"Nobody else here feels that sting, but Isaac [ Bruce] and I remember," Martz said after Sunday's game. "I can still see Ken Norton throwing punches at our goalpost [during a 44-10 Niners victory in 1995], and I think about that every time I walk on the field before we play them. It still makes me angry."
Already the league's most aggressive coach, Martz was particularly driven on Sunday. After St. Louis cornerback Aeneas Williams stepped in front of a Jeff Garcia pass on San Francisco's third play and made the first of his two interceptions of the game, the Rams took over on the 49ers 41. On third-and-four Warner threw deep down the right sideline to Proehl, who was shadowed by Schulters and couldn't get to the ball. "As we were jogging back," Proehl said later, "Lance yelled, 'You're too slow to reach mat.' I just laughed. I'm a white guy, so it's not as if I haven't heard that a million times." Jeff Wilkins then made a 53-yard field goal, but the 49ers were penalized for having 12 men on the field. Martz took the points off the board—a football taboo—and sent his offense back onto the field.
St. Louis continued its drive with the help of a pair of fourth-and-one conversions, the second of which came on a trick play the Pittsburgh Steelers had used the previous week against the Minnesota Vikings. Warner stepped out from under center, disgustedly unbuckled his chin strap and started back toward the referee acting as if he were going to call a timeout. It was the worst bit of overacting since Keanu Reeves in Speed, but the diversion worked. Faulk took a direct snap and ran four yards for the first down. On the next play Faulk staked the Rams to a 7-0 lead with a six-yard scoring run through four defenders.
The first quarter ended with Warner, who finished the game with 26 completions in 42 attempts for 294 yards and two touchdowns, finding Proehl in the middle of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Warner exploited a defensive alignment in which San Francisco had assigned four defensive backs to quadrants across the end zone. "That was the defense I was hoping for, and once I saw it, I was looking for Ricky," Warner said on Sunday night, as he changed the diaper of his 10-month-old daughter, Jada Jo, at his suburban St. Louis house. "He juked the safety [Zack Bronson] and cut inside, and I knew he'd be open."
At that point the 49ers had yet to produce a first down, further proof that the Rams' defense has undergone a startling transformation from a year ago. New defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has molded a group of swarming, unrelenting playmakers. St. Louis, which ranked last in the league in points allowed in 2000, is now fourth. On Sunday the Rams limited the explosive Niners to a season-low 220 yards—12 fewer man they gave up in their 30-26 road victory over San Francisco in September. Several defensive Pro Bowl bids are likely to come St. Louis's way, with Williams ("If he doesn't go to Hawaii," Herring says, "I'll be out there with picket signs"), middle linebacker London Fletcher and end Grant Wistrom among the leading candidates at their positions. "I'm so happy Aeneas is here," Proehl says of his former Cardinals teammate, who came to the Rams in a draft-day trade last April. "I want us to win so badly, because no one deserves it more than he does."
Driven out of Arizona by Ryan following the 1994 season, Proehl spent two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks and another with the Bears before signing with St. Louis as a free agent in 1998. Though he caught 33 passes for the Ram's in '99, he failed to score a touchdown in the regular season and seemed to be an afterthought during their march toward the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. Then, in the NFC Championship Game against the Buccaneers, Proehl singlehandedly pulled out the 11-6 victory. His brilliant, one-handed grab of Warner's 30-yard floater with 4:44 remaining provided the winning points and gave him his last 100-yard receiving day until Sunday's effort.
Proehl could have called it a career after St. Louis went on to win the Super Bowl, especially after being asked to take a pay cut the following summer. However, he agreed to return in exchange for two years of guaranteed money, and now he says he still may not be ready to retire. His teammates aren't eager to see him go. "The guy is extremely difficult to jam at the line of scrimmage, runs perfect routes and makes tough catches," Williams says. "More than that, he's a guy who keeps people together. You look at our receivers and say, How do you keep them all happy? You can't, unless you have a guy like Ricky, who's such a stabilizing force."
Last week, as Martz grew increasingly tense and players chafed over Schulters's comments, Proehl helped lighten the mood. During a meeting with offensive players on Friday, Martz was stressing Proehl's assignment on one play when he heard muttering from the back of the room. After Martz called him out, Proehl said, "Come on, Mike. I've been running that route for three years. I think I know it by now."
Everyone cracked up, but Martz had the last laugh. As Proehl explained on Sunday, "Later that day at practice, I was filling in for Isaac on a different play, but I ran Tony's route by mistake. Mike jumped all over me and started imitating my Jersey accent: 'Uh, yo, you've been running that route for three years. Uh, what the hell are you thinking? ' "
While Proehl's teammates may chide him for the first-down signal he often makes after catches that move the chains or for his stirring karaoke rendition of Sinatra's New York, New York at the team's 2000 Christmas party, they're sensitive to his status on the team. Recently, a photographer arranged a magazine cover shot featuring Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt and Hakim, but the players refused to pose unless Proehl was included.