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Retooling time

Rams expect high turnover after disappointing season

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Posted: Sunday December 31, 2000 6:35 PM
Updated: Sunday December 31, 2000 7:24 PM

  Kurt Warner Kurt Warner had only three touchdown passes and eight interceptions in the last four games. AP

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Now begins the offseason of discontent for the St. Louis Rams.

Massive changes are coming for the defending Super Bowl champions' defense. Just not right away.

Head coach Mike Martz was mum on that subject, and any others on Sunday, a day after the Rams were eliminated in a 31-28 wild-card playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. The rookie head coach canceled a scheduled post-game news conference while mulling the overhaul and is giving his staff a week off.

"It's obviously no secret, we have to rebuild our linebacking corps and we have to find some young linebackers that can run," said general manager Charley Armey, one of a handful of the Rams' brain trust to show up for work Sunday. "It's just safe to say the defense has to be retooled."

The defense went from sixth in the NFL to 23rd in a single season, with 10 of 11 starters back, and allowed 30 points a game. That's the most ever by a playoff team, and the seventh highest total in NFL history.

The Rams had 36 takeaways last year, 25 this year. They scored eight defensive touchdowns last year, one this year.

The Rams will rebuild around end Grant Wistrom, middle linebacker London Fletcher and cornerback Dexter McCleon. Wistrom led the team with 11 sacks and had a career-high 71 tackles, Fletcher set a team record with 193 tackles and McCleon had eight interceptions.

No one else is safe, with the defense shouldering most of the blame for the team's 10-6 finish after a 6-0 start.

Almost certainly on the way out are outside linebackers Mike Jones, the hero of last year's Super Bowl with his game-ending tackle of Kevin Dyson, and Todd Collins. Both have slowed appreciably.

Cornerback Todd Lyght, who held out in training camp and pouted much of the season after agreeing to a one-year contract, also is finished in St. Louis. The team also is unhappy with end Kevin Carter, another player disgruntled by his contract situation, and likely will slap a franchise tag on him for next year and then perhaps trade him.

There are other question marks on the line, with one tackle (Ray Agnew) aging and the other tackle (D'Marco Farr) perhaps near the end of the line due to chronic knee problems.

Much of the staff inherited from the Dick Vermeil Super Bowl championship team might not survive the purge, either. At the top of the endangered list is special teams coach Larry Pasquale, and coordinator Peter Giunta, who relinquished signal-calling duties much of the second half of the season to consultant Bud Carson, is right behind.

The biggest question facing the Rams' No. 1-ranked offense is what to do with backup quarterback Trent Green. The team might be a bit reluctant to part with Green, who could fetch a No. 1 pick and give the team some salary cap breathing room, based on Kurt Warner's recent outings.

Warner, last year's MVP, had only three touchdown passes and eight interceptions the last four games after returning from a broken little finger on his throwing hand. Counting the playoffs, Warner had 49 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions last year, and this year he had 24 TD passes and 21 interceptions.

Four of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns, and Warner, six days after suffering a concussion, was off his game for much of the wild card loss to the Saints before the late rally that fell short.

The next biggest problem to address is Az-Zahir Hakim, an electrifying punt returner and wide receiver when he can hold onto the ball. Hakim's fumble on a fair catch with 1:51 remaining killed the Rams' chances of a miraculous comeback and continued a trend - he had eight fumbles this season, losing five of them.

Last year, the Rams' dramatic rise from 4-12 sad sacks to Super Bowl championships, nothing like that went wrong.

"You can say anything you want to say, you can say you're rationalizing, but we really got some unusual breaks this year," Armey said. "We got some unusually good breaks last year. The thing we've got to do now is just regroup."

One positive note from the Rams' so-so season is they'll be drafting 20th instead of 31st next April. Armey believes plenty of top-notch defensive linemen will be around when it's the Rams turn to pick.

"Unbelievably for us, this is a heavy year on the draft board on the defensive side, especially with interior linemen," Armey said. "This is a year for defensive linemen like it was a couple years ago for quarterbacks."


 
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