3 St. Louis Rams
It may be the third year of Dick Vermeil's coaching reign, but it's Day One for an offense that has a fresh arm and new legs after a major off-season makeover
"Having Faulk changes everything," Vermeil told the masseur. "We've got weapons this year like you wouldn't believe. Isaac Bruce, when he's healthy, is the best wideout there is, and we drafted [North Carolina State wideout] Torry Holt, who'll be an instant playmaker. When we split Marshall wide, we'll line up Greg Hill at halfback, and he was ripping up defenses before he got hurt last year. For the first time since I came back we'll have four players on the field who are capable of scoring at any time."
Two weeks later, with training camp in full swing, Vermeil wasn't quite as relaxed as he was that day in Calistoga. But he was still optimistic that St. Louis, after going 5-11 and 4-12 in his first two years as coach, was capable of having its first winning season in a decade. Time is of the essence for Vermeil, who coached the Eagles to their only Super Bowl appearance following the 1980 season, quit two years later because of burnout and spent the next 15 years enjoying the cushy life of a college football TV analyst before the Rams wooed him back into the fray.
Though his contract runs for three more seasons, Vermeil knows his five-year plan is in danger of being scrapped if the Rams don't blossom this season. That was one reason he went after Faulk, a three-time Pro Bowl participant coming off the best of his five NFL seasons, rather than attempting to snag Ricky Williams or Edgerrin James in the draft. "I felt we had to be more aggressive going into this season -- not for me, but for the sake of the organization, because people here deserve to see improvement," Vermeil says. "Hey, they can fire me anytime they want: I'm 62, I didn't ask for this job, and I'll be fine without it."
Vermeil overhauled the offense during the off-season, bringing in a new coordinator, Mike Martz, and a new quarterback, Trent Green, both of whom were with the Redskins last year. Green, who was signed to a four-year, $16.5 million free-agent deal, is expected to be a steadier performer than his predecessor, Tony Banks, whom St. Louis traded to Baltimore after three erratic seasons as the starter. "Trent is a complete quarterback," says Martz, who replaces the fired Jerry Rhome. "He sees the field well, makes good decisions, doesn't panic and is an accurate passer. And he has no ego."
At their best, Vermeil's offenses have revolved around a workhorse running back. He had one in Philadelphia in Wilbert Montgomery, now the Rams' running backs coach. Vermeil thought he had one in Lawrence Phillips, whom the Rams drafted three years ago, but Phillips couldn't cut it, on or off the field. Last year only the Saints had a worse rushing attack than St. Louis did, but Vermeil, who added former Packers guard Adam Timmerman (four years, $18.75 million) to an offensive line that already included 1997 No. 1 pick Orlando Pace at tackle, has options galore in the backfield: a reliable backup in Hill, who last year rushed for 240 yards in the Rams' first two games before suffering season-ending leg and ankle injuries in Week 2; a superb pass catcher in third-down specialist Amp Lee; and a versatile second-year back in Robert Holcombe, who has bulked up to 233 pounds (about 15 more than he carried last season) and will be used to spell either Faulk or starting fullback Derrick Harris.
Last year Faulk ran for 1,319 yards, more than all but five NFL backs, and caught 86 passes, the league's third-highest total, for 908 yards. He may be even more active in '99. "With Marshall Faulk on the field, there are no limitations," Martz says.
"We'll line him up at wideout in some formations, and in others we'll motion him out of the backfield," Vermeil says. "Plus, we can do the same things we've been doing in the past, only this time we'll be giving the ball to the right guy. He's the kind of player who makes us all look smarter."
There's no question Faulk will make an impact. The question is, Will it be enough to turn the Rams around?
-- Michael Silver
1998 RECORD: 4-12 (5th in NFC
1999 SCHEDULE STRENGTH (rank): 29
Player to Watch
Thrust into the lineup after starter Eric Hill hurt his right biceps before the season finale against the 49ers, middle linebacker London Fletcher did a decent imitation of Adam Sandler's Bobby Boucher in The Waterboy, making a team-leading 12 tackles. "He played at a different speed than anyone else," says John Bunting, the Rams' co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Fletcher is listed at 6 feet, but, says Bunting, is "maybe 5'10" in hockey skates." His lack of height and big-time collegiate experience -- Fletcher attended tiny John Carroll University in Ohio -- has prompted comparisons to former Saints and Panthers standout Sam Mills, an old teammate of Bunting's in the USFL. Fletcher had to persuade Bunting to sign him as a rookie free agent in the spring of '98, telling the coach, "If you bring me in, there's no way you'll be able to cut me." Now Bunting says, "This guy's much more than a diamond in the rough."
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