Within the team's upper management, however, there is a growing sentiment that Vermeil's unbending loyalty to his players is one of his big problems. The Bill Parcells school of coaching says players need to have that living-on-the-edge-of-the-roster feeling so they'll play with abandon and continually prove themselves. Vermeil has told his guys they're the future. If they miss a block or have a couple of off weeks, so what? They're secure. Rams management, which was expecting fire-and-brimstone Vermeil, wonders if it has instead gotten Vermeil Lite.
"I can't do it Bill Parcells's way," Vermeil says. "I believe strongly that there's a better way to motivate than through intimidation. If you can help a person feel he's responsible for changing the fortunes of a football team, that can bring a stronger commitment than if you're standing over him, screaming. I want these players to want to win as bad as I do. I don't think you do that through intimidation."
But can that work in 1997? "Let's face it," Heyward says. "We can talk about loyalty, but we're playing for money."
Sunday, Nov. 16 St. Louis
The Rams lose to Atlanta 27-21, and their record drops to 2-9. It's bad enough that Dennis Rodman and his entourage are in the locker room after the game, yucking it up with Lyle. What's worse is the I.V. line stuck in Phillips's arm. Vermeil says the running back has the flu. What he has is the alcohol-related flu. Already getting fined daily for being eight pounds over his prescribed playing weight of 225, Phillips is still dehydrated after a Friday night of drinking.
Wednesday, Nov. 19 Earth City
Vermeil and his staff have spent a couple of days gathering facts about Phillips. They add the drinking bout—in violation of a rider Phillips signed to his rookie contract—to the approximately 20 fines he has accumulated this year for mostly minor infractions. (It was also widely reported that Phillips failed a substance-abuse test earlier in the year.) Then they throw in all the man-hours the team has devoted to grappling with Phillips's legal problems, and Vermeil thinks he may have to fire the Rams' 1996 first-round pick.
Vermeil calls Phillips and tells him that he isn't sure what he's going to do, but that this accumulation of black marks will have some consequences. "When you go to practice today," Vermeil says, "you'll go out as Jerald Moore's backup."
The coach sees no difference in Phillips's demeanor. He doesn't get the apology he wanted. Finally, he says, "Lawrence, tell me something. What would you do if you were me?"
Phillips thinks for a moment. "Coach," he says, "I'd cut me."
Phillips leaves the building and skips the day's team meetings. He's making Vermeil's decision for him.