responsible to know them. You never know when your number is going to be called. Fitz (Ryan Fitzpatrick) is a smart guy. I think you need more than a valid fishing license to get into Harvard. He takes his job very, very seriously and studies hard, prepares well, so most of the time, good things happen." - Interim coach Joe Vitt, explaining that the offense wasn't changed when rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick entered the game last Sunday.
Center Andy McCollum has signed a two-year contract extension with the Rams. McCollum was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
"We've been trying to get it done for a while now, and it finally came to fruition," said McCollum. "I love St. Louis, and my family loves St. Louis. We wanted to stay. Two more years for me; keep the old man around a little longer."
--QB Jamie Martin did not practice Wednesday because of continued blurred vision in his right eye. It seems unlikely he would be available to play Sunday against Washington.
--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to start Sunday against the Redskins. Fitzpatrick took all the snaps with the first unit Wednesday as Jamie Martin sat out because of blurred vision.
--LT Orlando Pace did not practice Wednesday, but is expected to do some work Thursday with the expectation he will be ready Friday.
--RT Alex Barron is expected to have surgery on his thumb Thursday and be unavailable for Sunday's game against Washington. However, Barron will likely play next week with a cast on his hand.
--SS Adam Archuleta returned to practice after missing Sunday's game against Houston because of a concussion suffered the week before against Arizona.
--CB DeJuan Groce returned to practice after missing Sunday's game against Houston because of a concussion suffered the week before against Arizona.
GAME PLAN: With a banged-up offensive line and a rookie expected to start at quarterback, the Rams will be hard-pressed to move the ball consistently against the Redskins' defense. However, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is mobile, and that could help in the effort to score points.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rams OTs vs. Redskins DEs - This especially becomes an issue if LT Orlando Pace can't play or has problems because of hamstring and hip problems. If Matt Morgan has to play left tackle, he'll be matched against Phillip Daniels, while RT Rex Tucker goes against Renaldo Wynn.
Rams secondary vs. Redskins WR Santana Moss - The Rams' depleted secondary has been gashed the last two weeks, first by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin of Arizona and then Andre Johnson of Houston. Moss is already over 1,000 yards for the season (1,053) and is averaging 16.7 yards per catch and scored six touchdowns. The return of CB DeJuan Groce should help, but inexperienced corners Ron Bartell and Chris Johnson have struggled.
INJURY IMPACT: The Rams are down to their third quarterback and playing backup cornerbacks with Travis Fisher still bothered by a groin injury. Getting S Adam Archuleta and CB DeJuan Groce back should help. Then there is the offensive line, which has three starters - Orlando Pace, Alex Barron and Adam Timmerman - and backup Blaine Saipaia injured.
The Cardinals are not exactly kings of the road, which is where they meet San Francisco on Sunday.
By walloping St. Louis two weekends ago, the Cardinals "improved" to 8-37 on the road over the last 5 1/2 seasons.
Still, they have a reasonable chance of being the favorite not only Sunday against the hapless 49ers but also in a visit to a weak Houston team down the road.
The Cardinals' fortunes may hit a skid, though, given the neck injury to rushing leader Marcel Shipp that left him doubtful and an injury to third back James Jackson that caused the team to re-sign veteran Damien Anderson this week as insurance. Rookie J.J. Arrington, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards across the Bay at Cal last year, is expected to be the starting running back on his return home.
The Cardinals have been through the litany of excuses for poor road play - young roster, heavy personnel turnover, instability in coaching regimes, poor ownership.
"We just have to not worry about everything," cornerback David Macklin said. "Not worry about the calls, not worry about the things we can't control, but worry about our play. If we do that, we're going to be taking some strides forward. We just have to fight through it.
"How I do it is, I love this game. I play and this is my job. I play and it's not over for me. Hopefully a lot of other guys on this team feel that way. All we can do is look ahead. It's hard to do, but we have to forget about the past and strive and do the things we need to do to get better."
Of course, the Cardinals haven't been stout guardians of their home turf, either, but if they're ever going to be anything more than a doormat they have to find ways to break through away from home more than eight times every 5 1/2 years.
True, they hammered the 49ers away from home in an earlier meeting this season, 31-14 in Mexico City on Oct. 2. But that technically was a Cardinals home game. And the 103,467 who viewed it would be the equivalent of about three home crowds at Sun Devil Stadium for the Big Red.
"We have to keep on playing. We have a lot of talented guys in the locker room," said strong safety Adrian Wilson, whose five sacks on blitzes lead the league among defensive backs. "The record really doesn't indicate the amount of talent that is in the locker room. We have a lot of guys here who want to win."
There aren't many better foes than the 49ers against whom to reinforce that kind of talk.
The Big Red actually trailed San Francisco 14-0 slightly more than seven minutes into that Mexico City game before Neil Rackers got his toe warmed up and made six field goals at high elevation, and Josh McCown got his arm warmed up for a then-career-high 385 passing yards in his first start of the year - and the Cardinals' first win after three losses.
But now the season has deteriorated into familiar ho-hum territory for the Cardinals. They best they can do is 8-8 if they win out - and that's a long shot because Indianapolis is among their remaining foes. And now the staff is at risk of seeing this roster poisoned by the Cardinals malaise after Green took great pains to purge it of most of those who had grown accustomed to it under coaches Vince Tobin and Dave McGinnis.
The franchise has produced one winning season since coming to Arizona in 1988 (9-7, 1998) and one .500 mark (8-8, 1994). So for the 16th time in 18 seasons, the Cardinals are likely to finish as losers.
"The biggest thing we need to do is execute," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I am not for moral victories at this point. Let's win. We have been close a lot, but we have to find a way to finish it. That happens to every good team in this league. They are in a close game, but they find themselves on the winning side, and that is what we have to do. That is what we have got to climb to. That is my job. I want to win, and I want to get over the top. It is a big responsibility, and it is my responsibility as the quarterback.
"Coming out hot, putting the pressure on the other team instead of them putting the pressure on us to have to come from behind - I think we are all trying to figure out what we need to do better to win football games. I am not going to point to one thing and say that it is a characterization of this football team. I think we do too many good things, but we are not consistent enough doing it. I see strides, and I think the last few weeks we have played better football. It just is not enough to get us over the top."
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. The 49ers hold a 17-11 series lead over the Cardinals. Arizona had dropped seven of eight before an Oct. 2 visit to Mexico City in which quarterback Josh McCown, in his first start this year for injured Kurt Warner, passed for a then-career-high 385 yards and two touchdowns, and Neil Rackers made all six field-goal attempts in a 31-14 win. The most memorable game in the series from the Cardinals' perspective came on Nov. 6, 1988. Trailing 23-0 in the second half, the team rallied for a 24-23 win under coach Gene Stallings in the Big Red's initial season in Arizona.
Quotes and Notes
Boy, it looks as if the Cardinals are going to have it all - retractable roof, retractable field, retractable offense ...
They were, to borrow from another type of bird, crowing last week about the installation of two giant, state-of-the-art video boards in their new stadium in Glendale, Ariz., where they begin playing next season.
The board at the south end of the field is 96 feet by 27 feet - covering more area than the typical Cardinals drive has this year. Work is nearly complete on it. At the north end, installation is complete on a board that measures 40 feet by 22 1/2 feet.
Now all the Cardinals need is a way to consistently light them up. After scoring 17 points in a loss to Jacksonville, the Cardinals have scored more than 20 points only twice in 11 games. But one of those two was the first meeting this season with this weekend's opponent, San Francisco. The Cardinals vanquished the 49ers 31-14 Oct. 2 in Mexico City.
Unless the team finds ways to light it up next year, fans will come once to look at the new stadium, be impressed by the dazzling light display, lament that the Cardinals don't do enough to test its capability, and never come back. And the Cardinals soon will be back to the home crowds of 35,000 or so they now draw routinely at Sun Devil Stadium.
--Kicker Neil Rackers offered no excuses when his team-record and league-leading streak of 31 successive successful field-goal attempts ended last weekend.
"I missed the kick," Rackers said. "I just pulled it a little bit."
Rackers remains the team's best hope to make the Pro Bowl, a testament not only to the high-quality season that Rackers is having but also to the low-quality production overall by a team that was picked to win the NFC West.
--Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is really hoping he doesn't receive a special package in the mail this week. It would be no Christmas present.
Boldin came perilously close to ripping the officiating crew headed by referee Tom White in the wake of the team's loss to Jacksonville last weekend. Boldin believes the Cardinals are not getting calls on the field. In his frustration, Boldin received two 15-yard penalties.
Goaded by reporters early this week to discuss it, Boldin backed off.
"No, I still think I can get that FedEx during the week, so I'll chill out on that. I'm not an idiot. I'm going to keep my entire check."
The Cardinals are the fourth most penalized team in the NFL, leading coach Dennis Green to go one step beyond Boldin in commentary about the refs.
"I think it's pretty obvious to anybody that watches television and hears the commentators," Green said regarding how the calls go.
For the record, last Sunday the Cardinals received 11 penalties - including the two in frustration by Boldin - but Jacksonville also received 11 penalties.
"Hopefully, something happens that in the last five games we won't have any. That would be the idea," Green said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 12 - False-start penalties by left tackle Leonard Davis in 11 games.QUOTE TO NOTE: "Honestly, I watched film and a lot of this stuff is just pathetic, just to say the least. There were times where they were right there. I could see if it was a situation where they were blocked or couldn't see. Man, you've got a plain view." - WR Anquan Boldin, on his belief that officials are not giving the team any calls. Boldin drew two 15-yard penalties last weekend, one for pulling a defender to the ground after the whistle and another for removing his helmet after not getting what he believed should have been a pass interference call against a defender.
The Cardinals suddenly have rediscovered the tight end, a position that has largely been missing in action for about a decade. TEs Adam Bergen and Eric Edwards have caught nine passes for 142 yards and one touchdown in the past three games. They have emerged largely because RT Oliver Ross has returned to good health and now can handle his blocking responsibilities as the team anticipated he would when it signed him as a free agent last winter. The tight ends no longer are needed for maximum protection, giving the young pair (Edwards is in his second year, Bergen is a rookie) a chance to spread their wings, and in turn giving QB Kurt Warner another target to complement the prolific wideout pair of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
--QB Kurt Warner ranks fifth in the league with a 100.3 fourth-quarter passer rating. He never has lost as a starter to this weekend's foe, San Francisco (5-0).
--RB J.J. Arrington, a second-round pick who last season rushed for more than 2,000 yards in college at California, returns to the Bay Area for the first time as a pro on a high note after a slow first half of the season. He is averaging 4.9 yards a carry in the past four games.
Arrington will start if Marcel Shipp's neck injury precludes him from playing at San Francisco.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald hasn't opened the first two seasons of his pro career in quite as prolific a fashion as teammate Anquan Boldin did, but Fitzgerald is coming off three straight 100-yard games, needs only another yard to reach 1,000 for the season, and leads the league in catches of 20 yards or longer (19).
--WR Anquan Boldin has recovered from a knee injury and is 164 yards short of another 1,000-yard season despite having missed two games.
--SS Adrian Wilson has five sacks on blitzes, the most sacks by a defensive back in the NFL, and is a primary weapon for a team that has lost five of its best defensive linemen.
--K Neil Rackers might have had his streak of field-goal tries without a miss snapped last weekend (he is 32 of 33 this season) but he still leads the league with 22 touchbacks on kickoffs and is the team's strongest candidate to make the Pro Bowl.
--RB Damien Anderson, a reliable No. 3 back for the team the past three years, was re-signed. Anderson was among the final cuts this season on Sept. 3. He has appeared in 30 games.
--RG Elton Brown (knee) did not practice Wednesday and is out for Sunday's game.
--C Alex Stepanovich, who has spent more time at guard this year to cover for injuries, did not practice Wednesday (shoulder) and is out for Sunday's game.
--RB Marcel Shipp (neck), the team rushing leader, did not practice Wednesday and is listed as doubtful.
--CB Antrel Rolle, the team's first-round pick who had knee surgery in September, did light work on the sideline Wednesday and could be cleared to resume practicing as early as next week.
--T Dante Ellington was promoted to the 53-man roster less than a week after he was signed to the practice squad.
--DE Anton Palepoi was released after failing to crack the rotation of a team horribly depleted by injuries up front.
--WR Reggie Newhouse, who has been on and off the roster several times during the past three years, was released.
--WR Zamir Cobb was signed to the practice squad. He was on injured reserve with Pittsburgh last season after suffering a fractured right ankle during preseason as an undrafted rookie.
--TE Ben Hall was signed to the practice squad.
GAME PLAN: With five of the top seven defensive linemen lost for the season, including Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry, the defense is getting good mileage out of the safety blitz. SS Adrian Wilson has five sacks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, one of the league's most productive pairs, vs. 49ers CB Shawntae Spencer, in his second pro season. Fitzgerald and Boldin are on pace to become the first pair of Cardinals receivers with 1,000 receiving yards each since Rob Moore and Frank Sanders eight years ago. In the Cardinals' rout of the 49ers in Mexico City in October, the 49ers were helpless in their pass defense. But Spencer gives the 49ers defense hope. He has a team-leading three interceptions, including one he took back 61 yards for a touchdown last week.
--Cardinals defensive front seven, in which five of its best linemen are lost for the season to injuries, vs. 49ers RB Kevan Barlow, a fine back who always seems to rise to the occasion against the Cardinals. Foes don't have a huge problem establishing the run against the Cardinals, and it is critical that they not allow a weak foe like San Francisco to get anything going on the ground. If the Cardinals can keep the 49ers one dimensional, it puts all the responsibility on the shoulders of rookie QB Alex Smith, who is expected to start after missing five games to injury. Smith completed only six of 10 for 34 yards in relief of starter Tim Rattay in the first game against the Cardinals this season. Barlow ran for a career-high 154 yards against the Cardinals two years ago.
Rushing leader Marcel Shipp's neck injury may keep him out - he did not practice Wednesday and is listed doubtful. That would put the rushing load on rookie J.J. Arrington and veteran Damien Anderson, who was re-signed this week.
The interior of the offensive line will have backups with C Alex Stepanovich (shoulder), LG Reggie Wells (ankle) and RG Elton Brown (knee) out. So the chances of a strong rushing attack even against the 49ers are reduced. Adam Haayer is expected to start at left guard, Jeremy Bridges at right guard and Nick Leckey at center.
The defense, already a fine imitation of a sieve, lost its best player, Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry (torn pectoral), for the season. He had surgery and has been placed on injured reserve. Berry joins fellow defensive linemen DT Kenny King, wrist; DT Russell Davis, biceps; DE Calvin Pace, cut arm, and NT Langston Moore, shoulder, with season-ending injuries.