Vermeil is mildly surprised by the speed of his players and by the amount of incidental contact. He decides to make each player wear thigh and knee pads to help prevent full-speed accidents during training. Most NFL players like to have their knees unencumbered, and there's some grousing among the Rams.
At the next practice Vermeil notices that only a handful of guys are wearing knee pads, and he goes bonkers. He gathers the team at midfield and yells, "This is nothing but an act of defiance! Do what I tell you! Don't f—-with me!"
After practice, defensive line coach Carl Hairston says the players are seeing vintage Vermeil, the man he knew as a player with the Eagles. "He makes hard work automatic," Hairston says. "Dick's running the same practices we ran in Philadelphia."
Wednesday, Aug. 13
Camp breaks on a steamy afternoon, and Vermeil chokes up as he talks to the players. "Everybody told me coming in that players have changed," he says. "Not you guys. Thanks for accepting the program and working."
He keeps saying the players are the same. But are they? Phillips had his community service to perform. Defensive lineman James Harris was dragged out of camp by federal DEA agents to face a cocaine rap. (Cut by the Rams on Aug. 17. he will later be acquitted of the charges.) Tackle Gerald Perry flew into a rage at criticism of his play by assistant coaches and simply quit football one afternoon. Vermeil imported fullback Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, hoping he'd be a leader as well as a good player, and he showed up 22 pounds over his designated weight of 265. Bruce, the best player on the team, had skipped most of the off-season workouts (which might explain his reaction to Vermeil's up-down drill). Offensive tackle Orlando Pace, the No. 1 pick in the '97 draft, was holding out and wouldn't sign for two more days.
Friday, Aug. 15 Dallas
In the third of the Rams' four preseason games, the Cowboys play their first unit the entire first half, but 20 minutes into the action the Rams have shut down Emmitt Smith and the Dallas passing game. St. Louis leads 10-0. Though the Rams will lose 34-31, they look good. "If that's the best Dallas can give us, then we're a lot further along than any of us thought," says linebacker Robert Jones. "The Rich Brooks camp didn't mold players into a winning football team. I feel this one did. We'd be totally exhausted out there, but Coach Vermeil's point was that we had to find some reserve, somewhere, to make another play. There's no way we'll give up in the fourth quarter of games."
Saturday, Aug. 30 Earth City
Vermeil drives the 10 minutes to his office, as he does every day, with kindred spirit Mike White, his assistant head coach. Vermeil is weary of the media attention focused on his return to the game and on his Week 1 matchup with another comeback coach, Mike Ditka of the Saints. "The game is bigger than I ever remember it being," Vermeil tells White. "Sometimes I feel like a damn sideshow."
Later that night, the eve of his first game as an NFL coach since 1982, Vermeil stands in front of his team in a St. Louis hotel conference room. "As you can tell," he says, taking a deep breath, "I'm a little uptight. It's my first time doing this in 14 years."