As if it weren't bad enough that virtually everyone in football thinks his ego cost the Rams a Super Bowl ring last February, coach Mike Martz then had to spend the next seven months being second-guessed at restaurants, supermarkets and airport gift shops. "Why didn't you run the ball?" autograph-seeking fans would ask Martz, leaving the St. Louis coach to explain politely that an extra 10 or 15 carries for Marshall Faulk wouldn't necessarily have ensured victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.
If you were expecting Martz to be a humbled convert to conservative football in the wake of last February's shocking upset, get over it. "You don't score points running the ball," Martz says. "We're going to be aggressive and throw the ball no matter who we play and what they're doing. That's who we are, and that's what we do."
The only thing Martz can do to answer his critics is to win the big one—which, for the third consecutive year of his three-year tenure, his team will be favored to do. "We're still a marked team," says All-Pro wideout Isaac Bruce. "Even though we lost the Super Bowl, it's like people think we got paid off." That's the way it is when you have the game's best quarterback, the most well-rounded running back in NFL history and an innovative coach who knows exactly how to exploit their talents.
Cynics note that Martz won his lone Super Bowl in January 2000 as Dick Vermeil's first-year offensive coordinator and blame him for the following season's defensive meltdown that led to a first-round playoff defeat. But Martz, who signed a five-year contract extension in July, has considerable front-office juice and the unwavering allegiance of those he cares about most. "A lot of people see Mike's approach as arrogant, but to us it's him taking care of his own," says All-Pro quarterback Kurt Warner. "His attitude is, 'This is my family, and it's us against the world.' "
Pressed for an example, Warner cites the onside kick the Rams pulled off late in the third quarter of an October victory against the Jets. St. Louis led 31-7 at the time, and the move caused an uproar for its apparent lack of sportsmanship. "That kick wasn't designed for that game," Warner says. "It was sending a message to teams we'd play in bigger games down the road: 'Don't get too complacent, because you never know what we might do.' "
Martz's bag of tricks remains well-stocked this season, despite the departure of the team's ultraquick No. 3 wideout, Az Hakim, who signed as a free agent with Detroit. Former Colts speedster Terrence Wilkins and holdover Yo Murphy are vying to fill Hakim's role and join underrated veteran Ricky Proehl backing up Bruce and Tony Holt, the league's best receiving tandem.
Then there is perhaps the most intriguing wide receiver prospect of all: former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, the fleet-footed Heisman Trophy winner whom Martz chose in the third round of April's draft. Martz believes Crouch will become good enough at wideout to contribute this season.
Far more important are the potential contributions of Warner and Faulk, who have combined to win the league's last three MVP awards. Though Warner insists he has fully recovered from a sprained right thumb that plagued him throughout last season, there is some skepticism within the team; one offensive starter says many of Warner's longer throws during training camp tended to sail off target. Faulk, who signed a seven-year contract extension in July, isn't among those who griped after the game that Martz should have pounded the ball against New England's six-and seven-defensive-back alignments. "Look at the receivers we have," says Faulk, "and how can you say that throwing the ball is wrong?"
Given his team's obvious talent on both sides of the ball—St. Louis's defense, which was ranked third last season under first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, looks to be even better in 2002—Martz believes he'll have the last word come February. Until then the Rams intend to keep scoring points and proving them, with their usual abandon. "We're hungry, and that makes us dangerous," Bruce says. "Mike's attitude rubs off on all of us."
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