A Trent Green-Bud Carson parlay put the Rams back on track
Room 928, Newark Airport Marriott, last Saturday night: Rams coach Mike Martz, on the couch in his modest suite, fidgeted as he pondered the next day's game against the Giants. Both teams were 7-2. His once invincible club had lost two of its last three games, and his two most valuable players, quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, would sit this one out with injuries. "The Giants are where we were a year ago, winning all the games they're supposed to win, and they're sky high," Martz said. "I don't think our players, or our coaches for that matter, knew what a big laser would be on our foreheads as Super Bowl champs every week. Now we feel it. This game is huge for us psychologically."
Football is America's favorite spectator sport, in part because a team's fate can change so dramatically from one week to the next A month ago the Rams were off to a dreamlike 6-0 start, which fueled talk of a perfect season. Then after losing Warner (broken right pinkie), the 1999 MVP, and Faulk (right knee injury), the early favorite for the honor in 2000, and with a defense that had lost all its aggression, St. Louis looked like anything but a repeat Super Bowl champion.
Two men instrumental in resuscitating those championship hopes on Sunday weren't on the radar screens of many Rams fans in mid-October. Quarterback Trent Green was on the bench, and defensive guru Bud Carson was on a beach in Sarasota, Fla. Against the Giants, however, Green looked Warneresque in putting up 38 points against the league's seventh-rated defense, and Carson used an aggressive strategy to breathe fire into the St. Louis defense.
Befitting an era of transience in the league, Green and Carson will likely be gone after the season. The 30-year-old Green is expected to be traded in the off-season because the cap limits the Rams' ability to pay two quarterbacks big money. (Warner signed a seven-year, $46.5 million contract last summer, and Green got a four-year, $16.5 million deal in February 1999.) The 69-year-old Carson, a consultant in title but the de facto defensive coordinator, will go home to Florida because his fragile health prevents him from holding a long-term coaching job.
But what a team the two were on Sunday. In his third straight impressive start since Warner was injured in an Oct. 22 loss to the Chiefs, Green threw touchdown passes to four different receivers and ran 18 yards for a fifth score in leading the Rams to a 38-24 rout of New York. With Carson in the booth upstairs, the defense turned in its third consecutive respectable performance. The Rams intercepted Kerry Collins three times, sacked him twice, forced four fumbles and stopped the Giants on 10 of 12 third-down attempts.
Under low-key coordinator Peter Giunta, the defense was a passive unit that played multiple schemes. For his first game back, on Oct. 29 against the 49ers, Carson, under whom Giunta had worked in 1997, simplified the plan and reemphasized the blitz. "Bud saw the problem right away," says cornerback Dexter McCleon, who on Sunday had an interception, a sack and a fumble recovery. "And we respect him so much that whenever he walks in the room, everyone gets quiet. Everyone listens."
Carson is an unlikely savior—a frail man, who has had an angiogram and two angioplasties this year alone. But he helped craft Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense of the '70s, and he proved to be the perfect tonic for struggling players, even those young enough to be his grandchildren. "It's pretty strange coming back to Giants Stadium," Carson said last Saturday. "I never thought I'd be back at this stadium, or any other one for that matter."
Carson has Direct TV's NFL Sunday Ticket beamed into his Sarasota home, but he wasn't watching the games. "I had weaned myself from the habit," he says. "Sunday afternoons had become time for friends, boating and the beach. My friends would ask me who I thought would win the games, but I'd tell them, 'Believe me, I'm the last one you should ask.' " However, when the Rams appealed to Carson, he got the itch again. He says his doctor okayed his return for the season—provided Carson kept stress to a minimum.
On Sunday, Green saw to it that Carson had a relatively stress-free day. After New York cut the lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter, the 78,174 at Giants Stadium roared as Green faced third-and-eight from his own 44. He took the snap and glanced at wideouts Tony Holt and Ricky Proehl, who were covered as they ran routes up the middle. Green's third option, wide receiver Isaac Bruce, was running a 10-yard comeback along the left sideline against the one Giants cornerback the Rams respected, Jason Sehorn. Green saw a sliver of daylight and hit Bruce for nine yards. The crowd fell silent Eight plays later Green connected with Proehl for an eight-yard score. "I don't mean to sound arrogant," Martz said, "but we don't worry about who's covering our receivers, no matter who it is. Isaac's better than Jason."