Insult to Injury
The Saints dumped the mighty Rams, then labeled their bitter rivals a finesse team
Nothing makes the blood of Rams coach Mike Martz and his players boil faster than the use of the dreaded f word. No, not mat one. We're talking about the manhood-challenging f bomb that New Orleans coach Jim Haslett dropped on the Rams after the Saints' weird 34-31 win in St. Louis on Sunday.
"The Rams can say whatever they want," Haslett, who loves being the burr under the saddle of the best team in football, told SI. "But they're a finesse team. You start hitting them, and it affects them. Make no mistake about it. That's what happened out there today."
In NFL parlance tagging a franchise as a finesse team is like accusing an ironworker of cross-dressing. Jets cornerback Marcus Coleman called the Rams a finesse team before their Oct. 21 meeting, and St. Louis players said that was a prime source of motivation in a 34-14 rout of New York, a game in which the Rams' Trung Canidate ran for 195 yards. "Finesse this," one Ram said on his way out of Giants Stadium that day. When the word was uttered again, this time by a bitter rival, it lit a fuse in the Rams' locker room.
"Did we lay down and die? No," said quarterback Kurt Warner, whose four interceptions helped hand the Saints this one. He shook his head. "Maybe we are a finesse team. What is a finesse team anyway? I've never seen us back down from anything physical."
While sitting in the coaches' room, Martz chose his words carefully. "We are what we are," he said, "and whatever that is, we've won more games than anyone else in the last three years. Certainly more than New Orleans. I believe in this team, and I believe in what we do. I promise you we will not change."
Since the start of the 1999 season, when Martz arrived as offensive coordinator and turned the attack into an air show, the Rams have a league-best 29 wins, one more than the Titans. Still, the question is, If the Rams don't change, are they good enough—and physical enough—to win their second Super Bowl in three years?
The answer is yes—but the Rams did not lose to the Saints because they're a finesse team. They lost because they turned the ball over eight times, running their giveaway total to 17 in the three defeats they have suffered to New Orleans since Haslett took over in 2000. The physicality of the Saints contributed to the turnovers, but Warner didn't throw a screen pass into defensive end Darren Howard's breadbasket because New Orleans is tougher than St. Louis.
The Rams have shown us two things this season. One: They are not pushovers in the knockdown, drag-out affairs that games sometimes become, but they have had trouble running the ball. Already this year they've played four back-alley-brawling defensive teams—the Eagles, Dolphins, Giants and Saints—and beaten three of them. However, in those four games, they've rushed for a below-league-average 3.5 yards a carry. If they'd mounted just one long drive on Sunday, they would have stemmed the momentum of the Saints' 25-0 third-quarter rally. Instead, their four third-quarter possessions ended with a sack and three interceptions. (They also fumbled on a kickoff return.) No drive lasted longer than three plays, and the Rams ran the ball only once in that stretch.
Two: Even though he's tough as nails, when Warner is chased and hit, he can be mortal. With the quarterback operating out of so many empty-backfield sets, the Rams are taking a big risk. Hitting the quarterback has been so ingrained in the Saints that when Howard intercepted that screen pass and lumbered down-field, he lowered his shoulder and rammed into Warner rather than trying to deke him. The Saints believe that the more Warner throws, the better it is for the defense—because he's exposed to more hits and because they have such a good track record of forcing turnovers. In his last two games against New Orleans, Warner has been picked off seven times in 87 attempts. Strong safety Sammy Knight had two interceptions in the Saints' playoff win last season and two more on Sunday. "If you try to read Kurt's eyes, he'll kill you, because he never gives away where he's throwing," Knight said. "You have to let him keep throwing deep, and you turn into one of the receivers."