His quarterback collapsed into a heap of hostile pursuers, and a rowdy crowd of 64,869 roared its approval as the seconds ticked away. Then time stopped for Mike Martz, the St. Louis Rams' rookie coach, as he stared across the field into the eyes of his quarterback, Kurt Warner, and called the next play. Hearing Martz through the earphone in his helmet, Warner popped to his feet, grinning as he relayed the play, All-Go, to his teammates with an all-too-appropriate signal: thumbs-up. At that vivid moment—32 seconds remaining in Sunday's shootout at Husky Stadium, the Rams tied with the Seattle Seahawks 34-all and facing third-and-17 from midfield—Martz, in his second game as a head coach on any level, realized precisely how good his life is right now.
"Are we blessed to have Kurt? You bet we are," Martz said after Warner, the ice-cold pilot of football's most potent offense, led St. Louis to a thrilling 37-34 victory. "We have a lot of players doing great things, but we are very, very blessed."
Blessed, and unstressed—that pretty much sums up the state of the defending Super Bowl champions, whose transition from retired coach Dick Vermeil to Martz has been smoothed by Warner's serene presence. "You look at his face when things are going bad," Martz continued, "and you'd think we were 50 points ahead. That's who he is, man, and that's who he's always been. When things are at their absolute worst, he's practically floating."
The audacious, perfectly thrown 41-yard pass that Warner delivered to wideout Torry Holt set up Jeff Wilkins's game-winning, 27-yard field goal with 23 seconds left and continued a modern-day fable that shows no signs of ending. Anyone still expecting Warner to come crashing to earth after his astonishing MVP season in '99 can call off the deathwatch. Think Warner's a one-year wonder? "I hate to disappoint some people," he says, "but I'm in this for the long haul."
On Sunday the 29-year-old former supermarket stock boy completed 35 of 47 passes for 386 yards. He's now averaging 413.5 passing yards for the 2-0 Rams, which makes him the league leader by a mere 70.0 yards per game. During one stretch against Seattle, Warner connected on 16 consecutive passes to eight receivers, including a four-yard touchdown toss to tight end Roland Williams that put St. Louis ahead 27-20 with 11:23 remaining.
There are no numbers, however, that adequately reflect the cojones Warner displayed on the third-and-17 play that won the game. With no timeouts left, Martz called for the same play (albeit from a different formation) that produced Warner's Super Bowl-winning, 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce. Four wideouts—Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim from the left side, Bruce and Tony Home from the right—ran streak patterns against a two-deep zone designed to seal off anything to the outside. As the pocket collapsed, Warner gave a quick pump fake to freeze free safety Jay Bellamy, who then bit on slot receiver Hakim's hard fake to the post. Holt, who had whisked past Seahawks cornerback Willie Williams, drifted down the left sideline and caught Warner's touch pass over his outside shoulder before Bellamy recovered to run him out-of-bounds at the nine.
Four hours after the game, as he sat in his town house near the Seahawks' training facility in Kirkland, Seattle wideout Derrick Mayes was awestruck by the replay of Warner's throw. "We were in a prevent defense, and he threw a fade, man," Mayes said. "Everyone knows that's crazy. I've never heard of a quarterback even trying to make that pass." Mayes took a sip of his Corona and swallowed hard. "I'm telling you," he said, "this guy is so damn cold."
Despite having surrendered 70 points and an average of 382.0 yards in two victories, the Rams remain hotter than Bob Knight after a last-name-only salutation. They may simply be capable of outscoring whoever stands in their path. "I'm like a kid in a candy store," Warner says. "In this offense, you drop back and it's like, Take your pick."
Thanks to Martz's smarts, halfback Marshall Faulk's all-purpose excellence and the NFL's deepest and most dangerous stable of wideouts, the Rams have taken offensive productivity to unheard-of heights. Against the Seahawks they hit the 30-point plateau for the eighth consecutive game, a league record. "It's tough in this league to put up 30 points, but we make it look sort of easy," said Holt, a second-year receiver on the verge of stardom. "If everything's clicking for us, we could probably put up 50 or 60."
This is what it's like trying to play defense against St. Louis: You can douse All-Pros Faulk and Bruce, as the Seahawks did on the Rams' final drive, and still count on getting torched. Consider Hakim, a 5'10", 178-pound blow dart who can't even crack the starting lineup, which makes him the most prolific second-stringer since Chris Rock was a bit player on Saturday Night Live. Known for his quick cuts and break-away speed, the Wizard of Az had five receptions for 116 yards and one touchdown, along with an 86-yard punt return for a score in the Rams' opening 41-36 victory over the Denver Broncos. During Sunday's game-winning drive he made two tough catches in traffic, a nine-yard grab on third-and-seven and a 15-yard reception on the next, hurried snap. "Game tapes don't do him justice," Martz says of his third-year receiver. "You have to see him in person to appreciate his elusiveness."