Thursday, NOV. 20 Chesterfield, Mo.
Before he's out of bed, Vermeil has made up his mind. He doesn't want to reward Phillips by giving him his freedom, but the coach has little choice. He thinks to himself, If I can't make a tough call now, how am I going to make the tough decision in three years, when we're great? Phillips is history.
Just before 9 a.m. Vermeil meets with Phillips and Warren in Warren's office. "Lawrence," Vermeil begins, "playing in the National Football League is a privilege. You haven't made the most of that privilege, and we're going to have to let you go. But please, wherever you go, you have to learn one thing. You have to learn to listen."
The kid is so hard. He will lose his entire salary and bonus payment, a total of $2.25 million in 1998, because no team would be stupid enough to pick him up on waivers and have to honor his Rams contract. Amazingly, Phillips shows no sadness, no anger. Nothing.
"I allowed myself to get too close to the kid," Vermeil says afterward. "This will eat at me for a long time." He should want to kick the kid all the way down Rams Parkway. Instead, he will do something very strange. Vermeil Lite will help him some more.
Friday, NOV. 21 Green Bay
At 7:45 a.m. the private line in Mike Holmgren's office in Green Bay rings. It's Vermeil, trying to persuade the Packers' coach to pick up Phillips on waivers. Phillips has not only ruined his future but also screwed Vermeil and the Rams, but Vermeil still feels a need to help this lost soul. "Mike," Vermeil says, "he's so close! So close! If you get him there with the leadership of Reggie White to help him, I think he can really help."
Holmgren declines to play Mother Teresa. Ten days from now, after he has cleared waivers, the Dolphins will pick Phillips up. Coach Jimmy Johnson will say that he thinks Vermeil's coddling of Phillips was the wrong approach. Vermeil will say, "Jimmy's a better coach for Lawrence than I am."
Sunday, NOV. 30 Landover, Md.
The Rams play hard, and they play with emotion. They beat the playoff-dreaming Redskins 23-20 to break an eight-game losing streak, the longest in Vermeil's career in the NFL. St. Louis gets more production out of the backfield without Phillips than it ever did with him, as Moore and Lee combine for 92 yards rushing and 134 yards receiving. Afterward the players pick up Vermeil and toss him in the air. "Game balls for everyone!" he says.
Sunday, Dec. 7 New Orleans
For the second straight week St. Louis trails by at least a touchdown with 12 minutes left and pulls out a victory. Three times in those last 12 minutes the Rams drive for touchdowns, and they beat the Saints 34-27. Banks makes few mistakes. It's the first time in the '90s that the Rams have overcome a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. "You can feel the difference on our sideline," Vermeil says later. "Now they think they're going to win in those situations. The hard work's paying off."